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Nessa on the AACM

CHUCK NESSA was born and raised on a farm near Story City, Iowa. For years the only music he had heard came to him via WHO radio out of Des Moines. He heard Sinatra, Patty Page, the occasional big band, but it wasn't until his father came home one day and tossed a Duke Ellington record in front of him saying "I want to hear this once a week" that his real musical education began. After his fathers initial revelation it came out that Nessa Sr. was a fan of Jimmy Lunceford and Artie Shaw. Chuck started going to Ames and Des Moines to hunt for records, buying cutouts from Rexall drugs and Younkers. Back at home he dabbled in piano and trumpet for a number of years before attending the University of Iowa in Iowa City to study English with a healthy dose of student activism.

It was in college that Chuck was first exposed to Down Beat Magazine and the blues. Local folklorist Harry Oster would bring in blues acts like Big Joe Willams to perfom and the University music department had a record collection with two hundred or so jazz records. When in Chicago Nessa would often go out to see blues acts with Bob Koester on Chicago's south and west sides.

It was Chuck who, after moving to Chicago in 1966 to manage the Jazz Record Mart, was responsible for bringing the AACM into recorded history. As a member of a group of jazz fans and JRM regulars including Terry Martin, John Litweiler and Jerry Figi, Chuck Nessa convinced Jazz Record Mart and Delmark Records owner Koester to record members of the AACM, then still a fledgling free jazz organization.

To celebrate the CD release of four highly anticipated Delmark AACM albums (Anthony Braxton - For Alto, Muhal Richard Abrams - Things To Come From Those Now Gone, Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre - Humility in the Light of Creator, and Malachi Thompson - Timeline) We give you an interview with the man who made it possible: producer and label owner Chuck Nessa. Interviewed by current Jazz Record Mart manager Ron Bierma.

What brought you to Chicago?

An offer of a job from Bob Koester.

How did you & Bob meet?

My wife and I came into Chicago, the first time on our honeymoon, just to bum around and see what was going on in Chicago. I went to Rose Records looking for some Bud Powell and Fats Navarro and other things I couldn't get and they didn't have them and I asked if they knew where I could get them and the clerk looked around and whispered, "Go to the Jazz Record Mart." This was in 1963. Over the next couple of years I came back because of the short hop from Iowa City to see people play at the Plugged Nickel and various other places and whenever I did I would stop in and talk to Bob.

The manager of the store at that time was an English guy named Peter Brown who was moving back home. He had been the manager of the store for awhile and Bob said "Pete's going to be leaving so why don't you move to Chicago and manage the store?" I was really interested in the record business and since he had a record company I said I would come and manage the store if he would let me learn how to make records. He agreed.

So I left school and came down a month or two later and left Ann (my wife) in Iowa City and stayed with Bob. Amazingly he followed through on his word and let me do some record dates. Delmark had been releasing stuff at a snails pace, I mean, you have no idea how broke Bob and the store were at the time. The one thing he had that was selling was Junior Wells' Hoodoo Man which was a recent record then. But he would be out of it for 90 days because he couldn't afford to repress it, then he would get a 1000 pressed and they would instantly sell. They were just really tough times. That's why I was amazed that Bob let me do these jazz things.

Did you sit in on any Delmark recording dates beforehand?

No. I had actually only been in the recording studio once before I did the dates for Bob. That was when Sam Charters was doing a Jim Kweskin date for RCA one time and I was there. Jim was doing a date with a Dixieland band and it was all these Chicago guys. So that was my only other time in the studio before I walked in to say "I'm here to do it" on the Roscoe session.

Were you aware of the scene as it were on the south side, specifically the AACM people?

All I knew about anything when I moved here, I moved here in April of `66, and all I knew was what I read in Down Beat magazine. They always had good Chicago coverage because they were based here. At that time I had probably memorized all of the Down Beats as they were coming out.

Pete Welding did a couple of concert reviews of the AACM explaining what the organization was and what kind of music they were playing. Pete's writing sort of attracted me to them. I thought that I should check that out. Jerry Figi at that time, who was a JRM regular, was interested in that stuff. So I said to him that I wanted to hear them. He said they were out of town but would be back and when the fall concert series started up he would take me.

