Muhal Richard Abrams, A Sweepingly Influential Jazz Artist, Has Died At Age 87

Nov 1, 2017
Originally published on November 2, 2017 12:36 am

Muhal Richard Abrams, a pianist and composer of staunch independence and sweeping influence, inseparable from his role as a founding father of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians [AACM], died on Sunday at his home in New York City. He was 87.

His daughter, Richarda Abrams, confirmed his death. No cause was given.

Abrams was a brilliant, mostly self-taught pianist who combined a strong foundation in the blues with keen attunement to the shadow art of vibration and overtone. While he came up in a hard-swinging jazz context, and created some of his early work in that style, he was serious about a non-idiomatic approach to improvisation. He is regarded as a paragon by some of the most acclaimed pianists now in circulation, including Jason Moran, Craig Taborn and Vijay Iyer.

Among the roughly two dozen albums that Abrams released over the last 50 years are several that feature him in a solo piano setting, illuminating both the percussive rumble of his touch and the oblique yet holistic logic of his improvisations. You can hear this signature as clearly on an early effort like Afrisong, released on the India Navigation label in 1975, as on a late work like Vision Toward Essence, recorded in 1998 and released on Pi Recordings in 2007.

Abrams' piano can be heard on an array of albums by members of the AACM, including 1977's Nonaah, by the saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, and 3 Compositions Of New Jazz, the 1968 debut by saxophonist Anthony Braxton. To hear an excellent example of Abrams' catalytic genius as a sideman, seek out a live Braxton album on the hatOLOGY label, Quintet (Basel) 1977.

As a composer, Abrams worked in a billowing sprawl of settings, from solo to quartet to big band and beyond. His large-canvas works have been performed by the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the American Composers Orchestra, among others. He also wrote chamber pieces for ensembles like The String Trio of New York, Bang on a Can and Kronos Quartet, which premiered his String Quartet No. 2 in 1985 at Carnegie Hall's intimate space now known as Weill Recital Hall.

Some of the standout titles in the Abrams discography are large-ensemble works loosely in the jazz continuum, including two back-to-back releases, The Hearinga Suite (1989) and Blu Blu Blu (1991). "On the basis of these thoroughly engaging works alone," writes the critic Gary Giddins in his book Visions Of Jazz, "he must be accounted a preeminent figure in the development of big band music in the period since the '60s."

But Abrams will probably be best remembered for his co-founding and stewardship of the AACM, which has been a stalwart presence in the American avant-garde for more than 50 years. Established on the South Side of Chicago, it began in part as an extension of Abrams' Experimental Band, which he first convened in the early 1960s.

"I needed a place to experiment with the things I wanted to do with music," Abrams told me in 2008. "So I organized the Experimental Band, the forerunner of the AACM. And I fortunately attracted musicians who were interested in that. It included quite a few of the musicians that you know today that are very accomplished in what they do. The reason they could accomplish what they did is that they found a workshop where they could experiment and learn and test themselves as to what could be done with things they find out, in terms of research and study."

In a recent conversation, Roscoe Mitchell recalled the Experimental Band as a workshop of sorts. "Because you were invited to write pieces for the big band," he said. "Or bring your existing pieces in, have them played. And then if there was something you wanted to change about the piece, something you weren't happy with, you could bring that back the next week, have it played, and so on and so forth."

The AACM, which was formally established in 1965, mobilized around a handful of core principles, including an independence from the commercial apparatus of the music business and a stated commitment to original music. From early on, the organization flew a banner of Great Black Music, but under that banner, a diversity of voices and perspectives was welcomed, and even insisted upon.

"We believe that in general, in terms of humanity, we are first given individual rights to self-realize, which was part of our focus in terms of philosophy," Abrams told me. "The AACM is basically a group of individuals who agree to agree, and sometimes not to agree. Our cohesiveness has been intact because we respect each other's individualism."

Richard Lewis Abrams was born in Chicago on Sept. 19, 1930, to Milton and Edna Abrams, the second of nine children. He attended DuSable High School, but was compelled early on by his own interests.

Columbia University professor George Lewis, in his 2008 book A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press), notes that Abrams had an early mentor in the trumpeter Will Jackson, a Jimmie Lunceford band alumnus who lived down the street and taught Abrams some of the fundamentals of orchestration. Jackson also introduced Abrams to the pianist Walter "King" Fleming, who became an early influence, and incorporated some of the young musician's arrangements in his band.

Abrams became a fixture in jam sessions at the Cotton Club, on the South Side. He made his first appearance on record in 1957 with the MJT+3, led by the drummer Walter Perkins. But he also became engrossed by the theories of Joseph Schillinger, whose mathematical and relational approach to music theory struck a deep chord. (Like many musicians in his orbit, Abrams was introduced to Schillinger's theories by Charles Stepney, a house arranger and producer for Chess Records.)

