Message to Our Folks: The Art Ensemble of Chicago

Message to Our Folks: The Art Ensemble of Chicago

by Paul Steinbeck


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This year marks the golden anniversary of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the flagship band of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Formed in 1966 and flourishing until 2010, the Art Ensemble distinguished itself by its unique performance practices—members played hundreds of instruments on stage, recited poetry, performed theatrical sketches, and wore face paint, masks, lab coats, and traditional African and Asian dress. The group, which built a global audience and toured across six continents, presented their work as experimental performance art, in opposition to the jazz industry’s traditionalist aesthetics.

In Message to Our Folks, Paul Steinbeck combines musical analysis and historical inquiry to give us the definitive study of the Art Ensemble. In the book, he proposes a new theory of group improvisation that explains how the band members were able to improvise together in so many different styles while also drawing on an extensive repertoire of notated compositions. Steinbeck examines the multimedia dimensions of the Art Ensemble’s performances and the ways in which their distinctive model of social relations kept the group performing together for four decades. Message to Our Folks is a striking and valuable contribution to our understanding of one of the world’s premier musical groups.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226418094
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/28/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Paul Steinbeck is assistant professor of music theory at Washington University in St. Louis. He is coauthor of Exercises for the Creative Musician, as well as a bassist, composer, and recording artist.

Read an Excerpt

Message to our Folks

The Art Ensemble of Chicago

By Paul Steinbeck

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-37601-1


The South Side Scene

We realized that we all had this vital thing in common, which was the spirit of searching.

Sweet Home Chicago

For over forty years, the members of the Art Ensemble carried their city's name with pride, declaring to the whole world that there was no place like Chicago. Indeed, the Art Ensemble could not have emerged anywhere else. During the middle of the twentieth century, Chicago was widely regarded as the "capital of black America." It was home to more African Americans than any metropolitan area but New York. The South Side of Chicago, in fact, had a larger black population than Harlem. Many of the nation's most influential African American politicians, business leaders, writers, and artists were based in Chicago. And the city's music scene was second to none. The spirited performances of South Side church musicians like Mahalia Jackson and Thomas Dorsey made gospel music a national phenomenon. After World War II, the local circuit of nightclubs and recording studios drew the best blues singers from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago. Jazz, too, was an integral part of the Chicago music scene. At midcentury, the South Side boasted some seventy-five jazz venues, even more than in the Roaring Twenties, when a young Louis Armstrong was Chicago's brightest star. In the 1960s, Chicago became a crucial staging ground for the Black Arts Movement, as African American organizations across the country worked to achieve social change through the arts. The Art Ensemble emerged from one of Chicago's foremost black arts organizations, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). From the AACM, the members of the Art Ensemble learned not only musical techniques but also the social practices that sustained them from the 1960s into the twenty-first century. In other words: without Chicago, the South Side music scene, and the AACM, there would have been no Art Ensemble.

Likewise, the community that gave rise to the Art Ensemble could not have come to be without the Great Migration. From the early twentieth century to the 1970s, six million African Americans left the South and resettled elsewhere in the United States. Some moved to the West Coast, but most traveled northward, and the greatest number of migrants headed to the booming cities of the industrial North. No northern city was affected more by the Great Migration than Chicago. In 1900, there were only thirty thousand African Americans in Chicago, less than two percent of the city's population. Over the next three decades, nearly two hundred thousand black Southerners came to Chicago, with the majority arriving during World War I and the 1920s. The rate of migration slowed in the 1930s, as the Depression made it difficult for newcomers to find work. When the United States entered World War II, the economy began to grow again, setting off a second wave of mass migration from the South. In the three decades that followed, another five hundred thousand African American migrants entered Chicago, and the local black community swelled to more than a million, one-third of the city's population.

Prior to the Great Migration, most black Chicagoans lived along the State Street corridor, a narrow strip of land extending southward from 22nd Street. When migrants from the South began to stream into Chicago, the city's black residential area expanded, though not fast enough to keep pace with the ever-increasing population. By 1930, a few isolated enclaves had developed elsewhere in Chicago, but the vast majority of African Americans resided in the South Side "black belt" — still centered on State Street, now a little more than a mile wide from west to east (Wentworth Avenue to Cottage Grove Avenue), and five miles long from north to south (22nd Street to 63rd Street). This territorial expansion was not achieved without a struggle. White realtors and property owners used restrictive covenants to prevent African Americans from purchasing or leasing homes in certain neighborhoods. With the housing supply artificially constricted, the black belt became overcrowded and overpriced. In Chicago, the boundary lines between white and black spaces were sharply drawn, and stepping across a border could be dangerous, even deadly. During the summer of 1919, the city erupted in a weeklong race riot after a black teenager was killed for swimming too close to a whites-only beach. Racial violence also broke out in the neighborhoods, especially those adjacent to the black belt. White gangs guarded their turf against all trespassers. And when black families managed to buy or rent property in districts dominated by whites, their new neighbors resisted fiercely. From the 1910s to the 1950s, African Americans who moved into contested areas saw their homes mobbed, firebombed, and burned to the ground.