The first concert was the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet, which was the exact line up that is on Sound. Bob had told me I could sign exclusive contracts with anybody I recorded and I could do albums with three artists I could pick. So after the concert I ran backstage and spoke to Roscoe and said I wanted to talk about doing a record. As I remember he and Muhal came down the next day (it was a Sunday concert) to the store and we came to an agreement to do a record. I spent a lot of time with Roscoe, basically learning the music, because it was all new to me. I asked him who I should pay attention to because he was all I had heard of the AACM. He said Muhal of course, and Joseph Jarman, who was out of town. Jarman split his time equally between Detroit and Chicago then. Roscoe said Joseph would be back in a couple of months and I could hear him then. There was an arts group in Detroit that put stuff on called the Detroit Artists Workshop led by Jon Sinclair. Joseph had made that connection so he probably involved Roscoe and Lester. The same sort of thing was going on in St. Louis with Oliver Lake and Julius Hemphill down there.

So the three artists we signed were Roscoe, Muhal, and Jarman. The Jarman date ended up being the second AACM [Song For] and Muhal's was the third [Levels And Degrees of Light]. Now, I set up the Muhal date and got everything arranged but ended up leaving the employ of Jazz Record Mart and Delmark so Bob ended up doing that date. I went as Muhal's guest because he wanted me to be there. Those were the three dates that I directly produced. Bob kept on recording the AACM and it all grew out of those first three records. He signed Kalaparusha, who was on Sound, and Braxton who was on the Muhal date. It just sort of progressed from there. This date introduces you to this person and on and on. If fact, Kalaprusha ended up being a shipping clerk in the store.

Up to that point had Joseph or Roscoe recorded at all? I know that Muhal was a member of...

He was on an MJT +3 date on Argo and he had done an unissued date as a side man with Bunky Green. Nick Gravenites did a 45 on Out of Sight records and Roscoe takes a solo on one side. Its Roscoe and Julian Priester and Steve McCall and I don't remember who else and on the other side Erwin Helfer plays harpsichord. So basically that was it for Roscoe except that, through Lester Bowie, he had been a sideman on some R&B dates at Chess. Lester was doing a lot of that because of his connection with Fontella and they continued to do that throughout the latter sixties.

So those horns sections on the Chess R&B records probably contain Roscoe. Before Roscoe and the AACM Delmark hadn't recorded a lot of jazz...

While I was with Delmark Bob made the licensing deals for the New York Contemporary Five and the Shepp masters from Storyville Records and I also encouraged him to purchase the Sun Ra masters from Transition. By then he had already bought the Donald Byrd. I found this file on his desk that listed the available masters from the Transition catalog for sale by the owners and it listed the two Sun Ra's so I encouraged him to buy them.
Bob & Chuck, 1967
Bob pretty much gave you carte blanche, did he actually go down and see some of this music performed with you at some point before the recordings?

No, I don't recall him ever going to a concert that I went to and he never came to the recording dates I did. He was amazing, I mean the guy had no money and he just said okay go do it and stayed the hell out of the way. I would never do that in a million years, I'm too much of a control freak.

Were they done in a studio that he had used before?

Yes, they were recorded at Sound Studios in the Union Carbide building.

And even though you had never done this before you just booked the time? Did you ask his advice as to how all this should be done?

I really don't remember the details of that. I used Sound studios because that is who he had most recently used and he'd work with engineer Stu Black on a lot of stuff. Stu did Hoodoo Man and he had, I think, worked at a Hall recording studio where Bob had recorded and that's how Bob knew him. So Bob said call Sound Studios and book it and I did.

How long did you spend in the studio?

Well we did it in two days and they were done by union contract, three or four hour sessions, whatever the union contracts called for in those days. So we did two different days of recorded material. For the LP the preferred version of Sound was actually too long for an LP side at the time. It was going to present all kinds of mastering problems so we did another take and tightened it up three or four minutes but I still liked the solos on the first take better than the other so we ended up with a composite version of the two, with parts of both takes on the LP. But on the CD it's the two separate takes. Something I don't think is noted anywhere, on one take you can hear finger cymbals in the background all the way through the take, through the theme statements and on each end of the piece. I think that was the second take, which means the finger cymbals were there at the end of the issued LP take but not at the begining. That was Thurman Barker on finger cymbals, Thurman was there observing the date and Roscoe handed him the cymbals and put him to work.

You write in the Art Ensemble Box set liner notes: "Roscoe convinced me to start a record company and in the following eight months we were in the studio fours times and recorded two LPs." How did that come about?

