Message Received: Paul Steinbeck on the Art Ensemble of Chicago

During his Faculty Fellowship with the Center for the Humanities in fall 2014, Paul Steinbeck, assistant professor of music, completed the fourth chapter of Message to Our Folks: The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Improvisation, and Great Black Music, under contract with the University of Chicago Press. It’s scheduled for release in 2016, the 50th anniversary of the musical group’s founding. We asked him for an early glimpse of this work in progress.

Briefly, what is your book about?
It’s a history of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, one of the most significant African-American musical groups to emerge in the 1960s. There are a lot of ways to write a history; this one combines historical inquiry with detailed analyses of the group’s Art Ensemble founder Roscoe Mitchell gives a talk Fri., Dec. 5; see, an interdisciplinary approach rarely employed in jazz studies and improvisation studies.

What is the Art Ensemble?
It’s a group of African-American musicians who emerged from Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians [AACM] in the late 1960s. They were an international phenomenon, an innovative, experimental jazz group that played hundreds of instruments from around the world, wore symbolic costumes and face paint, recited poetry and performed theatrical sketches during their shows. You might call them an experimental music group or a performance art group. Their motto was “Great Black Music — Ancient to the Future.”

They were also an economic cooperative that pooled their resources. They were very conscious of hard-working American musicians who didn’t have anything to show for it. When the group moved to Paris in 1969, they became minor celebrities but they did everything cooperatively: lived in a house together, bought trucks together and the like. It allowed them to grow their business and reach greater heights. When they made money, they invested in new instruments or saved it, which allowed them to be more selective about their gigs. They subordinated their egos for the greater good. Eventually they were able to buy houses and put their kids through college. One member, Lester Bowie [a St. Louisan], even gave financial lessons to other musicians.

How did you come to know the Art Ensemble?
As a student at the University of Chicago, I participated in the undergraduate jazz ensemble, directed by Mwata Bowden, who was also a former president of the AACM. He exposed us to this whole world. Playing the acoustic bass, I was struggling to be heard. He turned me on to Malachi Favors, who played bass for the Art Ensemble, and I started listening to him. A couple of years later, I spotted him at the Hyde Park Co-op. My jazz hero in the bread aisle! I’m sure I made some clumsy introduction, but he was very friendly and personable, if only in a few words. Later, when I was interviewing his daughter and siblings for the book [Favors died in 2004], they told me about his military service in the 1950s, and how he used to bring them things like Swiss chocolate and toothbrushes from his tours overseas. We tend to put people on pedestals, but they’re even more remarkable when they’re just people. But that day, I did continue to trail Favors around the store.
Paul Steinbeck performing in the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival at Bohemian Caverns in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Jean-Francois Kalka)
Tell us about your research for the book.
I conducted archival research at Paris’ Bibliotèque nationale; New York’s Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers and the New York Public Library; and Chicago’s Center for Black Music Research, the Chicago History Museum, the Chicago Jazz Archive, and the Art Ensemble’s own collection. It was sometimes challenging to get interviews with group members, but I did get them. I went to Chicago, Paris, New York City to interview members, family, business contacts. Talking with them directly had a big impact. When I’m listening to their performances or watching them on YouTube, I’m trying to figure out what’s going on — the improvising, the decision-making, the contingencies. But hearing is always subjective. I don’t want to privilege mine. Having a conversation with them, listening to them muse on what happened before or after the performance — I wouldn’t be able to write a book like this without their insight.

Your book is the first monograph on the Art Ensemble. Why do you think that is?
Scholars have written about the group before — in the U.S., France, Italy, Germany. There’s a huge volume of words in other forms. Mine is the first to give the group book-length treatment.

As a professional musician [Steinbeck plays acoustic bass], how do you think you might hear the group’s performances differently from others who might be examining them?
I have technical insight; I can identify technique and understand the physical aspects of performing. It also helps that I improvise and I know this particular scene after studying music with close colleagues of the Art Ensemble.

Where did your book title (Message to Our Folks) come from?
It’s the name of a 1969 Art Ensemble album. It says music has a message; it communicates more than sound. There’s also the question of who “our folks” is. Is it African Americans on the south side of Chicago? All African Americans? Members of the African diaspora? All music listeners? This album title reflects that the group was concerned with ideas as well as music — with having an impact, modeling a community.

What might interest others outside your field in this book?
The book has fun anecdotes about people and events, and I think they’ll enjoy the big personalities and radical thinking. Those in cultural studies, performance studies and musicians should find a lot for them, too.