Sam Polcer for The New York Times
Muhal Richard Abrams, the restlessly inventive pianist and composer, is a next-step thinker, not the type to rhapsodize about the past. But he has lately found cause to reflect on a time, 50 years ago on the South Side of Chicago, when he began to mobilize his peers in pursuit of originality and self-determination, ending up with a collective called the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
Over the half-century of its existence, the association has been one of this country’s great engines of experimental art, producing work with an irreducible breadth of scope and style. By now the organization’s significance derives not only from the example of its first wave — including Mr. Abrams, still formidable at 84 — but also from an influence on countless uncompromising artists, many of whom are not even members of its chapters in Chicago and New York.
And while the music under the association umbrella has often been swept to the margins of jazz, that’s less true now than it was even a decade ago. Some of this era’s most celebrated jazz artists, like the pianists Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran, are protégés or spiritual progeny of its elders. Others, including the trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, uphold association principles — like a premium on original music and a distaste for distinctions of style — without a direct connection to the lineage.
What’s inarguable is the organization’s success as a sustaining avant-garde, with a value system that has gradually altered the fabric of the jazz mainstream. Because the aesthetic convictions among association members haven’t wavered, it must be jazz’s center itself that has moved, in fits and starts but with tangible results.
“The A.A.C.M., they really shifted the cultural landscape,” said Mr. Moran, who as the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz has programmed concerts by Mr. Abrams and the saxophonist Anthony Braxton, another association stalwart, and who last fall produced a celebration of the multireedist Henry Threadgill at HarlemStage. “They created such an open viewpoint on what improvisational music is.”
“And also, they have such longevity,” Mr. Moran said of the group’s first generation, including Mr. Threadgill, his favorite composer. “They’re still vibrant on their instruments. It’s a crew of thinkers that are intact.”
That point resonates through “Made in Chicago” (ECM), an intoxicating album due out Tuesday, under the name of the drummer Jack DeJohnette. Recorded at the 2013 Chicago Jazz Festival, it’s a document of his reunion with Mr. Abrams, Mr. Threadgill and the multireedist Roscoe Mitchell — all veterans of the Experimental Band, a workshoplike ensemble led in the early 1960s by Mr. Abrams.
“Made in Chicago,” which also features the bassist and cellist Larry Gray, underscores the myriad strategies in the organization’s music. “Jack 5,” a ballad by Mr. Abrams, builds on an oblique set of intervals, methodical and cool. Mr. Threadgill’s piece “Leave Don’t Go Away” rides an asymmetrical pulse, except during the magnificent roil of a spontaneous piano concerto. “Chant,” by Mr. Mitchell, worries a disarmingly childlike four-note motif — a melodic kernel that, under the heat of group improvisation, pressurizes and explodes.
Mr. DeJohnette, 72, has long been one of the finest drummers in jazz, as well as a prolific bandleader. He first met Mr. Threadgill and Mr. Mitchell, and the saxophonist Joseph Jarman, when they were all students at Wilson Junior College on the South Side. They found a guru in Mr. Abrams, though Mr. DeJohnette, unlike his peers, left for a sideman career in New York before he could establish roots in the new organization.
Still, he has maintained his ties: Last year, he appeared alongside Mr. Threadgill on “The Great Lakes Suite” (Tum), a critically lauded album by the trumpeter and longtime association member Wadada Leo Smith. And Mr. DeJohnette speaks the group’s conceptual language, professing the same disregard for musical labels and restrictions.
“I think for all of us, the music is there for people to approach with an open mind,” he said recently at his home, near Woodstock, N.Y. “It’s creative music presented at a high level. We all take it very seriously.”
African-American musicians in mid-1960s Chicago were widely expected to play blues, jazz and gospel but received scant support for new music, as George E. Lewis illustrated in his definitive book “A Power Stronger Than Itself: The A.A.C.M. and Experimental Music,” published in 2008 by the University of Chicago Press. At one of the first association meetings, the pianist Jodie Christian put it plainly: “The only jobs we’re going to have where we can really perform original music are concerts that we promote.”
