On George Lewis’ A Power Stronger Than Itself

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George Lewis’ monumental book A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music is a social, cultural and musical history of the innovative and highly influential Chicago based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.  Like other contemporary avant-garde music and arts groups such as New York City’s Jazz Composers Guild, led by Bill Dixon, St. Louis’ Black Artists Group, and Los Angeles’ Underground Musicians Union, led by Horace Tapscott, the AACM stressed self-determination and the creation of new models of artistic expression and economic and creative control.  These groups were an extension of earlier black arts collectives such as James Reece Europe’s The Clef Club, which existed in the 1910s.

Lewis provides an excellent account of the social and cultural context of Chicago up to the AACM’s founding and through its continuing existence.  He places the stories of the men and women who participated in the group in the context of the Great Migration and racial segregation and its effects in Chicago’s south side and discusses how their experiences shaped their aesthetic philosophy and motivations for creating the AACM.

Along the way, Lewis manages to include many of the salient cultural and musical issues of the times into his largely historical narrative.  He discusses the group’s early debates about who could be a member and how the AACM’s only white member, Emanuel Cranshaw, was voted out of the group in order to maintain black solidarity.  This issue is similar to other black musical collectives and civil rights groups who debated the role of whites in their groups, and Lewis writes more on this them in the Afterword.  Lewis also shows how AACM internal aesthetic debates, vis-à-vis an emphasis and valuing of African and black aesthetics, caused friction between members and artists such as Anthony Braxton, whose partially European derived music was often criticized by some black cultural nationalists for not being “black enough.”  This can be seen in the group’s slogan, “Great Black Music.”

Gender also plays an important role in the AACM, as for the most part very few women have participated in the group outside of singers and dancers (especially in the earlier years).  Many women who did participate were partners of male members and it was not until the 1980s when more women instrumentalists such as Nicole Mitchell joined.  Ameen Muhammad points out that the AACM came up in a time of revolution, which was all about men.

Lewis provides a good account of the critical reception of the AACM, which initially included short reviews of their concerts and inclusion of several of their artists into Downbeat magazine’s annual critics’ polls.  At first these reviews, written by white critics and journalists, ignored social and racial issues, in favor of considering the music as “art for art’s sake,” which was the predominant critical standpoint at the time for many white critics.  As opposed to white American critics, French critics who supported the AACM saw white American critics who either ignored race or devalued it as supporting systems of domination and also argued that the jazz canon equaled domination of African Americans. 

Also at issue here is the AACM and its members’ position relative to not only the jazz canon but to other avant-garde groups and scenes.  Members of the AACM had trouble identifying with the approach of European and New York avant-garde improvisers, as they were seen as having a distinct Chicago aesthetic.  Lewis’ discussion of jazz’s re-emergence into the public eye in the 1980s with the establishment of Jazz at Lincoln Center and the prominence of Wynton Marsalis points out how AACM and other experimental black musicians, such as Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, were relegated to the margins of jazz history – which is a story told in several other jazz studies works.

Although Lewis’ book is primarily a social history, cultural/critical theory does make an occasional appearance – especially in the form of Jacques Attali’s theories on the political economy of music – and helps inform the book and support its framework, rather than bogging the reader down in scholarese.  A Power Stronger than Itself is an important, well written, and highly informative book that describes and analyzes one of the most important jazz and black arts groups in American history.

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