TO THE Art Ensemble of Chicago, making "Great Black Music -- Ancient to the Future" means using African rhythms, modern compositional techniques, be-bop, do-wop, swing, reggae, Dixieland shuffles and struts, subtle atmospheric effects and raging free improvisation -- everything short of Michael Jackson's pop and Prince's rock 'n' soul -- to redefine jazz.
The motto of this quintet of recording and performing artists reflects the proud breadth of their seamless concerts. "The term 'jazz' applies to only one of the idioms we deal with," explains percussionist Famoudou Don Moye. "It's all great black music, and we respect all its forms -- they're part of our musical heritage. We have some quasi-funk tunes in our repertoire, too, on which we use our own approach."
That approach, developed when the founding members of the Art Ensemble met through an avant-garde community arts organization, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in the early l960s, will be in full force when the band performs at the Wax Museum tomorrow night. The group is in the midst of a self-produced nationwide tour, which celebrates the start of its third decade together.
Uninitiated observers may think the Art Ensemble looks fierce onstage. Moye, Joseph Jarman and Malachi Favors Maghostut are daubed with face paint and robed in Third World splendor. Lester Bowie, the trumpeter who sits soberly center stage until he's moved to solo, wears a white research-lab jacket that gives him the sardonic air of Groucho Marx, while Roscoe Mitchell seems blase' in street clothes, as though there's something bad about that.
Instruments surround them. Mitchell and Jarman play more than 20 saxophones, clarinets and flutes, as well as conch shells, glockenspiel, sirens, synthesizers and kitchen pans. Moye has enough hand drums to supply a small tribe, and an expanded traps kit. Maghostut sometimes puts down his bass to mutter through a bullhorn. Bowie has been known to beat a big parade drum.
Yet their programs begin with a silent ritual, as Joseph Jarman says: "A prayer for unity and peace throughout the universe, then the sounding of the gong, which intones the spirit of music itself." There often follows some tinkering with little instruments -- bells, wood flutes and the like -- from which lead lines gradually emerge and themes evolve. Then serious exchanges among the musicians occur, as in conversation, and the Art Ensemble members let spontaneity work for them.
"We have a phrase, 'stoop and hit,' which means we'll see what we do when we get onstage," Bowie comments. "We usually have some sort of outline of what tunes we'll play that we talk about five minutes before the show. We consider if we're playing indoors, where we can include more finely detailed work, or outside, where we need something to catch people's attention.
"But we always try to be creative and adventurous. We let the music lead. If a song comes up that we hadn't sketched into the outline -- well, there it is. There's nothing we can do to stop it, or save the outline. We all feel and go with it automatically."
Working together for 20 years can give any team this automatic sense, but in the Art Ensemble's case, because of the extraordinary amount of freedom they allow in their music, all five musicians must be especially perceptive of nuance, responsively flexible and mindful of a repertoire that fills more than two dozen albums issued in the United States and abroad.
"We approach every concert with the same intense concentration," says Bowie. "Our senses are super-hyper, open to everything. When we're performing we're not watching the clock to see how much longer we should play, not counting measures -- we're performing, working on a vibe, a feeling."
Actually, each player projects his own feeling, though they all add up to one. Each member has contributed compositions to the band's book, and as their strengths are dissimilar, so are their features. Bowie favors dramatically sweeping melodies, such as "New York Is Full of Lonely People" -- heard on the latest Art Ensemble set, the live, two-disc "Urban Bushmen" -- and humorous renditions of "Hello Dolly," "The Great Pretender" and the "Howdy Doody Show" theme, which he's recorded on his own. Jarman occasionally sings a Caribbean ditty, and frequently indulges his impassioned energy on soprano sax or his interest in coloration by using such odd instruments as pitched, pressurized air horns.
Mitchell insinuates irony in a sometimes sour tone; apart from the Art Ensemble he leads the contemporary classical Space trio, the rhythm-and-blues-influenced Sound Ensemble, and has composed for chamber orchestras. Moye has lent his power and polyrhythms to several more traditional jazz units, while Maghostut, who plays all around Chicago, is a soft but pivotal bassist whose time sense is as tough as sinew.
Their personal interests, and temperaments, are complementary and combine in a blend Jarman believes has "crystallized. We sound more to the point lately. Not less adventurous, but able to communicate through the music more clearly."