The first such concert, on Aug. 15, 1965, was by the Joseph Jarman Quintet, also featuring the saxophonist Fred Anderson. Press coverage for the early events was modest but meaningful, a byproduct of the fact that DownBeat, a leading jazz magazine, was in Chicago. More hands-on support came from advocates like Chuck Nessa, who helped arrange the first recordings by association artists, including landmarks like “Sound,” by Mr. Mitchell, and “For Alto,” by Mr. Braxton.
As a collective of rugged individualists, the association has always thwarted attempts to pin down a prevailing style. That multiplicity plays out in the range of textures and approaches even just in the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which featured Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Jarman, and popularized the motto “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future.”
Mr. Lewis, a trombonist and composer in the association, and the Edwin H. Case professor of American music at Columbia University, elaborated on the idea in 2008: “With the A.A.C.M., you’re not rooted in a set of simple, codifiable practices,” he said, “but you’re rooted in an attitude, in a creation of an atmosphere, in an orientation to experience.”
The appeal of that model, among intrepid younger artists outside the organization, is clear. “There’s a rigor behind all of it, and a real purposefulness,” Mr. Iyer said last year. “It’s saying: ‘We’re not just making something pretty. This matters.’ ”
The association’s institutional backing extends to academia, where many of its members have thrived, including Mr. Braxton, who recently retired from his tenured post at Wesleyan, where for 24 years he cultivated a brain trust of admiring young artists. Along with Mr. Lewis, the current music faculty at Columbia includes the alto saxophonist Steve Lehman and the drummer Tyshawn Sorey, composer-improvisers conceptually aligned with the association’s lineage. There’s a ripple effect to these developments, and to the trove of albums Mr. Threadgill and others, like Mr. Lehman, have released on the New York label Pi Recordings. “Now I can reference these people, and find a lot of young musicians who know what I’m talking about,” the pianist Craig Taborn said. “That definitely wasn’t happening in the ’90s.”
After 50 years, the association has developed internal complexities to rival its musical ones. The New York chapter, formed in the late ’70s by Mr. Abrams, the pianist Amina Claudine Myers and other first-wave members, has its own charter. There have been historical tensions, covered in Mr. Lewis’s book, involving geography or governance.
The flutist Nicole Mitchell, who served in Chicago as the association’s first female president within the last decade, suggested that the range of involvement among members produced inevitable tensions. “Some people, if you look at their history, they’ve been making this amazing music for years and years, but their experience with the organizational work is brief,” she said. “Other people work on those nuts and bolts for their whole life.”
Fittingly, celebrations for the association’s 50th anniversary are expansive and diverse. In Chicago, the DuSable Museum of African American History has an exhibition, “Free at First,” running through Sept. 6. The Museum of Contemporary Art has scheduled “The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now” to open in mid-July. A series is underway at Constellation, a North Side space run by the drummer and association member Mike Reed, who also helped program the Chicago Jazz Festival on Labor Day weekend, featuring a rare reunion of the Experimental Band.
In New York, the new-music series Interpretations has organized concerts of works by Mr. Lewis, Mr. Abrams and others. And the association’s New York chapter just announced an anniversary festival, with concerts on four Fridays in October, funded in part by a $25,000 matching grant from the Robert D. Bielecki Foundation.
As for the all-star quintet on “Made in Chicago,” it will appear Thursday at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and on Aug. 1 at the Newport Jazz Festival.
The music will be different from what’s on the album, maybe radically so, but in tune with a continuum that Mr. Abrams, among others, identifies as the association’s bequest.
“It’s ongoing,” Mr. Mitchell said of that legacy, speaking by phone from Oakland, Calif. “It never stops. The only thing that can stop is you, and of course, that’s your decision.”