- Paperback: 728 pages
- Publisher: University of Chicago Press; Reprint edition (October 15, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0226476960
- ISBN-13: 978-0226476964
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 2.2 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.3 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 12 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #219,540 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music Paperback – October 15, 2009
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“George Lewis has outdone himself with this extraordinary volume. His unrelenting intelligence and ear for detail have produced a challenging compendium of late twentieth-century African Americana. This is not only a study of the AACM, it is a hope-drenched encomium to modernist creativity and the oppositional imagination.”
“The AACM is one of our great cultural inventions. This extraordinary book embodies its principles, for George Lewis draws on multiple traditions: scholarship, reportage, testament, analysis, theory and criticism come together with virtuosity and scrupulous discipline. A Power Stronger Than Itself remaps the landscape of American experimental music. Academics, critics and musicians will have to reconfigure such terms as ‘jazz,’ ‘classical,’ ‘soulful,’ ‘avant-garde,’ ‘black’ and ‘white.’ Now the past yields unexpected wonders; the future unexpected possibilities.”
About the Author
George E. Lewis is the Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University. A recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in 2002, Lewis has made over 120 recordings as composer or performer, and his publications on experimental music appear regularly in scholarly and popular journals.
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I also want to emphasize the humanity of the book. Lewis' history is reliant on interviews that he did with 65 members of the AACM. Some of them he interviewed multiple times (Muhal Richard Abrams spoke to Lewis on seven different occassions). These interviews are the basis for much of the historical narrative of the book. Lewis gives us brief biographies of dozens of artists- we learn about artists like Abrams, Lester Bowie, Anthony Braxton, Jodie Christian, Gene Dinwiddie, Chico Freeman, Julius Hemphill, Steve McCall, Roscoe Mitchell, Amina Claudine Myers, Henry Threadgill ad infinitum. I grew up with this music. For some reason, when I was about 16, I started buying the early AACM stuff as it became available in Portland. Probably because it was on Delmark which also put out a ton of great Chicago blues which I was, am, will always be crazy about. So for me, all these interviews are insightful, funny, painful and revelatory.
Their individual stories speak to what I see as two other major themes in this book. It is obvious from reading Lewis that certain individuals were essential to his story. One example is Walter Dyett who taught music at Phillips and then DuSable High. He was the teacher of a vast number of musicians of the caliber of Dinah Washington, Nat King Cole, Richard Davis, Gene Ammons, John Gilmore and many others( just go to Lewis' index and follow the citations). This history of Chicago music, heck, of American music changed because of Dyett's teaching. As for the AACM, without the central presence of Muhal Richard Abrams in the early parts of the book, it is impossible to imagine how the rest of the history would have unfolded. He comes across as a remarkable and inspiring teacher- demanding so much from those who worked with him. And much of what he demanded is that no one accept anyone else's limitations on who they were. As an example, when Abrams set up his Experimental Band, from the get-go Abrams wanted the members to bring their own compositions to be played. That composer would then lead the band in the practise of the composition. Abrams was trying to get people to explore all of their musical, personal and spiritual possibilities. Occassionally, throughout Lewis' book there are comparisons made between Sun Ra's Arkestra and the AACM. The difference always comes down to the fact that what Abrams and the other founding members created was a collective.
Which leads me to Lewis' other great theme- the story of how an institutional framework served to mold and support a diverse, opinionated, and occassionally competitive group of artists in all of their various projects. The AACM was always underfunded and was sometimes rift by internal controversy. Lewis has a detailed section on how they decided to only have black members which actually led to the expulsion of their one white member. He also talks about the struggles that the women members had to be accepted as equal artistic contributors. In spite of, or maybe because of these struggles, the organization survived and continued to further the education and projects of its members.
I could easily go on with things I liked or learned from this book but I have gone on too long as it is. Other reviewers will emphasize the learnings that I did not write about. Get the book, get thru the long (and interesting) first chapter of methodological reflections. Get out your AACM CDs and LPs and listen to the music as Lewis discusses it. I was finishing up my copy last night while listening to Braxton's For Alto. Those early days in Lewis' history were interesting. The journey for the members of the AACM from the 60s to the 21rst century is an inspiring one. My thanks to George Lewis for the education.
The stories could include more about these AACM guys taking chances, fleeing the USA, in search of a more accepting audience in France and elsewhere in Europe. They were probably living in abject poverty, small apartments, struggling with language and other cultural issues all to develop their art. They gave up quite a bit for the pursuit of their art. I remember reading in Braxton's book "Forces of Motion" how he survived on cheap McDonald's burgers and raised money by hustling chess matches in Washington Park in NYC. Now that's the real history in my estimation that this pedantic presentation lacks. What about their women, sex, and families. What effect did that have on the artists and others.
I also want to point out that other reviewers who rage on about what a great writer Lewis is. Yes, he is a good writer, but I am not astonished by his prose or construction. Lewis has good average writing and construction ability, but that is about all. I don't even think that Lewis is trying to engage the reader through prose and such in this book. The focus is on the music here. I find the style to be pedantic and dry. Mr. Lewis just misses in his approach to the subject matter here. Where's the humor, the spirit, the drive of jazz or the passion to move this book. Slightly off the mark for my interests. As my grandmother would say, it's a nice book. There is far better documentation of free jazz than this. I recommend As Serious As Your Life: The Story of the New Jazzby Valerie Wilmer Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra by John F. Szwe for starters.