Revibe: Archie Shepp 1996


“Jazz is a music itself born out of oppression, born out of the enslavement of my people”


In a climate that contained the revolutionary spirit of Malcolm X, the resounding eloquence of Martin Luther King and the call for black power by the Black Panthers, came a new mood of black protest, a new sense of black consciousness, which ultimately inspired a new direction in jazz music. A direction of jazz music that responded towards the cry for freedom and evoked a need for musical independence, which witnessed the birth of labels such as Strata-East, CJR, Concept, Festival, Labor, Survival, Watt and collectives such as Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Black Artist Group (BAG) and the Jazz Composers Orchestra Association (JCOA), the ultimate aim of all these activities was to stop the continued exploitation of black musicians and, more importantly, allowing them to create their own music. This whole period of political awakening through musical expression was venomously dismissed, mainly by white critics, who were quick to label it as avant-garde/free jazz (you should note that the music of John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy was once described as ‘anti-jazz’), thus having the effect that this, integral and important chapter in the history of black music, remains obscure and irrelevant, even to this present day. Only a few of it’s innovators, after a great deal of suffering, and notably after they have died, have received critical acclaim, many however remained overlooked, unrecognized, and un-acknowledged.

Arguably, one of those innovators is Mr. Archie Shepp, the saxophonist, composer, novelist, playwright, poet, actor and academic, who has attributed over half his life (he will be sixty next year), recording over fifty albums. From his association with Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, John Coltrane, and most notably ground breaking music during his Impulse! recording (‘Fire Music’; ‘On This Night’; ‘Attica Blues’; ‘Four for Trane’), his later collaboration with African musicians and the AACM, Archie Shepp clearly represents an important, influential and historical figure in black music.


Equally noted for his political beliefs, he has never been afraid to speak out against the injustice of black people (which surprised some at Jazz FM, when lie was interviewed later that day). His words, his music was at the forefront for change. He eschews the term jazz, preferring to call it ‘African-American Music’ which he describes as ‘black classical music’. “I suppose if we wasn’t black people, we would be looked at differently”, said the smartly dressed Mr. Shepp. I mean, to have grown up in an era with people like Coltrane, Jimmy Heath, Bud Powell, Roach, Holiday, Lester Young, Armstrong. The analogy I want to make is that it’s like having lived in the 17th century, around the time of Bach. Handle Beethoven. When the people and the music were at their most creative, when the music was new”. We talked about the Civil Rights Movement in the sixties, and the promises that it hoped to deliver, sadly very little has changed for black people. “We are people who are scattered, we are a long way from anywhere right now” he replied. “…at this present moment we are at an intellectual all time low. Not only intellectually, but creatively, in some ways. Some of the creative slack has been taken up by popular culture, especially rap and dance music. During the previous generation we where informed more on another level, usually by older musicians. For example, I looked up to people like Coltrane, I saw Charlie Parker perform. They were adored, but today, everyone is younger and there is no historical and cultural connection. We are at an all time low in terms of our conscious ability to challenge these invisible forces. When you really look at it, currently, we haven’t shaped the music, which seem to respond to our actual condition, largely because many of our people have begun to become ‘accommadationist’ to this system. We were up until Coltrane, possibly beyond the late sixties early seventies-that era, we foster a kind of music that continually challenged. Going back to slavery, the spirituals, the blues, and the evolution of the big hand music. You see in other words they call it jazz, because they don’t want to deal with time truth”. “Let’s look at this seriously” he says sternly, “…everybody plays it (jazz). Japanese, Polish, Irish and everyone say it came from America and now white people claim it as much as the blacks. It depends on which way you put it. They say ‘well it’s something that the blacks created hut now it belongs to the world’, that’s what I call cultural appreciation (lie winks). But look at it, who are it’s creators; Armstrong, Henry ‘Red’ Allen. Freddie Keppard, Charlie Jackson, Scott Joplim, Eldrigde. We are talking about innovators, Pops, Dizzy, Bird, Coleman Hawkins, Sidney Bechet, and Johnny Hodges. I’m talking about the archetype of the instrument, so that I don’t care who you are, if you’re Japanese, Irish or whatever. If you are going to play that instrument you have to know something about that guy. There is no white man in our business like that, there is no white man who’s music you have to know in order to play so called jazz music, yet they award terms like ‘King’, ‘Boss’ – it’s shear racism in my estimation”.

It is quite evident that the message in today’s ‘jazz’ is different from that delivered by Mr. Shepp and many of his contemporaries around the sixties. In his opinion, I asked, how did this change occur and do high profile artists such as Wynton Marsalis have a responsibility in making ‘jazz’ relevant to the struggle of black people? “Here again, if I was to put Mr. Marsalis in the context of jazz, that’s where he wants to be, He is a jazz musician and he is carrying out a certain role, he may be missing a certain point, largely because he is not dealing with this music in the point of view of it’s continuity, its history, it’s culture going back to Africa. He is concerned more with so called jazz music as being an American music, in some degree, he is falling into the pit-fall of many of these white racists who talk about a specific American character, but he doesn’t know that they are excluding him when they say American. They don’t mean what he means and neither of them is saying the correct thing, because what is America? It’s Brazil, Columbia, Mexico; America is not just the United States. So when he speaks of so called jazz, as a young man, in my home town of Philadelphia, I an American music, he is not really dealing with the fact that Afro-American music is much bigger than so called jazz, his concept of what America is, is to some degree, limited by his musical concepts. At the same time if Mr. Marsalis is talking about Jelly Roll Morton, he should be talking about influences from Angola, East Africa in our music, which came by way of New Orleans. It is clearly documented that there were almost every African nation represented in Louisiana at some point in the 19th century.

