In ‘Message to Our Folks,’ Steinbeck Examines History of Art Ensemble of Chicago

Paul Steinbeck Paul Steinbeck first heard about the avant-garde jazz group the Art Ensemble of Chicago when he was playing in the Jazz X-tet at the University of Chicago. The director of the university band, Mwata Bowden, encouraged Steinbeck to listen to the group to help improve his skills on the double bass.

“I started checking them out when I was in college, and I never stopped listening to them,” said Steinbeck, an assistant professor of music theory at Washington University.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago began in the 1960s with members Malachi Favors, Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie, and Don Moye. The group was the flagship band of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a pioneering collective of African American composers. The Art Ensemble members played hundreds of instruments, including found objects and toys, and its eclectic live shows thrived on improvisation, often featuring the members wearing face paint and costumes, performing theatrical sketches, and reciting poetry. The group recently celebrated its 50th anniversary with several performances this month.

Steinbeck’s “Message to Our Folks: The Art Ensemble of Chicago” (University of Chicago Press) is the first book to examine the history of the band. He will discuss the book in a Library Faculty Book Talk at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, October 24, in Olin Library, Room 142. A reception will immediately follow the talk. The event is free and open to the public.

Cover of "Message to Our Folks"

We spoke with Steinbeck about the book and how the Art Ensemble of Chicago was boldly political.

What were your early experiences with the Art Ensemble’s music? I had been listening to one album in particular for a few weeks, it was an album called “Full Force” that came out in 1980, and the way they use percussion on that album had me hearing all kinds of things that weren’t music in a musical way. I was in my little college apartment washing dishes, and I heard a piece of silverware clink against a glass in the sink, and I thought it sounded just like a percussion part that the Art Ensemble played on one composition on the album. I discovered that these guys were transforming every aspect of my auditory experience.

Why did you decide to write the book? For some reason nobody had written a book about this band before. They’ve been around a long time and still are, although two of the original members are deceased (trumpeter Bowie died in 1999, and bassist Favors died in 2004). They had a period of about 15 years when they were one of the most popular groups in jazz. They have toured all over the world and have a big audience not only in the U.S., but also in France, Italy, the U.K., and Japan. I knew that if I wrote the book, it would be received eagerly by their fans and by scholars as well.

Were you able to talk with some of the members while you worked on the book? For a lot of books about groups like this you try to sit with musicians and ask biographical questions. I definitely did that, but what may distinguish my approach is I was able to sit and actually listen to recordings of the performances with the musicians and ask “Why did you play that note here?” and “Why did he react that way to what you played?” I was able to get inside their creative process through listening with them. I think it also helps that I’m a musician myself, and I’ve collaborated with some of the members of the group as well as some of their colleagues, so I already had a working knowledge of their style and their methods.

What political subjects did they address in their music? These guys came up in the ’60s in the city of Chicago, so race, the Vietnam War, etc. They had a performance from 1972 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, about air pollution. In the late ’80s and early ‘90s they were involved with Amabutho, a Zulu male chorus living in the U.K. in exile from apartheid South Africa. Sometimes it was a little more focused on a timely political issue, other times it was broader.

The other thing that was even more political about them was the fact that these were five black artists playing the music they wanted to play, founding their own record label in the ’70s, doing business in a really savvy way, and having their own music publishing company. These were things that other African American musicians hadn’t always been able to do or had been prevented from doing. This came from their tutelage in the AACM, but they were able to carry out those ideas in a small group context. They were intent on making this band economically viable and being able to do the music they wanted to do in an uncompromising fashion. To me, that’s a big political statement because you’re asserting a right that people aren’t just lining up to give you.

For video and audio of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s performances, visit Paul Steinbeck’s website, paulsteinbeck.com/av.

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