Muhal Richard Abrams, sometime during the 1970’s
Last night, via the slow drift of the social media rumor mill, heart-wrenching news reached my ears. Just over a week into his 87th year, the pianist Muhal Richard Abrams – one of the most important voices in 20th and 21st Century music, had left our plane.
Abrams, who was born in Chicago in 1930, was among those rare composers whose true impact, with the scope of his effect, is so wide reaching, that it is nearly impossible to gauge. His music and ideas burst past the constraints of relational rhythm and tone, becoming platform on which the voices of humanity might build. For the true believers in the capacity of free-improvised music – of the powerful potential it holds, the beginnings do not lay with Coleman, Taylor, or Coltrane, they sprang from the brilliance of Muhal Richard Abrams’ mind.
Possessing a talent as great as he did, had Abrams simply been an accompanying pianist, or focused the entirety of his efforts on composing, his name would remain equally well know, which is not to say that he has ever gotten his rightful due. But, the true nature of his impact lies as much within his music, as within his words, efforts, and ideas. Abrams saw music as an enabler of individual and collective voice – an activation of agency and power, with truly democratic aims. The capacity of sound was not to be realized within the realm of entertainment, nor within the institutionalization of high-art. It grew from everyday people, from all walks of life – a vessel for history, culture, and creative brilliance, capable of smashing the architectures of power which strive to silence and oppress.
In 1962, on the South Side of Chicago, Abrams founded his legendary Experimental Band, among the first fully expanded realizations free-jazz, following the creative potential proposed by Ornette Coleman at the tail end of he 1950’s. In its early incarnations, the ensemble hosted a startling gathering of voices – figures who would go on to become among the most noted and singular of 20th Century music – among others, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors, Leroy Jenkins, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, and Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre. The Experimental Band holds an important marker within the history of music, particularity Chicago music, but it is the beginning rather than the end. Steeped in the boiling social and political environment of the day, it represents the seeds for Abrams’ belief in the collective potential of music, ultimately culminating with his founding, with Jodie Christian, Kelan Phil Cohran, and Steve McCall, of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in 1965.
While the the AACM was a collective and democracy from its earliest days, remaining so today, the architecture of its principles, efforts, and ideas, largely stem from Abrams. What began as a loose structure for composers and players to workshop ideas – a free-standing pick up band, under his guidance, rapidly became a broad-sweeping infrastructure of politics, identity, and support. The AACM has never been simply about music, it is about great black music, being realized as an autonomous effort of individual and collective voice. Whether viewed as a complete body, or through the work of those who sprang from it, his ideas and efforts gave way to many of the 20th Century’s most important and remarkable creative gestures, rewriting history and belief in real time.
While the music should always come first – and the body of music which he leaves, towers to astounding heights, what Abrams offered the world was far more complex than initially appears. He was an educator, enabler, and a social and political force. He is one of the great unsung heroes of civil rights. He guided generations of seminal artists, toward the power and importance of their own voice. A testament to the incredible potential of art, Abrams’ life stands as is a proof that generosity and selflessness with the collective works – that it is A Power Stronger Than Itself.
It is impossible for me to fully express my profound respect and gratitude for what Abrams brought into my life. Beyond the countless hours of joy offered by his work, it was my love for the music of the AACM, discovering during my mid-teens, which planted the seeds for a profound relationship with music – transcending the bounds of sound, which has thread its way though, and defined, my entire life. It was this love – a quest for its first hand experience, that instigated my move to Chicago at the age of 18, and to my first journeys to Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge on the South Side, during that same year. While what transpired within those walls was beyond description – so much so, that the memory still brings me to tears, it was the journey through those neighborhoods – the very geography of the music itself, which yielded the most lasting effect – witnessing first hand, and for the first time, the attack that so many of my fellow citizens had long suffered – those horrifying legacies of American institutionalized racism and economic oppression. The dichotomy was unrecognizable – as it remains today – a window into the true source and meaning of the sounds so close to my heart. It was the beginnings of my belief in the true potential of music, and of my refusal to accept the evils of world – to say no more, and to fight. The very architecture of my entire life, begins and ends with ideas which Abrams first placed into the world.
And so, I give thanks and farewell to one of the most import voices of the 20th Century. He gave wings to the voice of black America – opening a window onto the powerful truths of his country – its darkest evils and its soaring heights, pulling the rug from beneath an entire architecture of accepted belief. The music, life, and actions of Muhal Richard Abrams illuminate the path for us all. They are profound and moving, with such rippling potential, that their full effect has yet to be seen.