The African American community countered segregation and intimidation by building vibrant institutions across the South Side: social clubs, churches, topnotch public schools, and businesses of all kinds. To its residents, the black belt seemed like "a city within a city," a world unto itself. And life in the place they called Bronzeville could be wondrous, particularly for those who had a few dollars to spare. Recent arrivals from the South were able to establish themselves quickly, often with the assistance of family and friends from back home who had preceded them to Chicago. In some ways, it was as if African American migrants had never left the South. Instead, they brought southern culture to the North. On any Saturday night in Bronzeville, black Chicagoans could dine at restaurants that served southern food or socialize at nightclubs that featured down-home music. Then, on Sunday morning, they could attend churches where the style of worship — and sometimes the minister and whole congregation — had been imported directly from the South.

Bronzeville offered much more than northern echoes of southern folkways. By midcentury, the black belt had a larger population than "all but eighteen ... cities of the United States," and its citizens had access to every amenity and attraction of a modern metropolis. The Chicago Defender, Bronzeville's renowned African American newspaper, was read throughout the nation. South Side residents could attend professional sporting events, shop at well-appointed department stores, and watch the latest Hollywood features at cinemas that seated thousands. In the nighttime, the action shifted to the broad sidewalks of "the Stroll," a bustling commercial district initially centered at 35th Street, and subsequently at 47th Street. Many of the businesses along the Stroll were open around the clock, drawing crowds in which locals rubbed shoulders with visitors "from all over the world. ... just like Times Square."

The sheer visual spectacle was part of the Stroll's appeal, but the main event was live music. According to Malachi Favors, a proud Bronzeville native and a future member of the Art Ensemble, "Chicago had the greatest entertainment section in the world, right there on the South Side." During the early years of the Great Migration, the premier nightclubs were located near 35th and State, the heart of the Stroll. As Bronzeville expanded, a number of new venues opened to the south, where the population was growing the fastest. In the late 1920s, when the Stroll moved to 47th Street and South Parkway (later Martin Luther King Jr. Drive), it was anchored by the three-thousand-seat Regal Theater and the mammoth six-thousand-seat Savoy Ballroom. After World War II, African Americans gained entry to residential neighborhoods on the periphery of the black belt: Englewood and Greater Grand Crossing to the south and west, as well as Oakland, Kenwood, Hyde Park, and Woodlawn, which lay east of Cottage Grove Avenue. By the 1950s, this flourishing area had become the hub of the Bronzeville music scene. The intersection of 63rd Street and Cottage Grove was encircled by more than a dozen nightclubs. As one South Sider remembered, 63rd and Cottage was a "mecca for musicians": "You didn't need to go in a joint to hear some music ... you could [listen] just walking up and down the street."

In the 1960s, with little warning, the South Side scene would change dramatically, a development that led to the formation of the AACM. However, for Malachi Favors, Joseph Jarman, and Roscoe Mitchell — young musicians who came of age in the 1940s and 1950s — Bronzeville was an ideal place to grow up. The tradition that they came to call "Great Black Music" was taking shape right in their neighborhoods. And all they had to do was open up their front doors and walk out into the night.

Malachi Favors

Rev. Isaac Favors and his wife, Maggie Mayfield Favors, came to Chicago from Lexington, Mississippi. An ambitious young couple, they had much in common with their fellow migrants. Both were born and raised in Mississippi, which sent more African Americans to Chicago than any other state. Additionally, like many migrants from the South, they were following a trail blazed by a close relative — Rev. Favors's uncle, Elder P. R. Favors, who settled in Chicago during the 1910s. On 22 August 1927, not long after Rev. and Mrs. Favors moved to Chicago, they had a son, the first of their ten children. Instead of naming their oldest son for his father, Isaac, they chose a name belonging to a different Old Testament figure: Malachi, the "messenger" of the Lord.

The Favors and Mayfield families were among the earliest members of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), a Protestant denomination founded in Lexington, Mississippi, by Charles Harrison Mason. In the 1890s, Mason and several other Baptist ministers from the Mississippi Delta became involved with the Holiness movement, an outgrowth of Civil War–era Methodism. According to Holiness teaching, believers could receive the Holy Spirit in their souls and become sanctified — set apart from the world and delivered from sin. The doctrine of sanctification led Mason and his associates to split with the Baptists and form their own denomination. They also began studying the relationship between African American religious practices and the ecstatic worship of the first-century Christian church. These investigations brought Mason to the famous Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, where in 1907 he spoke in tongues and experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit, like the apostles at Pentecost. When Mason returned from the Azusa Street Revival, he reorganized the Church of God in Christ as a Pentecostal assembly and moved its headquarters to Memphis, Tennessee. After the move to Memphis, Mason's denomination took off. Thousands of converts joined the church, and Mason sent out evangelists to establish new congregations throughout the country. Elder P. R. Favors, who had served as a deacon at the "mother church" in Lexington, was dispatched to Chicago, where he started one of the city's first COGIC congregations. In the next decade, the South Side became home to twenty more COGIC churches, including Friendly Temple, founded by Rev. Isaac Favors upon his arrival in Chicago.