It is the professionalism and the whole process of ‘middle classing of the Negro which begins to interrupt that continuity between the people and the actual performance style that emerged for a large middle class audience. As used to go around to meet people like Bobby Timmons, Lee Morgan, I remember when he was a young kid playing to my parents in our living room. In a couple of years, he was with Dizzy playing at Birdland. But in my parent’s eyes, he was still that kid who played the trumpet so pretty that day. What I’m trying to say is that the meaning of Morgan was more than money, more than the success of a millionaire Marsalis. It meant more than that, because he belonged to something much bigger than NBC or CBS. So today, when you say what’s happened, what’s happened is we no longer have that connection between the people and the so called professional artist. Even as a youngster I was able to occasionally play professionally, there were so many places to play. This is what I mean by the community actually providing it’s own resources. Guys didn’t make a lot of money, a lot of these great guys, Oliver, Coltrane they all played right in that community. Whites then had not been introduced to this conventional medium that they could exploit, which today, to see anyone, you have to pay a lot of money”.


John Coltrane was a leading light to many musicians and was responsible for bringing to the world’s attention a whole generation of musicians labeled as the ‘New Thing’; Archie Shepp was one of them. Coltrane was a legend, even before he recorded”, replied Archie. .1 was first privileged to meet him in 1959 at New York’s Five Spot. John was a good man; he was a big brother to all of us. I mean all of us, including Wayne, George, everybody”. Archie recorded with John on a few of his albums and came to his aid to secure a record deal with Impulse’ I never asked John for anything personal before, but I was on welfare at the time and I asked him to help me get a recording date. ‘Trane, like Duke, -these people are like big oak trees and people are hanging on their leaves and branches, constantly tearing and pulling. So these guys had to have enormous patience. These things don’t come out, the people who leaned on Trane, who used to be there everyday, ‘Trane tell me how to do this, tell me how to do that, names that would amaze you. You don’t hear them talking about John today. Yeah, I was one of those guys, hanging on the leaves, the branches, but I tried not to bug him too much, I had a family. I see what I can do’ lie said; which was his way of saying lie was going to do his best. The next day I spoke to the producer for ABC, Bob Thiele, I had been trying to reach Thiele for months. Bob didn’t really like this music called free music at all, and Trane was a champion of this music, in fact I would say lie was the leader of this music, even though he played within a more fixed harmonic curve, he could play outside that. I mean to the extent that he would scare cats (he laughed), so he really was the guy. Most of the records Theile was producing around that time were inside stuff; even some of John’s recordings were inside stuff. Bob had this sort of way of turning off guys like me, he would say in a patronizing way ‘you avant garde guys like to play your own stuff’, which he didn’t like.

Bob suggested I play Coltrane’s tunes. To me that was one of the greatest challenges in the world. I love Coltrane’s music and to be able to rework his music, and given it carte blanche to take a masters music and rework it. I would never had done that out of respect, except that they where saying I’ve got to play his music. The outcome was ‘Four for Trane’ (which will be reissued in the summer, naturally he was pleased when I told him) and the success of that album lead to Archie signing with Impulse! for almost ten years. Archie later introduced saxophonist Marion Brown to Bob Thiele and he repaid the complement with Marion’s first release entitled ‘Three For Shepp’, “I liked that” said Archie. He continues. “. I wasn’t really bowled over by so called free music, I never had been, and I’m more a traditionalist anyway. I grew up with a very strong blues background, so I was a bit critical, I’ve been critical of certain types, perhaps even my own if I have to tell the truth, hut I always gave as much”. Some of his later albums such as ‘Attica Blues’, moved towards a r&b sound, but he doesn’t see it like that. “You see, I don’t call that moving to r&b, writers are concern with dissecting our music and putting it into commercial parcels; blues, funk, bebop, r&b. For me, r&b is an aspect of African American music. Our folk dance tradition which I introduced into our instrumental tradition, I have every right to do that, once I put their stupid titles aside. Imagine for example having Michael Jackson and John Coltrane on the same stage. Imagine what that would be like. There is no reason why not, except that white people have told us that this is ‘a’ and that’s ‘b’ and so on, and unfortunately that is the way that black people think”. I asked him about the track that he recorded with the John Coltrane Quartet along with bassist Art Davis for the ‘Love Supreme album, that never saw a release. “A Japanese cat’s got it. I figure, they hold these things; they wait for Negroes to die. That’s how they do things, but try, in my own way, not to be dependent on what they are waiting for”.

‘Identity” he concludes,” …once you define who you are, then you are ready to talk to anyone. As a people we lack identity. What is it to be a black man?” he says poetically. “You ask a Negro, he’ll have a million different answers. Some say ‘I don’t use the term Negro or 1 don’t eat white bread’. These are all symbols of nationalism. But what is it to be you, black man. You have a family, what are your needs? Then you can look at another black person, who knows who he or she is, then you can forge some kind of alliance based on conscious understanding of what we are trying to do. People say about so-called jazz, ‘why haven’t all these black college students formed a national critique on the history of so called jazz?’ Can we re-define it? Our intellectuals should be trying to do things that could make us think more about a meaningful identity”.

Later that evening I went to see Mr. Shepp perform at The Rythmic’, this wasn’t the Archie Shepp playing ‘dinner jazz’, as recent reports suggested, but reciting poetry and talking about a revolution. His music may seem out of context in today’s jazz, but considering the limited progress black people have made over the last thirty years, his message, like it was then, is still clearly relevant. A message and music that we should not ignore-it’s too silent in the nineties.

Donald Palmer (aka The Jazz Defekta) for ukvibe issue 17 1996

Archie_Shepp_ukvibe_1996Original artwork ‘Archie’ from ukvibe issue 17 by Lynette Morris