Archie Shepp 2013

By Michael J Edwards

“We were really enthusiastic about the future. That was the rebirth of negritude, Black Nationalism; a time for discovering identity. But I think having seen how Africa has evolved…as I look at all the problems between the people themselves…nothing has been resolved!”

Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

Born in the late 1930’s, saxophonist/vocalist Archie Shepp has experienced and moreover been an active participant in landmark occasions, musically as well as politically. Musically, his life has spanned the careers of African American luminaries such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Monk to name but four; as well as raising awareness of African musical traditions via albums such as ‘The Magic of Ju-Ju.’ Politically, he has been a staunch champion of Civil Rights, Black Nationalism and Afrocentric orientation. In town to perform with his Attica Blues Orchestra at the Barbican as part of the London Jazz Festival, Mr Shepp took time out to share his thoughts on some of the above as well his colourful and multifaceted life with UK Vibe’s Michael ‘The Dood’ Edwards.

The Dood: Greetings Mr Archie Shepp. It’s a pleasure to meet with you at last. I do not expect you to recall, but back in the early 90s you were interviewed by a colleague of mine, Donald Palmer for UK Vibe magazine, who I’m here for today. He started the interview with a quote by your good self, which reads as follows: “Jazz is music, itself born out of oppression, born out of that enslavement of my people.” Does this quote still ring true for you today, be it as a musician; singer; composer; poet; novelist; playwright; actor or academic?

Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

Archie Shepp: Well yes, except for the term jazz. I prefer African American music, black art music or black classical music. I would describe it more in a way as a tribute to the music to the people who created that music. And that not only means so-called ‘jazz’ music, because I think jazz is a very limiting term. Musical forms like Samba, Rumba, Reggae, they are all created by African-Americans. And In fact South America is also part of America, which is a fact I think is often ignored. Canada is part of America, which is frequently assigned the identity of a whole continent.

There are powerful cultures that were created by marooned societies, those that escaped slavery and fled into the swamps; sometimes into the Highlands of Guyana… The French Africans who had been exported from West Africa, who escaped slavery and fled into the headlands and were never pursued by the white men because it was too dangerous to going to those places. So ironically, they were able to maintain aspects of their culture, which one does not find even today in Africa!

Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

The Dood: Although born in Florida, you grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where you studied piano, clarinet and Alto saxophone, before settling on the plumper tones of the tenor saxophone. Why was this?

Archie Shepp: Well, I started with my father, who played banjo.

The Dood: And how old were you then?

Archie Shepp: Seven years old. And he taught me the first few chords of James P Johnston’s ‘The Charleston’. And from that time on I was hooked. When we moved to Philadelphia I started taking piano lessons, I was about ten. Then from the age of twelve to when I was about fifteen, I studied the clarinet. Then I went to the sax; I didn’t study so long on saxophone. Basically the clarinet provided my foundation for sax. But I did study with a guy called Tony Mitchell in Philadelphia.

Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

The Dood: Is the fingering on the clarinet similar or roughly the same to that of the saxophone? If one was to be proficient on the clarinet and had never picked up a saxophone could they make the transition easy enough?

Archie Shepp: It’s possible. Then it becomes a question of embouchure i.e the lips. The grip has to be tighter on the clarinet than the saxophone, where the jaw is looser. So that is a different technique. To tell you the truth, the clarinet is a rather difficult instrument to play. Partly because all the holes on the saxophone are covered by metal keys under which there’s a pad. On the clarinet there are holes which have to be filled and the fingers have to play the role of those metal keys.

So when you close a C or a D or an E, you’re actually closing our whole. And if that little round hole isn’t completely closed, you’ll get a squeak. So that’s why it’s a rather more challenging instrument than the saxophone. You have to make sure that each one of those holes are closed by each one of your fingers and is completely, tightly sealed, so that no air escapes. With the saxophone you don’t have to worry about that at all. It’s built into the instrument.

Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

The Dood: Very interesting. Thank you for the insight. What impact did John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Cecil Taylor have on shaping your early years as saxophonist and as a person?

Archie Shepp: Well, I didn’t meet Taylor until I was just out of University College. I was twenty-one about that time and Cecil was about thirty-one. He’s about ten years older than I am, Coltrane is eleven years older than I am, and Charlie Parker is seventeen years older than I am. So I first heard Bird (Charlie Parker) when I was seventeen. He died the year after that.

Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

The Dood: He stayed alive long enough to make an impression on you?

Archie Shepp: Awww, a profound impression! In fact he played in the big theatre in Philadelphia. But there were probably more musicians onstage than there were people in the audience! (Laughs). To me Charlie Parker was a hero and one of the greatest guys in the world. Everybody knew about Charlie Parker. Despite the fact that my father who played banjo, he was a bluesman and didn’t care much Charlie Parker. He would say to me, “So you think your man now?” You listen to Bud Powell and Charlie Parker and those guys. It was sort of a generational thing, as well as a question of revolution of culture.

Bird’s music was urban. Bird played an urban blues, very informed by academic and Western virtues. Although, he used them in an African American way, playing in triplets and beginning a beat and a half after the measure begins. Technique’s that weren’t used much before him. To people like my father who was used to hearing music beginning on the downbeat. Archie Shepp sings “When I first met you baby, baby you were just sweet sixteen!” BB Kings number – everything is sort of one, two, three, four. But Parker was quite different in many ways, technically and in his lifestyle. When I went into the theatre, it turns out he was over an hour late. It was like waiting for God! The thing is people weren’t so afraid that he was late, but that he wouldn’t come at all! (Laughs)

In fact the guy who gave the concert and wrote the music was Herb Gordy, a composer. I didn’t know how good a composer he was until I went to that concert. He had a reputation in my neighbourhood for being a little weird and he had already been in an institution with some problems he had. But this music he had written for a thirty-nine piece band, which I later tried to emulate with my second Attica Blues Band, it was thirty-nine pieces. But that was the first time I’ve seen that many musicians onstage!

Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

The Dood: A proper ensemble?

Archie Shepp: Yeah! So i remember waiting there for nearly an hour and a half. The audience is waiting and there’s no Charlie Parker. And there weren’t many people there, so we were all looking around (laughs). Everybody was saying is he going to show? Will he be here.

The Dood: You’re not going to do that tomorrow at the Barbican?

Archie Shepp: Well I hope not (Laughs) anyway, the guy who wrote the music had rented Charlie Parker a horn, because Bird didn’t have a horn. He frequently pawned his saxophone. So he was worried about that too. He had invested into Parker’s horn; he had written all this music for Charlie Parker. So I was sitting there in the audience, this 17-year-old kid. Then I decided to walk out into the street. I was rather depressed at that point, because I figured he’s not going to come to some little city like Philadelphia. Even though Philadelphia is the third largest city in the country! (Laughs).

I see this guy from the back with a white girl; a little blonde girl. So I told this story to Chan his companion for many years – Chan Parker, because I thought it might have been she. She said, “Well, I was never a blonde!” (Laughs all around) It turns out to be Parker, but here’s a guy wearing a suit, the sort of rust coloured suit. More orange than that; and the heels were worn down. I mean I came from the ghetto, but we had all the middle-class virtues. You look to see if a guy’s hair is cut, if his shoes are polished. It shows that he’s got good home training. I just wanted to say, that this was the first guy I had seen with an Afro! You couldn’t see his ears!

Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

The Dood: Charlie Parker!

Archie Shepp: Charlie Parker had this head full of hair and probably the most wrinkled suit I have ever seen. Even the cuffs were wrinkled. And he was huge! At the beginning he wasn’t, this was through his use of drugs etc. So he’s got this girl and I was thinking that in Philadelphia you’d never see, especially at that time, a black man with a white woman. So I figured this has got to be Charlie Parker, because I don’t know any black men in this city who would dare… And the way he was walking with her – he had no fear.

The Dood: Brash

Archie Shepp: Brash, Yes. Lacking in that fear that I was so used to seeing in black men, even the strongest ones. So I turned around, I never saw his face, I went back into the theatre, I was sure it was he. And then a few minutes later he came in, picked up his horn and played ‘Ornithology!’.

Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

The Dood: Woah! Now that’s a story! So you’re in town to play a concert tomorrow in honour of your classic album ‘Attica Blues’ re-recorded with some of the finest European musicians. Why is it that Europe over time has embraced your sound and your philosophy much more readily over the years than Native America?

