Performers with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians play at the group's 50th anniversary celebration in 2015. Credit: Lauren Deutsch

HYDE PARK — The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, an art cooperative whose members have experimented with and redefined Black musical traditions for decades, will belatedly celebrate a milestone year with a free concert this weekend in Hyde Park.

The organization’s 55th anniversary concert takes place 7 p.m. Saturday at the Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St. The celebration was planned for last year, but it was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The association’s Great Black Music Ensemble will perform pieces commissioned from three artists:

  • Adegoke Steve Colson‘s “Incandescence,” a six-part composition where “each chapter represents a decade of the AACM’s existence.” The piece explores the group’s influences and stylistic innovations while imagining how the ensemble will continue to challenge musical norms in the years to come, he said.
  • The Honourable Elizabeth A. Baker‘s “the possibilities before,” “Strange Loops” and “bioFEEDBACK.” The works, to be conducted by association President Coco Elysses, incorporate electronics, a speaking string quartet and rhythms created from the interplay of instruments and effects, she said.
  • Rudresh Mahanthappa’s “Finding Our Voice,” a series of more than a dozen melodies, bass lines and rhythms layered to create “a piece could be [performed] radically different from night to night,” he said. The piece was composed in response to the collective actions that took place after George Floyd’s murder last summer.

To reserve a free ticket, click here.

Attendees must wear masks. Proof of vaccination is required; those who are unable to be vaccinated for medical and religious reasons must prove they tested negative for coronavirus within 72 hours of the event.

The association was founded in 1965 on the South Side, an offshoot of cofounder Muhal Richard Abrams’ Experimental Band — a “loose-limbed laboratory” for musicians to question the rules of their craft, according to the Chicago Reader.

In the decades since, performers from Nicole Mitchell and Lester Bowie to Dee Alexander and Carlos Pride have shepherded the group’s mission: linking the “ancient musics of Africa to the music of the future.”

The association’s “fluid” approach to creating music made it a natural fit for Colson, whose musical outlook was shaped as a teen by rummaging through record stores until he found something unusual.

Along with his collaborator and wife Iqua Colson — a singer, composer and Kenwood Academy graduate — he joined the association in the early 1970s. He has spent the past 30 years as an educator in New Jersey.

“In the AACM, I met a number of people who were similarly minded,” Steve Colson said. “Whatever experiences we had individually, they brought us to that place where we were all meeting together to pursue different forms of creativity. There’s a big legacy out there.”

Mahanthappa, who lived on the North Side in the 1990s, would frequently head south to catch Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians members’ performances. Tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson would jam at the Velvet Lounge on Indiana Avenue, which he owned; multi-instrumentalist Kahil El’Zabar would appear elsewhere around the South Loop.

“Of course the history of the AACM — like Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Muhal Richard Abrams — it’s all been highly influential on the music I make,” Mahanthappa said.

But for Mahanthappa, the association’s legacy goes beyond its members’ musical works, like Braxton’s “New York, Fall 1974” or Threadgill’s “Easily Slip Into Another World.”

The association’s do-it-yourself ideals, community education through its School of Music and melding of Black art and politics were just as crucial. Its influence “supersedes music — we’re talking about community organizing, really,” he said.

As Mahanthappa gained notoriety on the national stage, he and fellow South Asian-American jazz musicians Vijay Iyer, Rez Abbasi and Sunny Jain “rallied around each other” to “discuss things beyond the music.”

Their pushback against the “stereotypical expectations” placed on them due to their skin color drew on the association’s refusal to place limits on what Black music could be.

It was “life-affirming” to work with the association, said the artist who goes by Honourable Elizabeth A. Baker, who came up in Florida’s experimental scene alongside few Black artists “doing weird things and making that their career.”

“I can throw most anything at them and they can execute it,” she said. “They are not only able to execute it, but are very willing to … explore what that means for their own selves and playing and practice. It just felt like a safe space that i don’t normally have in practice to work and create.”

After more than 55 years, the association’s artists continue to carve out their own lane in music and performance art. Members still tinker with song lengths, play outside of traditional chord structures and explore melodies on different instruments as they express themselves through sound, Colson said.

The association’s survival flies in the face of a capitalist industry that prioritizes hit-making formulas over musical curiosity, he said.

“A lot of organizations have come and gone in that period of time — they started out strong and are no longer here,” Colson said. “The AACM is still rolling.”

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