Muhal Richard Abrams, 87, Individualistic Pianist and Composer, Is Dead
By HOWARD MANDEL NOV. 1, 2017
Muhal Richard Abrams at Alice Tully Hall in Manhattan in 2004. Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times
Muhal Richard Abrams, the autodidactic pianist, composer and educator who was known both for his diverse, unclassifiable compositions and improvisations and for establishing and sustaining the influential Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, died on Sunday at his home in Manhattan. He was 87.
His death was confirmed by his daughter, Richarda Abrams.
As a pianist, Mr. Abrams could spontaneously weave references to historical jazz styles — including ragtime, stride piano, the compositions of Duke Ellington, swing and bebop — together with his own fleet modernism, far-reaching harmonies and dissonance.
As a composer, he represented a similarly wide range. Steeped in the blues, he also created works for chamber ensembles and orchestras, sometimes but not always including improvisation.
Mr. Abrams, who was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2010 and was the first recipient of Denmark’s generous Jazzpar Award in 1990, was critically acclaimed for the breadth, depth and originality of his music.
In his book “The Freedom Principle” (1984), the critic John Litweiler wrote that Mr. Abrams’s phrasing was “turbulent, broken, constantly busy, yet his soloing sounds flowing, freely lyrical.”
“Abrams has never lost his early wonder at the vast possibilities of free music,” he added.
Mr. Abrams explored those possibilities with the Experimental Band, which he organized in Chicago in 1962 to workshop new compositions and arrangements by a coterie of like-minded instrumentalists.
He helped found the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians collective in 1965, teaming up with the pianist Jodie Christian, the trumpeter Philip Cohran (who died this year) and the drummer Steve McCall.
By not imposing or promoting a single aesthetic but instead encouraging unconventional originality, the association, which presented concerts and conferences, became an incubator for the genre-defying group the Art Ensemble of Chicago as well as the multi-instrumentalists and composers Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill, along with many others who channeled the high-energy “free” jazz of the early 1960s into more organized works.
Mr. Abrams leading the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at Frederick P. Rose Hall in Manhattan in 2010. Matthew Murphy for The New York Times
The first generation of A.A.C.M. musicians concentrated on sounds themselves, often employing so-called little instruments like bells, toy noisemakers and whistles to complement their performances. They investigated structured alternatives to standard song forms as well as the long, declamatory improvisations favored by New York City’s jazz avant-garde, exploring dissonance, serialism and polyphony, 20th-century concert music and non-Western idioms.
As Mr. Abrams did in his 1969 recording “Young at Heart / Wise in Time,” A.A.C.M. members acknowledged jazz, blues and other forms of African-American music as their heritage, but adopted Duke Ellington’s refusal to be defined by the past and Ornette Coleman’s break from chord progressions as an infallible guideline for improvisations.
Their presentations might involve performance art activities, multidisciplinary collaborations, abstract musical systems, newly invented instruments or anything else under the Art Ensemble’s inclusive motto, “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future.”
Mr. Abrams was the first president of the A.A.C.M. and until his death was regarded as its eminence. Through its chapters in Chicago and New York, the organization continues to present concerts, provide promotional support and offer free training in theory, composition and instrumental mastery to young musicians.
Richard Louis Abrams was born in Chicago on Sept. 19, 1930. He was the second of nine children of Milton Abrams, a self-employed handyman, and his wife, Edna, who took the boy with her to weekly piano lessons at the Y.M.C.A.
Mr. Abrams took the name Muhal in 1967. Interviewed by the French magazine Jazz in 1973, he said that the word, its origin unclear, means “number one.”
A product of Chicago’s public schools, Mr. Abrams spent time in a reformatory for fighting and truancy, then entered DuSable High School. Although DuSable is noted for graduating many successful jazz musicians, he was more interested in sports and did not benefit from its music program. He left school in 1946, began studying with a pianist from his church and enrolled in Chicago Musical College.
By 1948 Mr. Abrams was playing professionally and engaged in a disciplined course of self-directed study of a broad range of subjects.
Mr. Abrams after a solo performance the Abrons Art Center in Manhattan 2010. Joshua Bright for The New York Times
“I was determined to teach myself because that way I could go directly at what I wanted,” he was quoted as saying in “A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music,” a comprehensive history by George E. Lewis, a professor of American music at Columbia University and a MacArthur and Guggenheim fellow who first gained attention as an A.A.C.M. trombonist.
