“…a much more open-ended conversation than any simplistic prescriptions of blackness will allow.”

This extremely vivid phrase comes courtesy of George E. Lewis, whose new book A Power Stronger Than Itself, a history of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, more commonly known as the AACM for short, looks to be the kind of vivid accounting of many issues, from music to politics to social and racial identity in America, which is both a tale of the group in question and a larger meditation on those subjects and others.

There’s a fine story on the book and the group courtesy of the NY Times today which I encourage all to read — and I say this not claiming any expertise in the field of music under discussion. This is, in fact, part of the reason of my interest; there is always something new to learn and discover out there, old and new, and the permanent now of music can be reflective of the permanent now of learning and knowledge. A high-flying sentiment, perhaps, but not an unimportant one. I’ve been lucky to read a variety of texts that have clarified unfamiliar areas of American music in particular which have also served as good primers for areas of our collective social and political history which have been unfairly (if, sometimes sadly, understandably ignored), ranging from Luc Sante‘s striking essay collection Kill All Your Darlings to John Szwed‘s masterful biography of Sun Ra, Space is the Place. Lewis’s work here, I suspect, will rank with them and many others.

The phrase I’ve quoted in the title comes from the NY Times story, which talks about a word which is not talked about, and which I’ve avoided using in this post so far. It is perhaps the key to the whole piece, though:

Noticeably absent from Mr. Mitchell’s description, and from the language of the early planning meetings, was the word jazz. This was partly in keeping with the arm’s length the organization intended to establish between its art and the commercial realm of nightclubs, then the de facto setting for any African-American art music. Partly, too, these musicians were concerned with a breadth of style that reached beyond jazz, to encompass serious classical composition, as well as music from Africa and the East. Having inherited the new freedoms of 1960s jazz innovators like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, the artists in this movement were ready for a next step, one they could claim as their own.

“This is a book about mobility and agency,” Mr. Lewis said. He links this impulse conceptually to the Great Migration, illuminating how the association’s first generation came from families that had moved to Chicago from a postslavery South. He examines the continuing debate over the organization’s exclusion of nonblack musicians, shedding new light on the phrase Great Black Music, which many in the association adopted.

Mobility, agency — self-definition but awareness of group context and reception. This strikes me as as cogent a realization of what is meant by the ‘American dream’ more than much else out there. If the phrase ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ still retains its validity, no matter how compromised it was in its creation and how its full promise is still being unfolded, then mobility and agency are part and parcel with it. Happy reading — and happy listening, as I plan on doing.


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