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.
What brought you to Chicago?
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
& 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
More info is available on the AACM at aacmchicago.org.