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Wed, 08.10.1966

The Art Ensemble of Chicago is Formed

*The Art Ensemble of Chicago is celebrated on this date in 1966.  They are an avant-garde jazz group from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in the late 1960s.  

The ensemble integrates many jazz styles and plays many instruments, including "little instruments": bells, bicycle horns, birthday party noisemakers, wind chimes, and various forms of percussion. The musicians wear costumes and face paint while performing. The intersectionality of these characteristics combines to make the ensemble's performances both aural and visual. While playing in Europe in 1969, five hundred instruments were used.

Members of what was to become the Art Ensemble performed together under various names in the mid-sixties, releasing their first album, Sound, as the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet in 1966. The Sextet included saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, trumpeter Lester Bowie, and bassist Malachi Favors. For the next year, they played in the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble. In 1967, they were joined by fellow AACM members Joseph Jarman (saxophone) and Phillip Wilson (drums). All of the musicians were multi-instrumentalists.  In 1967, Wilson left the group to join Paul Butterfield's band. Jarman and Mitchell served as artistic directors at the cooperative summer camp in Delton, Michigan, in August of 1968, during the same week the Democratic Convention was in Chicago.

After a farewell concert at the Unitarian Church in Evanston, Illinois, in the fall of 1968, the remaining group traveled to Paris, where they became known as the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The impetus for the name change came from a French promoter who added "of Chicago" to their name for descriptive purposes. Still, the new name stuck because band members felt that it better reflected the cooperative nature of the group. In Paris, the ensemble was based at the Théâtre des Vieux Colombier. They also recorded Comme à la radio with Brigitte Fontaine and Areski Belkacem, but without a drummer, until percussionist Don Moye became a group member in 1970.

During that year, they recorded the albums Art Ensemble of Chicago with Fontella Bass and Les Stances a Sophie with singer Fontella Bass, who was Lester Bowie's wife. The latter was the soundtrack from the French movie of the same title.  Two years later, the group returned to the U.S. They came to prominence with two albums Bap-Tizum and Fanfare for the Warriors. Members of the group decided to restrict their appearances together to allow each player to pursue other musical interests.  In 1993, Jarman retired.  Bowie died of liver cancer in 1999, and the group continued as a trio until 2003 when Jarman returned. In January 2004, Favors died. The group was joined in late 2004 by trumpeter Corey Wilkes and bassist Jaribu Shahid, who recorded the live album Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City (2006).  

Ensemble members embrace the performance art aspects of their concerts, believing that they allow the band to move beyond the limits of jazz. Their operating motto is "Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future", allowing them to explore various musical styles and influences; the band's appearance on stage also reflects this motto. As Jarman described it, so what we were doing with that face painting was representing everyone throughout the universe, and that was expressed in the music as well. That's why the music was so interesting. It wasn't limited to Western instruments, African instruments, or Asian instruments, or South American instruments, or anybody's instruments. 

The Art Ensemble released over twenty studio and several live albums between 1972 and 2004.  Jarman died in 2019.  As of 2017-2019, the two remaining active members from 1968-2003, with new and previous collaborators as "guests," have been touring as the Art Ensemble of Chicago and released an album in 2019.     

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