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by Seth Colter Walls

May 10, 2014

Jazz 101: Chicago Firebrands

by Seth Colter Walls  |  May 10, 2014

Jazz history is massive enough at this point to be a touch intimidating. With so many box sets and so many compilations to choose from, where to start? We've got you covered, era by era, with our Jazz 101 series, which you can follow here. Each daily playlist offers up five-star performances, and tips you off to albums with plenty more gold left to explore after the intro course is over. Enjoy.

After the East Coast avant-garde had its say in the mid-'60s, it was time for a new regional powerhouse in modern jazz to assert itself. So the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians brought forth a new roster of powerhouses, from Anthony Braxton to the Art Ensemble of Chicago and more. In a testament to the (still slow) advances of Civil Rights, most of these musicians had greater access to formal music educations than prior generations of young African Americans; as the Art Ensemble members themselves sang on their sidelong, intense cut "Certain Blacks," these experimental musicians "loved their freedom," and encouraged others to join their example.

Perhaps as a result, many of the Association's members cultivated interests outside of the strict jazz tradition. From classical chamber music (see some of Muhal Richard Abrams' big band arrangements and solo piano flights) to R&B (see the Art Ensemble's "Theme De Yoyo" and Roscoe Mitchell's early rap-inflected "You Wastin' My Time") to early computer music (George Lewis' "Hello/Goodbye") to New Orleans jazz codas, these musicians had a deep desire to truly integrate all forms of what they took to calling "creative music."

But they were also ace improvisers. To hear Leroy Jenkins on violin (with Abrams on piano) working wonders with a simple "Blues," or to hear George Lewis' solo trombone pyrotechnics, is to bear witness to some of the most inspired instrumental work of the late '60s and early '70s. It may not always sound indebted to the harmonies or rhythms of jazz as it was previously known -- see Anthony Braxton's wooly, staccato compositions like "N508-10 (4G)" to hear a blazing, intense modernism that would've impressed Bird -- but the work of these Chicago firebrands has influenced much of the experimental jazz of the last four decades in turn. Check out all the grooves, wildness and formal brilliance of their music in the appended playlist.

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