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Interview with Kunle Mwanga By Ted Panken

WKCR  (Radio/Telephone broadcast) Columbia University
January 12, 1994

 
  Ted Panken (TP): I’m now joined on the phone by Kunle Mwanga, who – Hello, Kunle!  Are you there?  How you doing?  Kunle was the producer of this concert (audience just listened to the Anthony Braxton Town Hall concert in May 1972) as well as the Creative Construction Company concerts of 1970. You were really a prime mover in the early New York appearances and presentations of the AACM. (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians)

Kunle Mwanga (KM):  Right.  It was in 1970 when I decided to use the income that I was making from the Liberty House store that I had down in the Village, to produce a concert series at the Washington Square Church.  And I’d thought about the AACM because when I was in Chicago in ’65 when I first started listening to them when I did eventually move to New York in ’68 they were on my mind the whole time.

TP:  Who were some of your first contacts with the AACM?

KM:  Pardon me?

TP:  Who were some of your first contacts with the AACM?

KM:  The first contacts with the AACM I had when I used to go to the Reynolds Club Lounge at the University of Chicago.  And I used to go and just informally listen to all of the sessions they had there on Friday evenings.  It wasn’t actually the AACM at that time but Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell and Thurman Barker and all the cat’s used to get there and play informally.  And then when they started having meetings and actually producing their own concerts I went to every concert that they did.

TP:  What was the nature of those concerts that made them distinctive?

KM:  Pardon me?

TP:  What was the nature of those concerts that made them distinctive?

KM:  To be real honest, the one person who grabbed me tremendously in that period was Charles Clark, the late bass player Charles Clark.  Somehow or another his spirit and his vibration as a player, him and Joseph and just the unique, the unique way that they were putting music together, I had never heard before like that. I was aware that people were experiencing something new in Chicago at that time, so that’s what really grabbed me: the uniqueness of how they would come together and do what they did.  But Charles Clark stuck out very strongly in my mind in that period. 

TP:  And you were in Chicago… What was the climate in New York in 1970 vis a vis the  type of music that the AACM was bringing to this concert that you produced?  And then tell us a little bit about the events that led up to that concert series at the Methodist Church.

KM:  Right.  It was… I just remember faces:  Frank Lowe… I remember people being in the city.  It was very exciting in New York in that period because it didn’t feel like there was as much conflict in the music than there is now.  It just seemed like things could happen if you wanted them to happen and put the time into making it happen.  It didn’t feel like there was an air of problems with playing bebop and other people playing this and that.  It was a real free spirited kind of thing, because politically things were happening at that time also.  My precedent for producing the concert had more to do with my experiences in Chicago than they did with my experiences in New York.  I mean, Slug’s was still open.  And I was going around to all the clubs hearing all the music.  But my impetus for doing that wasn’t as much influenced by what was going on in New York, as much as what I was remembering what was going on in Chicago and that the AACM was producing their own concerts in Chicago.  That’s the concept that was on my mind when I decided to do the concert series at the Peace Church.

TP:  So how many concerts eventually wound up in this series?

KM:  Let’s see.  I did that… I did two Creative Construction Company concerts, one at the Peace Church and the other one we went up to Boston and did a concert at the New England Conservatory which Henry Threadgill replaced Anthony Braxton on that one.  And then we did a concert called ‘Five “Terrible” Musicians’ with Dewey Redman and drummer…Moore…

TP:  Eddie Moore.

KM:  Eddie Moore.  Muhal Richard Abrams was in on that one also.  Bob Cunningham and another musician from Chicago (Edwin Dougherty)—I’m loosing his name… But yeah, we did four concerts at the church.  Leo Smith did a concert with Thurman Barker and Henry Threadgill.

TP:  What was the reception to these concerts?  I mean the sound was somewhat different from what you were hearing from the New York-based musicians who were doing things then, it seemed to me.  Or was it?

KM:  The sound?

TP:  The sound of the music.  The structure, the way the music was put together, the aesthetic.

KM:  Oh yeah, it was definitely different.  That first concert we did, that first one at the church with the Creative Construction Company was one of the most exciting concerts I’ve ever been at—having worked to put it together.  But when it really was going down in front of everybody was just beautiful because so many people and it was just exciting.  And the concert series that happened after that were equally exciting—but that first hit, really…And then Muhal just happened to be in town.  It wasn’t like we’d planned Muhal to be in the concert from the beginning.  It was just that when we organized it, we heard that Muhal had something to do on the East Coast and we said, since you’re going to be in Boston, why don’t you come on down and do this concert? Yeah, that’s how he came in.  Then of course we had Richard Davis.  Richard was probably the most excited person in the whole group because this was his first time playing this kind of music.

TP:  Oh, I was under the impression that he’d done some things in Chicago with the AACM people.  I guess I was wrong.

KM:  He did I think one or two concerts.  But this was like a—this was with the whole group as large as it was.  It was exciting.  He was the most excited person in the whole band, I think.  And afterwards we continued to talk about that for a long time, me and Richard, every time we saw each other.  He joined us in another concert series.  He was really involved.  It was very nice to have Richard come into that crowd of people who were doing that kind of music, because his playing always lended itself toward being able to create in that environment, you know.  His work with Andrew Hill and things like that.

TP:  Who was also from Chicago.  Andrew Hill.  I recollect reading about a concert in ’67 where I think Andrew Hill had sat in with a Roscoe Mitchell group and Wilbur Ware sort of had a part to play in that.  I recollect reading something in Down Beat back then.  But all right.  Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton sort of settled in New York after coming back from Europe, more or less.  Talk a little bit about how AACM people and that aesthetic filtered into New York in the early 1970’s.

