By Luke Stewart
Amina Claudine Myers came into my life through the study of the history and legacies of creative music. Being one of the few female voices—especially early on—in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), she was able to provide perspective on the music that her peers Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, George Lewis and others, were unable to. As a composer and musician, she is defined by her voracious appetite for sonic discovery and is just as ambitious as her celebrated compatriots. Her sound as a pianist/organist is rooted in the Southern Baptist church. Myers, who grew up in Arkansas, expands on that concept especially with songs like “GOD,” when she calls out the many names of the Lord, including the one revealed when speaking in tongues. The heavenly bombast of the organ is reshaped into a bona fide instrument of creative music, with Myers being its fervent champion. Few others have explored the organ quite the way she has, particularly with her groundbreaking performance of “Improvisational Suite,” which has yet to be released. Most of all, she has been a musical mother, a powerful elder who continues to push her music forward while caring for subsequent generations of musicians, AACM-affiliated and otherwise.
I’ve sat down with Myers on a few occasions, listening intently as she has spoken about some of her experiences in The Music and in life. The following material is derived from conversations we’ve shared over the years—starting back in 2015, at a concert I helped organize for her in Washington, D.C.; at a new music festival in New York City where we both performed; and later in 2018, when I bumped into her at a hotel in Paris.
It was my first time traveling to Paris on tour. I arrived at the hotel, only to be greeted by Myers alongside Roscoe Mitchell, Don Moye and the rest of the Art Ensemble of Chicago circa 2018. Their musical fervor had not been lost, nor their quick wit and wisdom. As with so many of the elders, when you get them in a room, music might never be discussed. Rather, it seems to perpetually exist, harnessed and reflected once the concert starts. In fact, some of the greatest improvisers are also the greatest at living life. It is this energy that allows improvisers to be so impactful to the Spirit. One of Roscoe Mitchell’s friends even claimed he saw God, Myers says.
“I remember playing with George Lewis and Roscoe in Paris,” Myers told me, as we sat down together in her hotel room on the Left Bank.
“Their dressing room was next to mine. I heard them talking, so I said, ‘Let me go in here and see what we’re gonna do.’ But they were talking about something that had nothing to do with music. It was not discussed. We just went out there and hit!”
When Myers and I met a few years earlier, in D.C., she spoke on the same topic. Before her concert, she addressed an intimate crowd in front of the stage, talking about life lessons: being yourself, trusting one another and learning how to listen. Only she could tell those stories while exuding such sagacity.
“I worked with Von Freeman. You heard of Von Freeman? He’s out of Chicago. He passed away. Chico Freeman’s father. And he put me together with Han Bennink. He’s a drummer from Amsterdam. I was worried sick because Von Freeman, he was ahead—forward. He could do anything. He had a club in Chicago that he played at where musicians would come. Marion Brown said he would go to Chicago just to hear Von Freeman. That’s how bad he was. I had never played with him so I was worried, like, what was he gonna play? Because I knew that he knew a lot of standards. I knew a few.
“So then I went to Muhal’s and asked him if I could look through some of his standards. He had boxes of music. And it was like looking for a needle in a haystack because you didn’t know what to pick! I picked up Ruby, My Dear because I thought it sounded nice, and some others that I had never heard of. I was worried, worried, worried!
“So we finally get to Europe, I think we were in Brussels. We were in the car. I was trying to be very nonchalant. I said, ‘Von, do you have any idea what we’re gonna play?’ He said, ‘No, I don’t,’ and that was it.” Myers laughs.
“The first time we played—some song—by the second chorus I basically had it. The one thing I liked about Von, he played the standards, but then after he did his thing, he’d walk back upstage with his shades on, and Han Bennink, his foot might be up on the snare drum! Very colorful, great drummer. But Von let us do what we wanted to do. So we could be creative. That was one of the best gigs I’ve had. Because he left room for improvisation, never said a word. The only song he announced was “Summertime.” But other than that, he would just start playing.
“Improvising gives you a chance to paint pictures. You can do anything. You can be rhythmic, you can be melodic, you can be atonal … all those come into play. You can do no wrong. But the main thing is that you have to focus and listen, especially when you’re playing with other people. You don’t be selfish—and musicians are very open. Because they trust you and you trust yourself and you trust them to do whatever they do. I tell my musicians, if you feel like you wanna turn a flip while we’re playing, then go ahead! I want you to be open and free, but listen!
“This one bass player, he said ‘Amina, I thought you was just playing some notes!’ I said, ‘I always know where I am when I’m playing.’ It’s like when some of the new music people throw the piano off the top of the building. That actually happened. That was art.
“But the main thing is, being an improviser opens you up. Now you play with some musicians…I played with Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt, two very different musicians. Bird [Charlie “Bird” Parker] was one of Sonny’s influences, and he played technically perfect. He knew all the standards and everything. I played the organ with him. But Gene Ammons, you play one note and the women just go crazy after Jug! Sonny be [she starts gesturing and lipping] playing a whole lot of stuff. But Jug, all he had to do was play one note. He was so soulful, and a beautiful individual.
“That’s another thing too: The inside. The music comes out the way you are as an individual. If you’re negative, the music comes out like that. I learned a lot from both of them. When I started working with Jug, I started hearing music outside of the melodic line, without the chord structures. Jug would get in front of the organ and say, ‘You ain’t playing the blues, Claude.’ He called me Claude. One night, Sonny Stitt played four blues in a row. He played the first in B-flat. Then he played a second blues, E-flat. Third blues, D-flat. Then the fourth blues was in F. I was complaining to myself but I realized years later that was a lesson—to be different every time you play the blues. Be different!
