Obituaries

Muhal Richard Abrams, 87, idiosyncratic pianist and composer

Mr. Abrams, pictured here at a 2010 solo performance, was known for his diverse compositions and improvisations.
Joshua Bright/New York Times
Mr. Abrams, pictured here at a 2010 solo performance, was known for his diverse compositions and improvisations.

NEW YORK — Muhal Richard Abrams, the autodidactic pianist, composer, and educator who was known both for his diverse, unclassifiable compositions and improvisations and for his helping to found a long-running Chicago-based musicians’ collective, died Oct. 29 at his home in New York. He was 87.

As a pianist, Mr. Abrams could spontaneously weave references to historical jazz styles — including ragtime, stride piano, the compositions of Duke Ellington, swing and bebop — together with his own fleet modernism, far-reaching harmonies and dissonance.

As a composer, he represented a similarly wide range. Steeped in the blues, he also created works for chamber ensembles and orchestras, sometimes but not always including improvisation.

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Mr. Abrams, who was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2010 and was the first recipient of Denmark’s generous Jazzpar Award in 1990, was critically acclaimed for the breadth, depth and originality of his music.

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In his book “The Freedom Principle” (1984), critic John Litweiler wrote that Mr. Abrams’ phrasing was “turbulent, broken, constantly busy, yet his soloing sounds flowing, freely lyrical.”

“Abrams has never lost his early wonder at the vast possibilities of free music,” he added.

Abrams explored those possibilities with the Experimental Band, which he organized in 1962 to workshop new compositions and arrangements by a coterie of like-minded instrumentalists.

He helped found the Chicago collective, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, known as AACM, in 1965 — teaming up with pianist Jodie Christian, trumpeter Philip Cohran, and drummer Steve McCall.

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By not imposing or promoting a single aesthetic but instead encouraging unconventional originality, the association, which presented concerts and conferences, became an incubator for the group the Art Ensemble of Chicago as well as saxophonists Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill, along with many others who channeled the high-energy “free” jazz of the early 1960s into more organized works.

The first generation of AACM musicians concentrated on sounds themselves, often employing so-called little instruments like bells, toy noisemakers and whistles to complement their performances. They investigated structured alternatives to standard song forms as well as the long, declamatory improvisations favored by New York City’s jazz avant-garde, exploring dissonance, serialism and polyphony.

As Mr. Abrams did in his 1969 recording “Young at Heart/Wise in Time,” AACM members acknowledged jazz, blues, and other forms of African-American music as their heritage, but adopted Duke Ellington’s refusal to be defined by the past and Ornette Coleman’s break from chord progressions as an infallible guideline for improvisations.

Mr. Abrams was the first president of the AACM and until his death was regarded as its eminence. Through its chapters in Chicago and New York, the organization continues to present concerts, provide promotional support and offer free training in theory, composition and instrumental mastery to young musicians.

Mr. Abrams’ interests included not just music theory but also occult arts, esoteric religions and painting. Later in his career he taught composition and improvisation at Columbia University, Syracuse University, Stanford University and elsewhere.

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Black artist groups and jazz musicians’ collectives were a nationwide phenomenon in the 1960s, but none evinced the staying power of the AACM, which conducted programs like the AACM School, which opened in fall of 1967. Mr. Abrams attributed the organization’s strength to Chicago’s relative isolation from mainstream commercial pressures and temptations.

Still, their ambitions led several members of the AACM to depart for Europe in 1970. That same year, Mr. Abrams was among the collective’s musicians who performed their first New York concert as the Creative Construction Company. Judging New York City more open to new music than Chicago, Abrams moved there in 1976 and became involved in the burgeoning “loft jazz” movement.

A multi-instrumentalist, he played clarinet as well as piano on “Levels and Degrees of Light” (1967) and synthesizer on “The Hearinga Suite” (1999), for which he conducted a 17-piece big band. When he was inducted as an NEA Jazz Master in a ceremony in New York, he performed an unaccompanied piano improvisation that segued into a score featuring members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.