KM:  Leroy. When Leroy Jenkins came to New York he got more involved with playing around a lot.  He played with Alice Coltrane and played with Albert Ayler.  He got more involved…People were calling Leroy for gigs.  It was almost like Leroy was the first person to come up here and really circulate within the New York musical environment.  Braxton, on the other hand, when he came to New York, he didn’t get too involved in playing around a lot.  As a matter of fact, he was playing chess a lot in the park.  And after we convinced him to play this concert at the church with the Creative Construction Company, he never played with them again.  That’s why we had to take Henry to Boston with us when we did the New England concert.  Braxton wasn’t really… he was thinking about other things.  And the thing is, after we did that concert we all went down to the Vanguard where Chick Corea and them were playing and Braxton sat in with them.  That’s when that connection was made with Anthony to deal with Circle.

TP:  I see.  So that was a momentous day in more ways than one.

KM: Exactly

TP:  Who were some of the next AACM people to follow?

KM:  After that first group of people? I think that was in ’70.  So then John Stubblefield came up.  Now keep in mind though that all those people that were… some of those people came from Chicago.  But when Henry and Leo and all those people started moving East, I guess you could say that they were the next group.  Muhal wasn’t living in New York at that time.

TP:  That was around 1975 then that we’re talking about.

KM:  Right.

TP:  Now, but you were involved in producing Braxton’s Town Hall Concert which we just, from which we just heard a lengthy composition with Jeanne Lee and Braxton and Stubblefield and Dave Holland and Barry Altschul.  Talk about the circumstances surrounding that concert.

KM:  Sure.  Anthony and I were living in Paris at the time when that concert was being put together.  And Anthony’s father died and left Anthony some money, and he decided to take the money and put it into a project.  So we came from, flew from Paris to Chicago, he took care of his business, we came to New York, and we met Ornette and talked to Ornette and told him what  we were going to do.  It was almost like we just wanted to let Ornette know what we were going to do because he had done a Town Hall concert in ’62 and we were going to do this Town Hall concert in ’72.  And Ornette very nice and warmly gave us some financial support for that concert.  So we just decided we wanted to do a Town Hall.  It didn’t have anything to do with whether the audience was there or not.  In terms of marketing, we just put up posters and did all that we could do.  We wanted to do a Town Hall concert.  We did one concert in May, the Town Hall in May, and then we did the solo concert in June.  And then we stayed around after the concert and I helped the organization with Rashied Ali and all these other people, Andrew Hill, so many musicians—we organized the first New York Musicians’ Festival in that period.  Remember that?

TP:  I was in Chicago at that time.  But Ornette Coleman seems to have had a large role in these early, in these early AACM events in New York City.  And indeed was a very supportive figure, it would see, to Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton.

KM:  Right.  When I met Ornette in London—I was walking down the street; I met Ornette in London.  We talked, we went by Ronnie Scott’s Club and we talked a lot about the AACM and I told him—he knew, I think that Braxton’s group and the Art Ensemble were in Paris and he was on his way to Paris.  And I gave him their numbers and when he went to Paris, they organized a concert of all three bands—Ornette’s band, Braxton’s band, the Creative Construction Company, and the Art Ensemble.  So that’s when he, when everybody, eventually came back to New York, that connection had already been made so that Braxton and Leroy were already in tune with Ornette.  Both of them stayed with him when they got to New York.  That’s the first place they stayed.  So when we decided to do the Creative Construction Company concert, Ornette was the one that was responsible for it being recorded.

TP:  A number of the musicians in the AACM were of course tremendously influenced by Ornette’s music, going back to “Kaleidoscope” and “Beauty is a Rare Thing” and those and they were really an impetus for some of the things that Roscoe Mitchell in particular, was doing in the 1960’s.  In 1975 when this next wave moved and people were also coming in from St. Louis from the West Coast, both from the Bay Area and Southern California and so forth and all of a sudden all these musicians with  a totally different aesthetic are descending on the New York scene and it really produced quite a creative ferment.  And of course you were right here.  Talk about your impressions of those couple of years.

KM:  Yeah. See, by that time, by ’75, I had brought the Art Ensemble and Braxton and all these people out to UC Berkeley when I was producing concerts there. But the next time that I was to be in New York, working, I was working with… I brought the Art Ensemble to New York, to the Five Spot for two weeks.  But I was still living in California at that time.  But the next time I was to be in New York, I was with David Murray.  I started working with David in ’76, ’77.  Then that was really…it was right around the loft scene time and it was another exciting period and working with David was such an exciting moment because he was so young and so high-spirited and with fresh ideas.  And he had of course listened to a lot of the music of Dewy Redman and Albert Ayler.  It was just like everything was going on.  Tin Palace was happening, all the clubs… It was just another fertile period.

TP:  It was.  Were you involved at all with the Manhattan Ocean Club concert that came out of India Navigation because that’s what we have cued up next.

KM:  No I wasn’t.  No.

TP:  Well, this on shows…because David Murray, he can talk about this when he appears in his segment of this festival, which will be this evening from 10:00 pm to midnight.  By the way, Andrew Cyrille will be here from 7:00 to 10:00 pm and following me, Ahmed Abdullah will be here from 3:00 to 7:00 or a little past that.  Indeed, many of the artists who we’ll be referring to will be up here to speak for themselves on this.  But he seemed to have picked right up on some of the AACM musicians, particularly Fred Hopkins, Steve McCall, Phillip Wilson.  And on this record Lester Bowie joins him as well.  We’ve been speaking with Kunle Mwanga, who continues to be an activist and a mover and shaker in the music and has been for over 20 years in the New York area and I would like to thank you for your comments.  Is there anything that I neglected that you would like to bring up?

KM:  No.  There’s a lot that we could talk about, but I just wanted to thank you for calling.  I’m glad to have been a part of it.

TP:  Thank you, Kunle.  Take care, we’ll see you.

 

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