Music played an essential role in the church where Malachi Favors was raised. All COGIC church members were expected to sing, and at a testimony service, anyone might be called to lead the entire congregation in a song. Those who demonstrated special talents were given additional opportunities to develop their voices, from singing solos during worship services to performing at revival meetings. The singing culture of the Church of God in Christ would produce some of the most celebrated vocalists of the twentieth century, beginning with the first gospel singer to cross over into popular music, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a frequent visitor at Elder P. R. Favors's congregation. The instrumentalists in COGIC churches were just as innovative as the singers, introducing new performance practices that transformed the sound of African American religious music. As Malachi Favors observed: "The Church of God in Christ brought with it in its praise the use of all musical instruments: tambourine, guitar, you name it. ... They completely turned around praise in this hemisphere." Sister Rosetta Tharpe, for instance, was known as much for her brilliant guitar playing as for her singing voice. However, young Malachi preferred another COGIC singer-guitarist, the itinerant evangelist Utah Smith:

The first musical instrument that I ever heard played was the guitar, [by] Elder Utah Smith. He was my first idol. Everybody that picked up a guitar in the Church tried to sound like Elder Utah. The man was powerful. He could sing. He had a big baritone voice and he didn't need a microphone.

A typical preacher's kid, Favors spent every Sunday and most weeknights at his family's church. Outside the walls of Friendly Temple, though, he faced the same issues confronting every other working-class child in Chicago, from family finances to juvenile gangs. Favors grew up near 41st Street and Langley Avenue in the Grand Boulevard neighborhood, where "[y]ou got your reputation by dealing with your fists. I wasn't all that good at first, but I got ran home from school a couple of times, and one time a little short guy came to my rescue. He was pretty bad, so I started running with him." Favors's fighting days did not last long, but his toughness served him well when he entered Wendell Phillips High School, the first African American high school in the city. High school football was big in 1940s Chicago, and he joined the Phillips team, playing lineman despite being undersized for the position (at five-foot-six and a hundred and fifty pounds). In addition to sports, Favors was also into music. He and three classmates formed a "street corner doo-wop group" that debuted at the high school's annual Spring Festival. Unfortunately, the Spring Festival was also the group's last performance. A doo-wop quartet was only as good as its lead singer, and the group members never found a reliable tenor. They even auditioned Sam Cooke — the Sam Cooke, a fellow student at Phillips High — but he didn't make the cut. As Favors recalled:

It looked like the group was going to disband because the tenor William Green, he fell in love with every girl that he knew, and so that interfered with the rehearsal of the group. He would never show up because it was a new girl, so we tried to get somebody else. We tried Sam Cooke, and Sam Cooke couldn't quite measure up to Green, so the group eventually broke up.

After Favors graduated from Wendell Phillips High School, he found a job in the mail room of a firm in the Loop, Chicago's downtown business district. Because he was still living with his family, he had few expenses, and his eight-to-five job gave him plenty of pocket money. So Favors became a "nighthawk," spending his evenings listening to music at Bronzeville's theaters and nightclubs. He developed a keen interest in all styles of jazz, from small-group bebop to the big-band music of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Earl Hines. And no matter who was performing, Favors always paid close attention to the double bass. He heard Ellington's mid-1940s orchestra at the Regal Theater, and was captivated by the bass playing of Junior Raglin. Some months later, when the Ellington band returned to the Regal Theater, Favors was upset when he discovered that Raglin had been replaced by another bassist, Oscar Pettiford:

[W]hen these bands came to the Regal, they would list their personnel. This one time when I went to the Regal, I saw Oscar Pettiford and I was totally discouraged. ... I started not to go. I said, "Man, Junior Raglin is not playing," but I went on in and Duke Ellington was playing and Oscar Pettiford came to the mic and took a solo and that was it. I couldn't get over that.

Week by week, Favors was growing more interested in music and less committed to his day job. His coworker Louis Blackwell, a friend from Phillips High, already had one foot out the door, having taken up guitar with the aim of becoming a professional musician. He urged Favors to do the same, saying, "Man, you better get you something to do. You know you don't like working down here." After hours, the two friends listened to records and plotted their next move. "We'd get together at night and listen to Charlie Parker and all the great jazz players," Favors remembered. "I would just be listening to the bass and I would strum like I'm playing the bass."

One day, he finally decided to follow Blackwell's advice. Favors was walking along Wabash Avenue when he came upon a shop with a double bass for sale: "I was working, so I went in there, paid down on it, and bought the bass." This purchase would change his life, not just his career path, and to him it felt almost like a religious experience. As Favors put it, "[t]he Spirit of the music has always been a part of my being, but did not manifest itself until I was in my late teen years. Then I awakened to GREAT BLACK MUSIC!"

Favors left the Wabash Avenue shop and brought the bass home. When he walked through the door, his father questioned him immediately:

"What are you going to do with that thing, boy?" I said, "I'm going to play it."


Excerpted from Message to our Folks by Paul Steinbeck. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction1 The South Side Scene
2 Two Art Ensembles
3 The Art Ensemble of Paris
4 A Jackson in Your House
5 On the Road
6 Free Together
7 Live at Mandel Hall
8 Great Black Music
9 Live from the Jazz Showcase

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