The Greatest Week in the History of Avant-Garde Jazz

“Thank God somebody bought Lester Bowie’s couch in the spring of 1969. And his chairs, bed and desk. Otherwise, the most glorious week in avant-garde jazz history would never have happened. ‘Lester was selling all the furniture in his house to take the band to Europe,’ recalls saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell of his trumpeter-friend and cohort. … Back then, ‘the band’ was known only as the Art Ensemble. A promoter in Paris would extend that to the ‘Art Ensemble of Chicago,’ and like many things that happened in France, the group decided it suited them well. With the remaining proceeds after the airfare was secured, ‘Lester and his family got a hotel room in the Left Banke at the Pax Hotel,’ explains Mitchell. ‘The rest of the band was at Maison Blanche, which is the mental hospital in Paris. One of the doctors there played trumpet so he arranged for us to be able to stay there.’ In the early summer of 1969, the group recorded a pair of albums, A Jackson in Your House in late June and People in Sorrow in early July, earning enough money to get a place of their own 18 kilometers north of Paris. That’s where they were living when another horde of expatriates arrived in August. But first, that group was in Algiers. 2,600 kilometers to the south, musicians were taking part in the week-long Pan African Cultural Festival. The event saw poets, photographers and musicians from 31 countries commingling with activists like Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers and Stokely Carmichael of the Black Power movement. (There was also a reputed group of CIA agents from the United States, keeping tabs on the activists and Algerian President Houari Boumediene, who was viewed as sympathetic to Moscow during this Cold War era. A star of the festival was saxophonist Archie Shepp, a man with a blistering tone on his tenor and the temperament to match. As the Vietnam War raged, Shepp once remarked that he regarded his horn as akin to a machine gun in the hands of the Viet Cong. When the Organisation of African Unity recruited Shepp to participate in the festival, he convinced them to invite a bunch of his colleagues, including drummer Sunny Murray, pianist Dave Burrell, bassist Alan Silva and trombonist Grachan Moncur III. Other musicians heard about the fest and made the overseas trek. …”
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