ON CHICAGO’S BLACK ARTS MOVEMENT

Early 1970s Chicago was a big, boiling, beautiful, bodacious cauldron of Black creativity. My boyfriend was a photographer, painter and part of an extraordinary community of artists on the Southside. I met phenomenal musicians, notably the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AACM) and joined the AACM dance ensemble. We did improvisational work in galleries, in basements – art was happening everywhere. When that’s your world at seventeen, that’s just the way life is; it is special and it’s also the norm.

 

The Chicago Years, 1970-73, solidified a sense of freedom and experimentation and pride and fierceness born out of the Sixties. We were not naïve about the System’s malevolence, yet we could hardly predict the level of repression being exerted on the movement, war was being waged on Black liberation worldwide. I came to the city nine months after the Fred Hampton was brutally murdered by the Chicago police. He was twenty-one years old.

 

Chicago serves as a crossroads for Black culture in the United States in same way New York serves as a mecca. The cauldron of Chicago has a deep southern legacy, holding spirits and bloodlines for generations. Its pace and rhythm are slower than the East Coast, perhaps its access to the wide-open land of the Midwest and the expanse of Lake Michigan. People seemed to take more time, not so driven as the Northeast, more rooted, more relaxed.

 

Chicago is very cold. Known as the Windy City, Chicago’s wind is called ‘The Hawk’. The extreme winter temperature is part of Chi Town’s welcoming personality and makes for very warm people. It’s a big city with a big country heart, the heat of its cauldron balances the ice of the environment. Chicago had its own distinctive Afrocentric style. Lots of music was happening indoors and outside, a generous collective feeling, it was easy to belong. People from Chicago love being from Chicago. They love their accents, their lingo, they love their food, their fashion sense, their distinct and lively neighborhoods, just like New Yorkers. I felt very comfortable.

Friend and fellow dancer from Chicago, Dawn Renee, found a basement studio space where we worked out movement themes, simple combinations. There were no musicians at our rehearsals. When we showed up, we were treated like the band. We were just expected to go. As a dancer working with jazz musicians I don’t remember many rehearsals, we were pretty much told what was going to happen on the gig and that was it. Theater people rehearse and rehearse and rehearse and the musicians were like ‘why are you doing that same thing over and over again?’ I learned early on how musicians tend to work differently. No judgement. Such a valuable education that to this day informs my practice. My company members will ask me “Weren’t we going to do this or that today?” and I’ll respond “Yeah, let’s play with going in a different direction”. I learned that on the bandstand.

 

When the AACM performed The Wives of Platu at the Hyde Park Arts Center one of the musicians cut the front out of two refrigerator boxes, placed a folding chair inside each and set them in the audience. We charged extra for the “box seats”. I appreciated the sense of humor and attitude of play among the artists. That lightness and laughter has certainly stayed with me. I remember asking the late, brilliant musician and composer Joseph Jarman about how to work as a movement improviser. I’d been listening to jazz recordings for years and sneaking into downtown jazz clubs since I was thirteen armed with a fake ID. Dancing with innovative jazz musicians was a new challenge. “You just find one instrument as a dancer. You follow that one instrument.” Joseph said “You don’t have to stick with it, you can change instruments. You do so to focus into your body, in your breath.” Focus and breath - that too has stayed with me.

 

My values and aesthetics as a performing artist are shaped in these years. How to listen deeply, the insistence on a very disciplined focus to facilitate improvisation, encouraging spontaneity coupled with the conviction that what you are bringing is valuable. I had the opportunity to work with the late Muhal Richard Abrams on The Wives of Platu, a great musician and composer. He gave us some notes before the show, it was his vision and his gig. He exuded confidence and assuredness and warmth and an attitude of ‘Let’s see what you got!’. It’s what we all yearn for when we enter the studio and early on, I learned that bringing you to the work is good because it is you. The process will be messy and fun and revelatory and sometimes won’t go anywhere and that’s fine because that’s just how you know to go to some other place. That spirit of experimentation is what brings students and artists back to my studios over and over again. The foundation that, the bedrock of you, yourself, are good and when you show up, we welcome you.