"You have to be around for a while to develop originality in this medium," Moye surmises. "Time and talent are the main ingredients contributing to a unique voice."
However, few innovative ensembles, no matter how talented, can sustain careers long enough to make their marks. The Art Ensemble, though, worked to maintain its cooperative endeavor, even studying alternatives to the conglomerate-heavy music industry.
"We were musicians in Chicago who had the desire to have more control over our own destinies," Mitchell recalls. "That's what the AACM was all about. We were able to sit down together, analyze the past and figure out our plans for the future. The philosophy of the AACM and the Art Ensemble -- to go out and get what we want, to do the type of work we all want to do -- has spilled over into other things besides playing."
The Art Ensemble's music quickly changes in tone, tempo and volume, embracing dissonance, abstraction and cacophony as well as hummable tunes, riffs in counterpoint and rousing anthems. Its rhythms fluctuate from easy to angry. The band's suitelike format, emphasis on instrumental rather than vocal music, and open-ended interplay have resulted in critical acclaim and the industry's notion it has limited commercial potential.
While ECM, a modest but prestigious record label distributed by Warner Brothers, has scheduled "The Third Decade," its fourth Art Ensemble production, for early '85 release, it provides the band with no tour backing. Yet the group, just back from seven concerts in Japan (to which it shipped three tons of music and sound equipment), has "refined all the technical aspects of touring," according to Moye.
"We hired our own crew of four roadies, including a sound man, and got a bus," which is transporting them from western Washington State to the University of Virginia, from Manhattan to New Mexico, Detroit to Washington, D.C. "We have more stuff than most so-called jazz bands that travel," Moye continues, "and we need our own sound man who's familiar with our music, because most of the bigger halls have rock-oriented engineers. Not many jazz bands really require a 24-track mixing board."
Then, too, few groups without electric guitars and keyboards fill the venues on the Art Ensemble's itinerary. The tour's kickoff was at the Minneapolis concert hall, which is the main location of Prince's rock film "Purple Rain." Yet, Moye says, "The reaction has been good, as usual. Of course, people who like us come to hear us, but these halls have their own crowds, too. I can feel the difference between an audience that knows our music -- recognizes things we do -- and one that doesn't. But both like us. In many places people come up to the front near the stage and dance."
Jarman concurs. "The myth and image of the Art Ensemble as a cult group is fading because of the realness of our diverse appeal, and the credibility with which we engage in so many different musical forms.
"And the elements of our performances are not unique to black culture. We use face paint, for example, not as war paint but in place of masks, which are used in cultures of every ethnicity to subjugate the personality of the performer so he can more easily become a representative to the community. Masks and costumes make universal statements, and are archetypal symbols. We use Afro-American elements because they're closest to our experiences, but it's an American experience, too. So even if we don't play rock, rock audiences understand us. So do traditional jazz fans, though we may not play much traditional jazz."
Then again, they just might. There's often a straightforward tribute to John Coltrane or the late Charles Mingus in an Art Ensemble concert, or a familiar bop head, or a motif taken from a legendary big band.
"A beautiful march might come out of the sky," admits brassman Bowie. "An unaccompanied solo might be programmed in advance or might happen spontaneously. The percussion might move into a sax solo, which becomes a bass-sax duet that leads into a particular song that develops into a free improvisation. We just don't know."
The band has recently learned "Walking in the Moonlight," a ballad written in l934 by Roscoe Mitchell's father, who was a professional singer. And Jarman says, "The most interesting thing recently rising from the Art Ensemble's continuing search for old and new means of expression is the band's inclusion of a small but state-of-the-art synthesizer. This instrument has proven itself, not just in pop music but in most musical formats, and it's definitely added another dimension to our work."
Jarman controls the synth, and has updated songs that have long been in the Art Ensemble catalogue, such as "Funky AECO," as well as created new compositions employing the electronic device. Except for the joking use of an electric bass, the synth represents the first time the band has actually plugged in; its identity has been as an acoustic group, shunning the amplification of a Weather Report, Herbie Hancock or Miles Davis. But its future is unlimited, since the Art Ensemble of Chicago has already devised music that challenges the thrill of the moment's hot hit.