Mr. Abrams’s interests included not just music theory but also occult arts, esoteric religions and painting. Later in his career he taught composition and improvisation at Columbia University, Syracuse University, Stanford University and elsewhere.
In 1955 he began writing arrangements for the Chicago pianist King Fleming’s band and occasionally sitting in with it. In 1957 he played on, and wrote compositions for, “Daddy-O Presents MJT+3,” an album organized by the popular radio host Daddy-O Dailey.
Soon after that, the Chess Records producer Charles Stepney introduced Mr. Abrams to Joseph Schillinger’s two-volume work “The Schillinger System of Musical Composition,” which offered methods of composition based on mathematical operations.
Mr. Abrams worked in commercial bands and stage shows, at church socials and as a sideman for jazz headliners touring the Midwest. He eventually joined the Chicago saxophonist Eddie Harris’s band.
His interests in contemporary composition, electronic music and self-determination led him to convene the Experimental Band and eventually to help form the A.A.C.M., whose first meeting was held in the basement apartment that Mr. Abrams shared with his wife, Peggy Abrams.
Black artist groups and jazz musicians’ collectives were a nationwide phenomenon in the 1960s, but none evinced the staying power of the A.A.C.M., which conducted programs like the A.A.C.M. School, which opened in fall of 1967. Mr. Abrams attributed the organization’s strength to Chicago’s relative isolation from mainstream commercial pressures and temptations.
An indication of the collective’s impact on late-’60s Chicago culture was the casting of Mr. Abrams as a black militant in “Medium Cool,” Haskell Wexler’s fictional film that centered on the turbulence surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Muhal Richard Abrams, left, Jack DeJohnette and Henry Threadgill celebrating the 2015 release of their recording “Made in Chicago: Live at the Chicago Jazz Festival.” Sam Polcer for The New York Times
Still, their ambitions led several members of the A.A.C.M. to depart for Europe in 1970. That same year, Mr. Abrams was among the collective’s musicians who performed their first New York concert as the Creative Construction Company. Judging New York City more open to new music than Chicago, Mr. Abrams moved there in 1976 and became involved in the burgeoning “loft jazz” movement.
By then, he had appeared on a half-dozen albums as a leader and more than twice that many led by A.A.C.M. colleagues or Mr. Harris. From 1977 to 1997, Mr. Abrams released an album of his own almost every year, including a dozen on the Italian label Black Saint.
His most recent recording, released on ECM in 2015, was “Made in Chicago,” with his onetime protégés the drummer Jack DeJohnette, the saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and Mr. Threadgill.
Mr. Abrams recorded and performed in every small-group format from duets to octets. He also composed works commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, the American Composers Orchestra, the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
A multi-instrumentalist, he played clarinet as well as piano on “Levels and Degrees of Light” (1967) and synthesizer on “The Hearinga Suite” (1999), for which he conducted a 17-piece big band. When he was inducted as an N.E.A. Jazz Master in a ceremony in New York, he performed an unaccompanied piano improvisation that segued into a score featuring members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Abrams is survived by his wife; two sisters, Dolores Abrams and Alice Rollins; four brothers, Milton, John, Michael and Mott Christopher; three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
Mr. Abrams’s music was sometimes criticized as remote or overly introspective. Reviewing a 1983 solo concert by Mr. Abrams at the Guggenheim Museum, Bernard Holland, a classical music critic for The New York Times, wrote, “One had the feeling of a highly literate but isolated meditation between player and piano, but one in which the process of the music seemed clearer and more natural to him that it did to his listeners, or at least this listener.”
Mr. Abrams shrugged off such remarks. “Art has to bring the abstract world into a much clearer view for viewers or listeners,” he told Musician magazine in 1990.
As a member of grant-processing panels for the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, he endorsed openness to new and unusual creative efforts, negotiating guideline revisions that promoted greater receptivity to idiosyncratic jazz notation and expression.
“Something new is rejected, but I think that has to do with one’s personal psyche,” he said. “People enjoy the familiar, and they have to wait a bit to enjoy the new.”