Archie Shepp: Well, it’s probably because of the way you put it – Because my philosophy probably associated more at the time with student radicalism, especially in France in 1968. I first came here in 1967. I played here at the Hammersmith Auditorium and later at Salpleyl in Paris. We had significant numbers of young people who came out; it was a really interesting experience. At Salpleyl we played opposite Miles Davis. Because it was a big tour, it was the Newport Tour in Europe. There were many people, Roy Haynes, Monk, Clark Terry, Stan Getz… But the night we played, we had just left Hammersmith, we flew to Paris and we played at the Salpleyl. We were playing opposite Miles Davis. He had it in his contract that whenever he played, he performed first. He never performed after the other group. They like to do that in Europe, the better-known group plays last.

The Dood: Interesting.

Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

Archie Shepp: Because the critics leave at the beginning of the second set. I remember getting a standing ovation in New York, but we played after the group that went first. In fact at that point we weren’t getting any response from the audience, so we got a terrible review… Anyway Miles played and he ended with a request. He rarely played requests. He played ‘My Funny Valentine’ and there was a hush that fell over the audience. And then everyone stood up and gave him a standing ovation. We came on after he came off. It was like the difference between apples and oranges. My trombone player had his cap turned around backwards, I was wearing a dashiki. They (Miles’s band) had all come out in tuxedos. They were really clean.

So we played, but we only played one song. And about halfway through the concert all the people in the orchestra got up to leave! And there was a big line of people rushing to the door. I had the music arranged in such a way, some of it was improvised and we had done the improvised part. And some of it was written. This was the section that took us into the ‘Shadow of Your Smile’. The first of the orchestral personnel had begun fleeing, but when we started ‘The Shadow of Your Smile’ he stopped. I’ve never seen anything like that. There was a line of people and they all stopped! And he suddenly turned around – I guess he figured we weren’t capable of playing anything like that. It was beautifully arranged. But then they all turned around and came back and sat down! So at the end of my concert they (the audience) all said booooo! (Laughs)

Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

Those were the people in the orchestra! But the people in the balcony, where the cheaper seats were, were all students. And they were standing up cheering! So there was a stand-off between the orchestra and the balcony. They asked us to come back and do an encore because they were afraid of a confrontation between the orchestra and students. And of course the next year (1968) they had the French student uprising.

The Dood: The original recording of Attica Blues was born out of an extremely unsavoury incident on September 13, 1971, which left 39 prisoners and hostages dead. Did the re-recording of Attica Blues In 2012 stir up strong emotions for you?

Archie Shepp: Well, not like it did then. You would have to have lived through that time; it was the year of the assassination of John Kennedy. That was very impressive to me at the time. I was a man when it happened. But I can say exactly what I was doing at the time. I was in Copenhagen and I went to the bar for a Carlsberg beer that they called Elephants. I said give me an Elephants and the bartender said, “Well did you know that your president has been assassinated?” And I was as shocked as everyone. And I can say the same about Attica; I was impressed in a way that it would be hard to duplicate that experience. Because at the time I was teaching school and I had children. My first two kids had been born. I was in my late twenties.

I would come home after school and watch it on TV. It was like reality TV, but with terrible consequences. You knew that this couldn’t work out. The first few days the guys were very edgy. But when we got down to the 38th day, the day before they actually stormed the prison, I remember watching one of the prisoners doing an interview and you could see the fear in his eyes that they are still adamant.

The Dood: Resolute.

Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

Archie Shepp: Yes resolute. It reminded me when I once looked into my father’s eyes when we had no money. And there was a look that I might associate with fear. Something that I never thought I’d see. My father was a big man seen him looking like he didn’t know what was happening, it also made me afraid. So I think that’s the thing that you can’t recreate.

The Dood: So that recording was of the moment?

Archie Shepp: It was of the moment, yes.

The Dood: So what was the recording process like you this time around?

Archie Shepp: Well, this time we were just trying to get the music right (chuckles). It wasn’t a brand-new repertoire, but some of the songs are new. But they had to be done with an entirely different orchestra.

The Dood: What unique elements does vocalist and pianist Amina Claudine Myers bring to this recording?

Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

Archie Shepp: Oh, Soul; the Church; the Blues.

The Dood: Have you known her a long time?

Archie Shepp: Yes I have, but I haven’t worked with her that much. But she’s always been impressive to me. She brings so much honesty and innocence to a performance.

The Dood: You’ve always been very set and forthright in your views and opinions. Do you think your outlook on life has mellowed or been hardened over the years?