As the Experimental Band branched into the early AACM, Abrams maintained his role as a center of gravity and a source of counsel. "Muhal was the inspiration," the drummer Jack DeJohnette told me in 2015. "He helped us to be ourselves. He was curious about everything: numerology, orchestration. He taught himself everything, and listened to all kinds of music. All the pianists. He studied all of them. And he found something in there which gave him the freedom to explore the music and write and compose the music he's been doing all these many years."

Abrams moved to New York in 1976. That move, writes Gary Giddins, "hastened the internationalization of a music that had received little more than token support in the United States (outside of Chicago), despite having already scored high marks in Europe." Abrams created a New York chapter of the AACM and served as its president.

In time, a cascade of accolades found its way to Abrams. In 1990, Copenhagen's Danish Jazz Center created the JazzPar prize, a prestigious award, and selected Abrams as the first recipient. He was also a 2008 USA Prudential Fellow; a 2012 Living Legacy Awardee, bestowed by the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation; and the recipient of two awards from the Doris Duke Foundation.

In 2010, when Abrams was named an NEA Jazz Master, he performed a solo piano improvisation at the induction ceremony and then conducted a performance of "2000 Plus The Twelfth Step," a piece originally commissioned and premiered by the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra.

In addition to his daughter, Abrams is survived by his wife, Peggy Abrams; four brothers, Milton, Jr., John, Michael and Mott Christopher; two sisters, Dolorez Abrams and Alice Rollins. His son, Richard, Jr., is deceased, but left him three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Abrams made his most recent notable appearance on record in the company of DeJohnette, Mitchell and the multi-reedist Henry Threadgill as well as the bassist Larry Gray. That album, Made in Chicago, was recorded at the 2013 Chicago Jazz Festival and released on ECM in 2015. Its release preceded another round of performances, including a momentous stand at the Newport Jazz Festival.

But the breadth of Abrams' reach may best be characterized not by a discography, a list of awards or a tally of performances, but rather by the widespread adoption of an attitude. I recently considered this legacy while attending the 2017 Ojai Music Festival, which was programmed by Vijay Iyer. The intensity of creative exchange at that event, across the usual boundaries of "jazz" and "classical" and "new music," stood as a testament to the durability of Abrams' vision.

And as if that weren't enough, Abrams performed on the festival as well, creating a mesmerizing hour-long improvisation with Mitchell and Lewis, as The Trio. It was my last hour in Abrams' company, musically, and I'm grateful that it was documented.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams died Sunday at the age of 87. Throughout his career, he pushed the boundaries of jazz and improvisational music. He set an example for other musicians looking to create their own avenues for getting their work heard. The National Endowment for the Arts named Abrams a jazz master in 2010. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas has this appreciation.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Muhal Richard Abrams was driven by curiosity and an innate discipline. He was mostly self-taught, as he told the NEA when he received its highest jazz honor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUHAL RICHARD ABRAMS: I just decided one day that I wanted to play the piano. It happened in a funny way. My sister had a music theory book. So I picked her book up and decided that I was going to learn what all these symbols meant.

TSIOULCAS: Abrams was born and raised in Chicago and grew up hearing the blues. He started playing hard bop with the likes of Dexter Gordon and Eddie Harris, a style he return to from time to time.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC)

TSIOULCAS: Abrams studied the playing of Thelonious Monk and Art Tatum, and you can hear it in his music, says pianist Jason Moran, who's studied with Abrams.

JASON MORAN: Whether I was hearing boogie-woogie Chicago piano inside it or whether I was hearing this freeness that Muhal could do with his phrases that would kind of run extensively long, almost as if he was circular breathing at the piano...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUHAL RICHARD ABRAMS' "LEVELS AND DEGREES OF LIGHT")

TSIOULCAS: In 1965, Abrams co-founded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a collective that encouraged its members to create their own music and has helped them get it heard, as Abrams told NPR's Piano Jazz in 1988.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ARBRAMS: People could experiment with their own individuality, you know what I mean...

MARIAN MCPARTLAND, BYLINE: Sure.

ARBRAMS: ...And write their original compositions. And there were many groups.

TSIOULCAS: Jason Moran says the AACM's DIY ethos established a benchmark for younger musicians to create their own opportunities.

MORAN: The AACM has always been there as a - kind of like a vitamin for musicians like myself and other - my peers because they took matters into their own hands. They produced their own concerts. They focused on original music primarily. And they encouraged and enabled others focus on their own music as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUHAL RICHARD ABRAMS' "MEDITATION 1")

TSIOULCAS: Sometimes people are tempted to associate experimental music with very young performers. But Abrams felt the opposite, as he told Piano Jazz's Marian McPartland.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ARBRAMS: The best people to play newer music are experienced people in terms of organizing it in a manner that is musically respectful. I don't mean that people with less experience can't do that. I don't mean it in that way.

MCPARTLAND: But it's going to have more meaning to it, sure.

ARBRAMS: Yes. We're dealing with a continuum.

MCPARTLAND: With somebody that has experience, it's going to have more...

ARBRAMS: That's right. We're dealing with a continuum. That's right.

TSIOULCAS: Muhal Richard Abrams was a crucial point in that continuum. Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.