‘Free At First’ celebrates 50 years of AACM’s musical freedom



Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians

By Arts & Culture Editor

Creativity and music have long been associated with Chicago, a city that has produced musicians and organizations such as the half-century-old Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which has helped raise artists for years.  

The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians is celebrating its 50th anniversary with the exhibit “Free At First: The Audacious Journey of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians” at the DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Pl. 

Carol Adams and Janis Lane-Ewart, the wife of AACM member Douglas Ewart, co-curated the exhibit to honor 50 years of the Chicago-based association being an active influence in the music world, particularly in Chicago. 

Lane-Ewart said Adams approached her in July 2014 and invited her to co-curate the exhibition. The two have an interest in sociology and the impact of a person’s life has on his or her approach to music, Lane-Ewart said.

“We talk a lot about the aspects of everyday life that were present and made it possible for a group of individuals who had not had relationships with each other … to be in a circumstance where they recognize that they were not having opportunities to present their creative expression in public places because there was not an atmosphere conducive to that kind of music,” Lane-Ewart said.

AACM provides a forum to play new and original music in Chicago, something that was lacking when the group was founded 50 years ago. Adams said this new ability of playing outside of traditional norms and structures was an influence on the musicians and inspired the name of the exhibition.

“That’s why we called the exhibit ‘Free At First,’” Adams said. “It’s sort of a play on how in the African-American Civil Rights lexicon you hear ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we’re free at last.’ We think they brought to the music a certain freedom from the very outset—they would not be bound by tradition, they would be experimental.”

Muhal Richard Abrams is a  co-founder of the AACM and said the organization was started to allow musicians the freedom to break away from tradition and to play music without any form of restriction.

“When you listen to it, you can describe what you think it is, [and] that’s fair, you’re a listener,” Abrams said. “We’re playing music. We have no description beyond that.”

Khari B., a spoken word artist and the current chairman of AACM, said Chicago was the perfect place for an organization such as the AACM to take shape and still thrive today.

“It is very [fitting] in that it started and has continued to thrive in Chicago,” Khari B. said. “Chicago—while the [music industry] moved out of Chicago quite a few decades ago—is nurturing of the arts. The type of artists that Chicago produces are those who influence the rest of the world. There is a great spirit here that produces great art.”

Lane-Ewart said another reason the organization has been successful for 50 years is due to the emphasis the AACM puts on educating the city’s communities about music and the arts, particularly with young people.

“There was always the emphasis on training young people to embrace their creativity and encourage them to be original,” Lane-Ewart said. “They endeavored to teach people of any age and cultural background how to play an instrument. Once you know the basics, then what do you want to do with that? Where do you want to take that? It’s based on how you want to express yourself, and that’s allowed the next generations of the [AACM] to carry it forward.”

Khari B. said he grew up in the AACM. His father, Mwata Bowden, who is a member of the organization, brought him to concerts and events, which is where he first met Lane-Ewart, who once served as AACM’s executive director.

Khari B. said having Lane-Ewart and Adams behind the exhibit is  fitting because of their long involvement with AACM.

“Janis Lane-Ewart and [Carol Adams] put the exhibit together and did a phenomenal job at making that happen,” Khari B. said. “Them having the connections to the organization from some of the earliest years gave it the personal touch that it has, and it made a huge difference that they put it together.”

The AACM “Free at First” exhibit runs through Sept. 8, 2015.