Archie Shepp: I just I think I’ve become more realistic. I mean I might have taken chances and risks as a young man that I wouldn’t see any point in taking today. It’s like the late Cedar Walton, pianist, he wrote a song dedicated to Africa and he said to me later on, “I’m thinking of changing the name to Mission Impossible!” (Laughs heartily) Well because so much has changed. We were really enthusiastic about the future.

Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

That was the rebirth of negritude, Black Nationalism; a time for discovering identity. But I think having seen how Africa has evolved – for example Kenya; as I look at all the problems between the people themselves, the Somalians, the Kenyans – nothing has been resolved! The Jomo Kenyatta family has become like any other rich oligarchic family here in England. So what is the point of our struggle? What have we learned as a people? Somehow I feel, especially looking at Africa and how we look to Africa as a beacon for a new identity, an awakening. When in fact Africans were the victims of colonialism and remain so. Our struggle is still relatively very weak and we have accomplished very little, outside of having a black president.

The Dood: So you think it is still a case of one step forward and two steps back?

Archie Shepp: Yes. It’s a lurch rather than a march.

Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

The Dood: In your first UK Vibe interview with my colleague Donald, you spoke about creators such as Louis Armstrong, Henry ‘Red’ Adam, Freddie Keppard, Scott Joplin as well as innovators such as Dizzy Gillespie, Bird, who you mentioned, Coleman Hawkins, Sydney Bechet and Johnny Hodges. Have you identified any creators or innovators in the modern era?

Archie Shepp: No. I mean, I think there are some original people. A trumpet player we used recently, who has African roots. He’s an American, but his father is Nigerian I believe, Ambrose Akinmusire. He’s a young boy with a very different sound and a different approach. I find him quite interesting, but there are not many that are really challenging all the frontiers that need to be challenged.

The Dood: Outside of the music arena, do you have the time and energy to apply yourself to some of your other interests and pastimes such as poetry, writing, acting, being a playwright or academic?

Archie Shepp: I still write. But I don’t have the time that I’d like to have, or the money. Because at that point I could maybe stop trying to perform professionally and just practice at home and write when I want. In order to become a full-time writer you have to have, apart from dedication, you need a certain amount of money, especially if you have family and so on.

The Dood: You established the Archie Ball Record label in 2004. What was the reason and how did you arrive at the name?

Archie Shepp: My wife and I came up with the name. I thought it was appropriate since my name is Archie. And it’s really not Archibald. So I thought the company Archie Ball may be different.

Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

The Dood: Okay, so a play on words. Have any of your children followed you into the music industry?

Archie Shepp: Well my oldest son is a drummer. I never thought he was a drummer. He has never succeeded as a drummer and I wish he would go into something else. I’ve always tried to make music accessible to my children, but I’ve never forced them to play. Somehow I think maybe his mother thought he would follow in my footsteps.

The Dood: How was the plight of the African American or black man changed since your struggle in the 60s, if at all?

Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

Archie Shepp: Well, it’s more difficult because we have less money. And in a sense our aspirations have been attenuated, particularly as far as education. During the 60s at the time of the black revolution, was the time for opportunities, academic ones especially; jobs for black people were beginning to open up. Today it’s just the contrary… Even Obama, he just finished paying for his education. It’s a travesty! The rich are richer and the poor are traditionally poorer.

The Dood: What advice would you give to future generation of black classical or African American music artists or music artists in general?

Archie Shepp: Apart from getting as much training as you can. And that’s not always important. I can look at people like Stevie Wonder and Little Richard. Music has to come from the heart and secondly from notes. So music is more than notes, it’s being able to express oneself musically through music. Not through music that’s written down. As Errol Garner once put it “I never saw anybody who came to look at a musician read music.” (Chorkles)

Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

The Dood: Excellent! Thank you for your time. It was a pleasure to meet you.

Archie Shepp: My pleasure.

Michael J Edwards

Essential Albums:
Archie Shepp – I Hear The Sound – Attica Blues Orchestra (Live) Archie Ball Records 2012
Archie Shepp – Attica Blues (1972)

Essential Website:

NB* A ‘Big Mike’ and UK Vibe thank you to Gerry Lyseight for arranging the interview and subsequent invitation to Mr Shepp’s inspirational Barbican concert.