“Working with Eddie Harris was another one of my favorites. That was one of the best gigs I had. I was on organ. And the musicians had been playing [Myers vocalizes the melody], you know. So we were playing at this establishment and it was closing time. It was ‘Perdido.’ Anyway, it was usually in B-flat, very fast. But Eddie played it in B. After I got through playing, after I got through stumbling, I said, ‘Eddie, that was in B, not in B-flat.’ He said, ‘Ahhhh, I thought I was in B-flat.’ He knew he wasn’t in B-flat, but that was a lesson for me. Learn to play in all the keys. Learn to play the blues.
“I learned from playing with all those musicians and incorporated those skills, and from the AACM, seeing those musicians hold their own. They could do no wrong. I would hear stuff and be afraid of doing it when I was working with Jug. After I joined the AACM, and hearing Coltrane, that opened my ears up to more possibilities. So anyway, improvising was one of the main forces in playing creative music.”
The band Irreversible Entanglements, in which I am bassist, loves Myers. We were beyond honored to collaborate with both her and Nicole Mitchell at the Ecstatic Music Festival in New York City. She elevated the spirits of the ensemble as we connected on the deep legacy of her music and musicianship. Backstage, she was as gentle and loving as a favorite aunt, generous with her time and stories of her early days.
“My aunt got engaged to a man that lived in Dallas. And she said, ‘Do you want to go home with your mother or go with me? If you go with me, we have an indoor toilet and a grocery store.’ So you know where I went. And I realize now that’s how it was supposed to be, because there were women in the Black Baptist church organizing a group of us girls, and we started singing. I was involved in Easter plays and Christmas plays. I always saw myself as an accurate singer. Piano-playing came natural. I didn’t think about it, you know, playing hymns, playing gospel. But before I went to Dallas, the gospel quartets would travel to the Black churches around the South. First, it was four of them, then they added the guitar player to the quartet singers. And they were just wonderful! The white people would always come to the Black church to hear the quartet singers. They would slap their thighs to keep the rhythm. [Myers hums a melody]. They were just wonderful!
“Then you had the ‘Wings Over Jordan.’ Or you would hear them on the radio singing ‘Plenty good room, plenty good room’…then ‘I wish I had a nickel’—that was country and western, Hank Williams. You had a little boy going to the store for his mother. She gave him a nickel to buy a chocolate ice cream cone, and the dog bit him on the leg, and the boy dropped his chocolate ice cream cone. And I could visualize that and see that! George Lewis, years later, he said, ‘Hank Williams, he sent me the lyrics …’ You can get them on the internet now. But all of this was going on in my head. My parents, my aunt and uncle, they didn’t listen. I got a record player when I went to Texas, and I tried to have the blues station on when I got in from school. And it was loud! They took the record player and bought a typewriter [she laughs]. They turned it in! I rebelled against that of course.
“All this music was going on. The quartet singers playing hymns. Watts’ hymns. You familiar with Watts? Came out of England. He wrote a lot of hymns. Black people would take these hymns and turn them into gospel. Gospel came from Thomas Dorsey back in the ’20s. He used to play for Bessie Smith. But Thomas Dorsey went religious and wrote ‘Precious Lord.’ You know the song?”
Without skipping a beat, Myers plays a line from “Precious Lord” on the piano.
“What is the meaning of gospel? First, there were spirituals. They called them sorrow songs. Black people wrote these songs. They were gonna reach a better day ahead in heaven. Spirituals were songs that would give you hope, expressing what was going on in their lives here on Earth, looking for a better life ahead. We used to sing ‘Steal Away’ when I was young. I hated ‘Steal Away.’ It was slow. [Myers hums the song]. Now it is one of my favorites.
“So the sorrow songs were a cappella. And while the sorrow songs were going you had the blues. The country blues—not the modern-day blues—like John Lee Hooker. He’s one of my favorites. You had a lot of blind guys singing the blues, traveling around. A lot of them were blind because Black people didn’t have money to go to the doctors. We’re poor.
“The sorrow songs turned into spirituals. Ma Rainey. Have you heard about Ma Rainey? You know she had all that glitter and boas and stuff. She traveled across the country on a railroad car. All the musicians they slept in the car. She had dancers, singers, comedians. Bessie Smith was one of my favorites, and she was one of the firsts. I did a CD, a salute to Bessie Smith. She worked for Ma Rainey. When Bessie was nine years old, she was out there working on the street dancing to make money for the family. She went to work with Ma Rainey. Then Bessie developed her own program. She had the tent, performing out in the countryside. They said that the Ku Klux Klan came on the grounds, and one of her dancers came running inside and said, ‘Bessie, it’s the Ku Klux Klan!’ She said, ‘I ain’t scared of no Klan!’ [Myers laughs]. So she went outside and ran them off! Bessie ain’t take no mess.
“I just met someone in Virginia whose mother knew Bessie Smith. She said Bessie Smith could not read nor write. She would have her friend write her [words]. You could see the love in Bessie Smith, you could feel it. When I see her in that movie—she made only one movie—you saw sorrow. I saw that too.”
“Then Clara Smith, Mamie Smith. Those were all great women blues singers in the ’20s. When Thomas Dorsey came in, they started playing gospel music with rhythm. From the spirituals, a cappella, to the gospel with rhythm. Then the blues went into the rhythm and blues!”
Myers hums R&B, then plays some on the piano.
“Are there any questions?”
Luke Stewart is a musician and organizer, based in Washington, D.C. and living in New York City, with strong family ties to Detroit.
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