Originally comprised of saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, trumpeter Lester Bowie, bassist Malachi Favors, and later, drummer Famoudou Don Moye, the Art Ensemble of Chicago enjoyed a critical reputation as the finest and most influential avant-garde jazz ensemble of the 1970s and '80s. Whether or not that reputation was wholly deserved is, in retrospect, subject to debate -- the World Saxophone Quartet and the Cecil Taylor Unit may well have been more influential. Nevertheless, the Art Ensemble was unquestionably a groundbreaking band. In the late '60s and early '70s, the Art Ensemble helped pioneer the fusion of jazz with European art music and indigenous African musics. It also fused jazz with itself; that is to say, the band combined elements of jazz history and pre-history -- for instance, music from the sanctified church services, minstrel shows, and bawdy houses of late 19th and early 20th century America -- with a modernist spirit of experimentation. A pronounced theatrical element was also essential to their work. Its members attained a measure of jazz stardom on their own -- particularly Bowie and, to a lesser extent, Mitchell -- but in the Art Ensemble, no single individual was greater than the whole. The band was an assortment of composers and improvisers of great individuality. Collectively, they created a compelling and unique entity.
The group grew out of the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble of the mid-'60s, which had in-turn grown out of Chicago pianist Muhal Richard Abrams' Experimental Band of the early-'60s. The latter was a rehearsal band, created for the purpose of playing scores written by many of the city's forward-thinking young African-American jazz composers. It attracted, among others, Mitchell, Jarman, and Favors. The two saxophonists had both served in the military, though not together; they met while students at Wilson Junior College. Favors had been an established member of the Chicago jazz scene since the '50s. All three were early members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) a collective organized by Abrams and several like-minded fellow musicians. Lester Bowie moved to Chicago from St. Louis in 1966. Within days of arriving, he began rehearsing with Mitchell. In 1966, the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet (with Bowie and Favors) recorded Sound, the first album to come out of the AACM. In August 1967, Bowie recorded Numbers 1&2 for Delmark; on "2," the four musicians who would become the Art Ensemble recorded together for the first time. As the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble, the band performed sans drummer for the next two years. In 1969 the band moved to Paris, where they met and hired "Sun Percussionist" Don Moye, who had come to Europe from Detroit with trumpeter Charles Moore's band. Renamed the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the group had a great deal of success in Europe, recording classic albums like Reese and the Smooth Ones (BYG) and People in Sorrow (Nessa). They moved back to Chicago in 1971; their 1972 homecoming concert was recorded and issued as Live at Mandel Hall (Delmark).
The band's renown grew in the '70s. In 1978 they formed their own label, AECO, which released solo recordings by Jarman, Moye, and Favors. The group recorded for ECM in the late '70s and early '80s, making a series of critically acclaimed albums, including Nice Guys, Full Force, Urban Bushmen, and The Third Decade. The band won a series of critic's polls and was considered by many to be the finest jazz ensemble in the world. In the latter half of the '80s, a general decline in critical enthusiasm for the avant-garde resulted in less attention being paid to bands like the Art Ensemble. Side projects by individual band members also seem to have had an effect on the band's vitality. Still, it continued to exist, concertizing and recording through the '90s, occasionally with guests and supplementary musicians. Jarman left the band in 1993 in order to devote himself full-time to spiritual matters. The band continued as a quartet. Bowie was stricken with liver cancer; for the band's June 1999 concert at the Boston Globe Jazz and Blues Festival, he was replaced by saxophonist Ari Brown. Bowie died in November of 1999. For its first concert following Bowie's death, a January 2000 date at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, the Art Ensemble performed as a trio. Although its remaining members were still capable of creating at a very high level, by the turn of the millennium the Art Ensemble's future seemed in doubt. ~ Chris Kelsey