I was recently pointed to this archival video posted on YouTube by vibraphonist, pianist and composer Bobby Naughton of an open rehearsal for the Orchestra of the Creative Musicians Improvisers Forum from December 1982. The CMIF was a community arts organization based in New Haven, Connecticut in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and grew out of an environment fostered by multi-instrumentalist and improvising composer Wadada Leo Smith and, to an extent, saxophonist Marion Brown. Smith had been a part of Chicago's AACM and his relocation to Connecticut provided a new opportunity to grow the music locally, beyond the nearby New York scene. The CMIF presented concerts, taught classes, and published its own recordings. Contra the AACM, the CMIF was more racially inclusive, which reflected both the later time-context as well as (presumably) Smith's own particular vision about the music's cultural locus. That being said, Afro-Asian roots were still a fundamental part of the CMIF's teachings. The CMIF also counted women among its member-musicians/associates, a harbinger of the gender diversity which the music has seen significant strides in since the 1980s.
I have a special affection for the CMIF, having spent summers with family in Connecticut growing up, and more than that, my uncle (Phil Buettner - no longer involved with the music) was a member of the organization, playing reeds in the orchestra and also appearing on recordings led by CMIF stalwart bassist Mario Pavone (Shodo, Alacra, 1981) and reedman Tom Chapin (The Bell of the Heart, Alacra, 1981). None of this was something that I was aware of until much later, when I’d independently started investigating the music, but it was a happy discovery for me that I could hear stories about the CMIF and its gestation. For what it’s worth, my uncle is the gentleman in yellow playing the baritone. He led a quintet with Pavone, bassist Joe Fonda, trumpeter George Alford and drummer Ralph Williams that never properly recorded, but the tapes show a strong Arista-period Braxton influence and the music is excellent (of course, I’m biased). Beyond Smith’s Kabell recordings, which were reissued on CD by Tzadik, no CMIF-related albums are in print on CD. That’s too bad, because the music that Naughton, Pavone, Fonda, Gerry Hemingway and others recorded during this period ranges from strong to absolutely superb. The CMIF Orchestra’s lone LP, The Sky Cries the Blues, is also a very scarce but rewarding listen.
I’ve heard burbling about CMIF materials being among Smith’s archive and that they might make their way into the Yale University Archives, which would be great. The work that Connecticut’s current resident improvisers – people like Carl Testa, Ann Rhodes, Stephen Haynes and Joe Morris – are doing is certainly an outgrowth of the possibilities presented by the AACM/CMIF some thirty-odd years ago. The book hasn’t yet been written on this fascinating subject, but hopefully someone intimately involved with the New Haven scene will put something together before too long.