Improvisation & Black Cultural Praxis in the Upper-Midwest

Between May 16 and 19, the International Society for Improvised Music (ISIM) hosted it’s annual conference at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. Upon hearing about the planned conference, I assembled a group to meet at my preferred neighborhood Ethiopian restaurant, Demera. I called it “Abyssinian Text-Tone Solar Band,” or something like that, and we discussed what we might do together.

One question that I tend to ask upon new encounters with white, most often male improvisers is ‘how did you get here? Classical (“new music”), jazz, noise, the guitar?’ The question is often taken as a challenge to authenticity but certainly is not meant to be. I only hope to forge an understanding that our position in this world (which too few have managed to consider) matters. Such that a certain position asks:  what to do when confronted with the chaos of dislocation, enslavement and efforts to forcefully assimilate to a standard that you might build a career on? What to do about the fact that the answer to that question is little different than the one that you might have provided in, say, 1619.


The group that convened for Ethiopian food seemed to know that improvisation is not simply a musicological problem. That the aims of classical European civilization and its neo-classical residuals required the abandonment of spontaneity and egalitarianism only to return now as a kind of fanciful guilt for which they are eager to be absolved of. Perhaps it is something like celebrating the return of the Buffalo population. Or perhaps its like the problem of gentrification: once devalued and left to rot, cities (and neighborhoods like the one we broke injera in) are now desirable to those who once abandoned them. Leaving improvisation to the Other would mean that the Capital that you all let loose would be appropriated for popular purposes–and the popular almost always exceeds the categories and functional taxonomies of Culture proper. The excess is often achieved through the playful mixing–and thus defilement–of sense and sensibility. In his collective history of the AACM, George Lewis conjures the scene occupied by AACM in France wherein a French drummer, likening the Art Ensemble to clowns would proclaim: “If they didn’t burn incense and paint their faces, their music would be dreary.”¹

Perhaps I am right. I should not have to smell nor see them–I come for the music. My anxiety might have something to do with competing for gigs with (black) American musicians, or perhaps from my firm ideological commitments to the search for musical answers to what are perceived to be musical problems…opposed to the playfully symbolic visual spectacle that face paint and other methods of signifying with the body bring to the social experience…I resist the body with its self-conscious Africanist’s agenda and project my fetishes onto objects qualifiable as  art.

Approaching ISIM, we approach an older white man’s burden where black artists such as Coltrane and Ayler (the earnest efforts of players like John Steven of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, notwithstanding²) seem to play the ‘Magical Negro’ to white modernity. This burden also saddles many subjects who–following the fall of the Soviets–have folded into the “West” (think the Ljubliana Jazz Festival). The critical dissatisfaction of militant dialectical materialists and metaphysical, patriarchal empires-cum-nations supply noise to efforts to link improvisation to black social practices.  For, the “beyond identity” positions that have persisted for nearly 50 years charge blacks with bad faith while they assume themselves to have captured true class consciousness. But what of caste consciousness in the US?

Here’s what we proposed:

This interdisciplinary panel and performance gathers some of the finest improvisers who happen to call the Twin Cities home to discuss the state of the sound/music field in the context of black cultural practices more broadly, especially dance, and performance poetry.


Two major focuses of the discussion are 1) how our ancestors across the African Diaspora helped widen the global perspective on what improvisation is and can be and 2) how we endure despite antagonisms from chauvinists who trivialize ethnically- and historically-motivated cultural practices and privilege improvisation thought to be somehow more “free” and universal.


The panel convenes Davu Seru (faculty, Hamline University) and acclaimed performance poet Douglas Kearney (faculty, University of Minnesota) with Janis Lane-Ewart and vocalist Mankwe Ndosi of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).


The performance includes the panelists with multi-instrumentalist Douglas R. Ewart,  poet/mc Tish Jones, vocalist/electronics artist Andrea Reynolds, multi-instrumentalist Dameun Strange, vocalist Sarah Greer, poet/mc Joe Horton, bassist Anthony Cox, dancer/percussionist Kenna Cottman, percussionist Stephanie Watts, painter/percussionist Ta-coumba Aiken and some of our friends from afar who are expected to attend the conference.


n.b. in the event of space shortages, the ensemble has access to presenting at the black box theater at Barker Center for Dance, just across from the Augsburg campus at University of Minnesota.

Between our meetings, we communicated via email key, praxical stuff to think about; they ain’t binaries; they at least twins of the same bao (aka, mancala) board:

  • Movement and Placement
  • Time and Displacement
  • Route work and Root work
  • 1619 and 2019
  • Chicago and Minneapolis
  • Minneapolis and Saint Paul
  • God and Devil
  • Sorry, I didn’t see you/Sorry, I don’t care to be seen
  • Theory and Practice
  • Ebony and Jet
  • Phillips and Rondo
  • Essence and BET
  • Northside and Southside
  • Negro Digest and Black World
  • Improvisation and Composition
  • Assembled and Dispersed
  • Genre and Discipline
  • Rust Belt and Great Lakes
  • Voice, Body, Tool, Soul
  • Lack and Abundance
  • Is and Ain’t

Which is to say that the person responsible for convening the group at the event (i.e., the one on file) provided some critical framing (and, so, perhaps even aesthetic,  historical, geographical framing) for a discourse on/as ISIM. At the rehearsal there was talk about ‘us’ and ‘them,’ ‘local’ and ‘world.’ We decided to repeat the circle that we had naturally formed as if to force a confrontation with ourselves and to encourage/dare any ambivalent audience member to do the same.

You can listen to a sample here:



  1. See George Lewis’s A Power Stronger Than Itself (2007), pg. 251.
  2. A special thanks to Milo Fine for turning me on to the video link featuring John Stevens and Spontaneous Music Ensemble.

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