Personalities | Art Ensemble of Chicago | Seventies | Jazz & Blues

With its tribal masks, arcane percussion instruments and grand sense of theatre, the Art Ensemble of Chicago always seemed to be more than just a jazz band.

Indeed, the group grew from the communal activities of the Chicago-based AACM, which quickly became a magnet and laboratory for freedom-seeking African-American musicians in the city, including saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell (b. 1940) and Joseph Jarman (b. 1937), trumpeter Lester Bowie (1941–99) and bassist Malachi Favors (1927–2004). AACM founder Muhal Richard Abrams’ Experimental Band (est. 1961) and Mitchell’s quartet, which formed two years later, were early models in the sprawling musical vision of the former and the latter’s use of unusual timbres created by small percussion instruments.

French Sojourn

In June 1969, as the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble, Mitchell, Bowie, Favors and Jarman travelled to Paris, where they re-christened themselves the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The band’s impact was as much visual as musical; Favors and Jarman painted their faces and wore African robes and hats, while Bowie donned a white lab coat. Onstage, multiple saxophones and percussion devices surrounded the quartet. The effect was further heightened when drummer Don Moye (b. 1946) joined in September 1969. Moye called his array of drums, cymbals and hand-crafted instruments ‘sun percussion’ and liked to climax percussion movements by igniting magician’s flash-paper between his fingers.

During its two years in Europe, the band recorded 11 albums and three film scores, and toured widely, frequently accompanied by soul singer Fontella Bass, Bowie’s wife. The band’s music escaped classification. The first three tracks on the 1969 album A Jackson In Your House capture part of the range: anthemic horn statements offset by a bicycle horn; antic vocal effects; melodies reminiscent of the Jazz Age; free-blown horn choruses that defy the shouted order to ‘Get in line’; and a waltz performed at half-tempo with the horns stretching the melody line like taffy. The band also integrated Bowie’s R&B background, with Moye laying down a backbeat and Favors switching to electric bass.

A Pragmatic Agenda

Returning to the US in 1971, the band’s members determined that they would focus on building an audience through performances at jazz festivals, universities and large concert venues. Throughout the 1970s, the Art Ensemble steadily spread its name and its motto: ‘Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future’. Two recordings for Atlantic Records exposed them to a broader audience, and a breakthrough commercial contract with ECM initiated the band’s most financially successful period. With Nice Guys (1978) and Full Force (1980) the band achieved a much higher profile and reached new levels of accessibility. During this period, several members – most notably Bowie and Mitchell – re-established recording and performing careers independent from the band.

Surviving Deaths

The Art Ensemble maintained a relatively high level of creativity and productivity through the 1980s, switching labels to the Japanese DIW company and touring only every other year in order to permit individual projects. In 1993, Jarman left the band to establish...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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