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The Freedom Principle

The Freedom Principle video still

The exhibition links the vibrant legacy of the 1960s African American avant-garde to current art and culture, both locally and globally. It is occasioned in part by the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a still-flourishing organization of Chicago musicians who dramatically expanded the boundaries of jazz. The exhibition combines historical materials with contemporary artistic responses to reveal a powerful ongoing conversation about experimentation, collective action, improvisation, and the search for freedom.

Cauleen Smith: Maybe this is what I've learned from listening to creative musicians, or what I value, is that almost everything they do cannot be–it can't be contained. And not only that, but this idea of creative freedom . . . The Freedom Principle.

Jennie C. Jones: All of these musicians in the AACM, and a lot of the jazz that I grew up with, was completely kicking the door open.

George Lewis: Maybe you don't start out trying to transform anything except maybe yourself in a temporary way. But somehow, I felt the AACM, and AfriCOBRA, and others, they transformed their surrounding community and inspired other people. A lot of it is pretty simple. If you're doing something, let's say you start doing some creative thing, people come, and then they say, "Oh, wow, that was different. I never heard anything like that before." And five minutes later it goes from, "That was really different," to, "I wonder what else could be different around here.”

Douglas R. Ewart: Chicago was a hot bed in so many respects during the sixties.

Wadsworth Jarrell: So much activity was in Chicago and it was just really fertile ground for creativity. And you know everybody felt this. You could walk in a room, it was so thick you could cut it with a knife. You could just feel the tension in what was happening in the world.

Jae Jarrell: AfriCOBRA was committed to the people. We're talking about the little people. We aren't name-dropping and we aren't type-dropping.

WJ: It was a name that Jeff Donaldson had used to picket Columbia. They had a conference on African American art. And they didn't invite him or didn't invite a lot of the people from the South Side. So they picketed the whole thing and they formed this group real quickly with musicians and artists. And he called it “Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists.”

And then we changed the wording, “African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists.” That’s what we ended up with.

Bad means integrity, that you intend to do something significant. It's not bragging like the word, people say, "Oh he's bad. He's a bad dude. "It's not like that. It's an integrity thing.

Relevant is that we are doing things that are important for black people and that's where the relevance come in.

JJ: When you're a bad relevant artist you have committed yourself to activism and to the people.

GL: They were thinking about creativity as being a political act of self-determination, asserting a kind of agency, asserting the right to define themselves as creative in the face of, I'd say, pretty massive disapprobation, which we still the traces of in the historical record.

JJ: We want to take you to the future. We want to take you to a positive now and a forward-thinking kind of direction. So we tended not to really protest in our work because that might illustrate the problem. We would rather give you the solution.

WJ: We started meeting in the beginning just talking generally. The whole aim was to develop a new language, a school of thought. This was the whole beginning idea.

Jazz musicians had developed music where they had their own voice. They had created their own language, so we wanted to create a visual language.

JCJ: There's a lot of things that happen from necessity that created new ways of thinking and new models, because you just had to sort of figure things out.

DRE: The AACM was founded on the idea of self-determination and to spotlight both community and individual development and individual pursuit.

GL: One of the things about the AACM, which is important, is that they define themselves as creative musicians not for the world but to each other, to a local constituency that was deciding what creativity was and how important it was for them.

JCJ: There was a very strong, rich lineage of turning your back to your audience, which is something I've talked about, to the concept of woodshedding, of finding your own voice and your own footing, and operating outside of a commercial system as a way to get to that place that satiates your soul and your desires as a creative being. And kind of give the finger to the "I'm going to perform something that you can dance to." That was the other cultural shift, which is, “sit down and listen, and maybe I'm not even going to look at you while I'm playing because I'm in my zone.”

It’s not about being an entertainer. It’s about demanding a certain level of engagement from an audience which, I think, for African American musicians, was a huge shift.

DRE: I think the necessity of having an organization, the power that you have of camaraderie . . . I call it an organism, because it's throbbing, it's thriving. The musicians themselves were putting on concerts. As students, we worked at the door. We helped sell merchandise. It was a time of great enthusiasm. And it made you feel like a career in music was very viable and possible.

GL: You can't talk about creativity without talking about power. Power becomes something that you have to look at the modes through which you can exercise it, the modes through which it becomes exercised on you, and I think that creativity arises out of that aspiration toward freedom, which is an aspiration toward a certain kind of power.

DRE: What the organization has made possible, the power that is given to the individual, is something that people could have not achieved individually. And to be able to pass that legacy on to younger artists is a really profound, and, I think, an important galvanizing agent.

CS: You create out of what you have, without waiting for, without needing, without depending upon some sort of exterior force or structure to validate it. They're the undercommons and I think that's actually where improvisation and experimentation live.

JCJ: I feel like it's not a sense of ownership, a sense of claiming a space, of claiming an alphabet, but making a new sentence from it. Of saying, like, when we look at this relationship between emptiness and fullness is important, between silence and volume.

And so, for me, an empty space can be sort of full of potential, versus something that’s just been stripped away to a level of pretense, or a distancing.

The acoustic paintings are functioning: they’re affecting the sound around them, even if it’s just a whisper or a voice. That they’re active. That they could be absorbing and affecting the sound in the room acoustically, but that they would stand on their own as minimalist works of art.

CS: What I learned from watching master musicians improvise is that they're listening and responding. And that they have so much skill and so much ability with their instrument, with their voice, with their musicality. They know all that so well that they can let it go and then just listen, and respond. And that's kind of what I'm trying to do with filmmaking is use craft, use all of my skills, like the arsenal of things that I know how to do, but to not deploy them so much as have them available to support whatever occurs.

DRE: We improvise in my classes at the Art Institute at the end of almost every class. We improvise either clapping, or I have instruments that I have at the school that we utilize. It's one of the few things that we really do together. Because when you're in a class, you're there as an individual and you make your contribution from your standpoint. But here, you're listening to other people and you're functioning in a community. And they get to see how difficult it is to make interesting music. But, no one comes to the class having not heard music. So you're a carrier of music. Everyone is a carrier of music.

JCJ: I think improvisation operates so much outside of language, and it opens up this part of your heart and your mind that's a very special corner . . . If creativity is a room, improvisation is this sweet spot in the corner, where something just clicks, and it makes sense, and it starts to unfold. And witnessing musicians improvise is always just a mind-blowing . . . There's no words. You're outside of language.

CS: Okay, the amazing thing about improvisation also is the way in which it kind of decentralizes authority. Because you can't regulate. If you're an improviser, if you're so masterful that you don't need anything, then no one can actually ever control or contain your ability to produce and create.