After 5 Decades of Fame, Influential Musician Dies at Age 87

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November 01, 2017Nov 01, 2017

Muhal Richard Abrams, a pianist and composer who NPR has called a "sweepingly influential musician," died at his New York City home at age 87. He was known for his musical abilities and for his role as founding father of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). 

Abram's death was confirmed by his living daughter, Richarda Abrams, who did not give a cause of death. In addition to his daughter, Abrams is survived by his wife, Peggy Abrams. He is also survived by four brothers, two sisters, a son, three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. 

NPR writes that Abrams was a brilliant, self-taught pianist who played the blues. He came up in a hard-swinging jazz context, and some of his earlier works reflected this style, but he was serious about a non-idiomatic approach to improvision. Today, he is considered a paragon by many acclaimed pianists. He released roughly two dozen albums over the past 50 years, several of which feature Abrams in a solo piano setting. 

Despite his clear talent as a musician, Abrams will be best remembered for co-founding and stewarding the AACM. Established on the South Side of Chicago, it began as part of an extension of Abrams' Experimental Band, which he first convened in the 1960s. He also started and played in other musical groups as well. In the video below, you can listen to a song by the Muhal Richard Abrams Orchestra. 

"I needed a place to experiment with the things I wanted to do with music," Abrams said in 2008, according to NPR. "So I organized the Experimental Band, the forerunner of the AACM. And I fortunately attracted musicians who were interested in that. It included quite a few of the musicians that you know today that are very accomplished in what they do. The reason they could accomplish what they did is that they found a workshop where they could experiment and learn and test themselves as to what could be done with things they find out, in terms of research and study."

Richard Lewis Abrams was born in Chicago on September 19, 1930. He was the second of nine children. He attended DuSable High School, but left before graduating, feeling that he would rather pursue his personal interests in music. As a result, Abrams quickly became acquainted with other giant figures in music, including pianist Walter "King" Fleming. He then made his first appearance on record in 1957 with the MJT+3, led by drummer Walter Perkins. 

Abrams soon moved to New York in 1976. During this time, Abrams created a New York Chapter of the AACM and served as its president. His career, influence, and fame continued to grow. 

In 2010, Abrams was named an NEA Jazz Master and performed a solo piano improvision at the induction ceremony. 

"Abrams was integral to those achievements and influenced generations as composer, teacher, organizer, and scholar," writes the Chicago Tribune. He never stopped championing bold new ideas in music.  

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