Muhal Richard Abrams

2006 Honorary Member

 In a career spanning five decades, Muhal Richard Abrams – as composer, performer, teacher, administrator, and creative catalyst – is widely recognized as one of the most influential figures in contemporary composition and improvised music.

Born Richard Abrahams in Chicago on 19 September 1930, he attended Chicago Musical College but was largely self-taught as a musician. In 1950 he took an important early step in his professional career by writing arrangements for the Chicago-based swing pianist and bandleader Walter “King” Fleming. In 1955 Abrams co-founded, and composed and arranged for, the post-bop quartet MJT +3.

Building on a foundation of swing, modern jazz, and an ongoing interest in a wide range of compositional and improvisational styles, in 1965 Abrams became co-founder and guiding force of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (or AACM). Since then Abrams has exerted a gentle but firm influence over the personal and professional development of several generations of composer-improvisers, including Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, and many others. Braxton has described Abrams’s piano music as being “like a history of black music.” In that spirit, the AACM’s motto, “Ancient to the Future,” encapsulates a vision of creative innovation rooted in deep knowledge of the musical past, and in the joint pursuit of self-discovery, self-determination, and group solidarity. Devoted to these ideals for 40 years, the AACM has made a profound impact far beyond its modest South-Side Chicago roots, and now sponsors at least 11 distinct musical groups and several dozen individual members.

While maintaining an international concert career, Abrams has produced more than two dozen recordings of his own work and has supported work by other creative musicians. His work has been commissioned by a remarkably wide range of organizations, from the Brooklyn Philharmonic, to the Center for Black Music Research, Bang on a Can, and Newband, the ensemble of instruments developed by Harry Partch. Other groups that have performed his music include the Kronos Quartet and the Chicago and Detroit Symphony Orchestras. Befitting his long commitment to guiding young musicians, Abrams has taught composition and improvisation privately and at several institutions, including the Banff Center in Canada, Columbia University, Syracuse University, and the California Institute of the Arts. In 1990 Mr. Abrams became the first recipient of the prestigious international award the JazzPar Prize, presented by the Danish Jazz Center in Copenhagen.

The Society for American Music is deeply honored to welcome Muhal Richard Abrams into its membership, and is especially pleased to do so in Chicago, the hub and home base of his extensive musical network. In Abrams’s visionary ideals and committed practice, the Society’s members may find a role model and kindred spirit. The plaque reads: “In recognition of your lifelong commitment to demonstrating the profound affinity between self-awareness, respect for tradition, and creative innovation.”

Citation by Jeffrey Magee

(Muhal Richard Abrams died in 2017.)