I was working at Discount Records at Lake and LaSalle and was still in touch with Roscoe. At the time he had this killer group with Malachi and Phillip Wilson and Lester. Well Roscoe started pestering me to do a record but at that time he, Jarman, and Muhal were under contract with Bob who was not happy with my departure from JRM/Delmark. Philip had left Roscoe's band because he was in financial distress and had to go on the road. So I ended up doing a Lester Bowie record, which features Roscoe, because Bowie wasn't signed to Delmark. So Roscoe and Joseph appear courtesy of Delmark on the first Nessa Records LP.

In the beginning AACM was a loose organization led by Muhal. They did concerts in various different places (lofts, living rooms, etc.). Could you describe some of the concert locations you attended?

They originally set up a planned concert series with a fall and spring series. Most of them at the time were being held at the Abraham Lincoln Center on Oakwood Blvd., which is an early Frank Lloyd Wright building. Its a community center building with a nice auditorium. It's an ugly Wright building, its very early, sort of a block. Although you can, if you know enough about Wright, recognize some things. Then there were odd other ways to catch them. Both Roscoe and Joseph did things in the Reynolds club at the University of Chicago which was the the student lounge. They would set up and play on a given night. Some wonderful music was heard that way. Occasionally somebody would get a club date on the south side somewhere. I am sure there were a lot more of those than I was aware of. Other than that there were just odd things in Old Town, which was the entertainment mecca of the time, it had basically shifted from Rush street over to Old Town. Ajaramu and Claudine Myers had a regular thing going one night a week at the Hungry Eye. They would have an expanding band, the basic band being organ drums and I think Gene Dinwiddie on tenor. Frequently they would allow sitters-in so you could walk in and find Roscoe and Lester playing there or just any number of people. That was really the only chance on the north side to hear any of the guys. Before I moved to town I think Muhal had a regular gig at a club on the south side whose name I forget.

You were brought in to help the remastering of the four AACM CD releases on Delmark. (Anthony Braxton - For Alto, Muhal Richard Abrams - Things To Come From Those Now Gone, Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre - Humility In the Light of Creator, and Malachi Thompson - Timeline) Is there anything you can tell us abut the mastering of these releases?

The Braxton's were tapes that Anthony had recorded in his apartment at the time and they had lots of distortion and noise so there were a number of things we could clean up and a number of things we couldn't. One interesting thing is that side A had always had five tracks but only four title listings. The first and last tracks on the record were about thirty seconds long but they were separately banded and leadered on the tapes so that is how they originally appeared on the record. I looked it up in the books and they were really unclear as to what was what. The last title listed was a dedication to Cecil Taylor which I found identified as this thirty second held tone at the end of the record. That didn't strike me as quite right as what Braxton would write for Cecil Taylor so I called Tony up and asked him. I said that I had figured that the last bit belonged to the previous track and that the space in between made sense but that rather than just have dead air shouldn't there be some ambient room noise to connect the two so that it stayed connected? He said that that was exactly right and he was happy to straighten it out he said "As a young man on my very second opportunity to record I screwed up, Nessa...and now after all these years you come along and straighten it out." He was really delighted to hear that For Alto was coming out. He said he figured he would never see it as a CD, that it would be issued as a memorial album.

It has certainly been one of the most requested items since the LP went out of print a few years ago. There were no outakes from the Braxton session?

No, there was nothing else there.

Any other items you can talk about

The Muhal is a record where each piece has a very distinct character and mood. There are a number of alternate takes available but I felt that including any of them would tip the balance of the program. If I picked one of those more ethereal pieces there would be too much of that on the CD. If I picked a hard-blowing piece it just threw 3off the balance so I decided that although there was a lot of extra material it just wasn't the time to deal with it because it would detract from the existing program.

Kalaparusha is a player who...I love his sound and the way he articulates his notes. I really love his playing, I think he's vastly underrated. So I could get carried away and issue everything to get every note of his but I sort of restrained myself on this to do another... the first side was sort of an elegy piece, so I thought that it would be good to use a different version of that to end the CD with so I choose a nice alternate take of that and I don't think it disrupts the program. I actually think it finishes it off nicely.

After leaving Delmark, Chuck Nessa went on to found one of the greatest labels in avant-free jazz history. Much of Nessa Records catalog is still available - as is the Art Ensemble of Chicago 5 disck box set!
For a listing,
click here.

More info is available on the AACM at aacmchicago.org.