Archie Shepp: Admired by Trane, Feared by Miles

Reconsidering a reclusive giant at 75

May 24 was Archie Shepp’s 75th birthday. I heard little fanfare about this milestone around the jazz watercooler, certainly nothing to compare with the silver anniversary celebrations of Miles Davis and John Coltrane a decade ago. But since his retirement from the University of Massachusetts, where he was a professor in the W.E. B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies for 35 years, Shepp spends most of his time residing in Paris, far from the jazz publicity mills. You may be tempted to echo the late Senator Bentsen, to wit, “Archie Shepp’s no Miles Davis or John Coltrane,” and in terms of name recognition, you’d be right. But during the ’60s, when Coltrane was creating a radical new music and Davis was grappling with the dichotomy between his own legacy and the challenge of the New Thing, Shepp had substantial interactions with both, though one is much better known of than the other.

Ben Ratliff includes Shepp’s 1965 recording Fire Music in The NewYork Times Essential Library of Jazz, a survey of 100 recordings, and writes, “Archie Shepp was John Coltrane’s gift to America’s broader consciousness.” Coltrane may have been apolitical, but if not, he was reticent to say anything about politics or race no matter how hard-pressed he was by reporters. Still, Martin Williams suggested that Ascension, Coltrane’s notoriously riotous work, was such a bellwether of what was going on in mid-’60s black America that it should be listened to by policemen, social workers and politicians. Shepp was one of the participants on Ascension, and given reports of the shattering intensity of what took place when Trane and Archie sat in together at various times before June 28, 1965, one can only conclude that the young firebrand was an influence on the increasingly radical direction that Ascension epitomized in Coltrane’s music.

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Archie Shepp
By Jimmy Katz
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John Coltrane with Archie Shepp, Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ 1965
By Chuck Stewart

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But where Coltrane was verbally taciturn, Shepp used every available forum to decry racism not only in the nation, but in the music business too. He was the most outspoken voice of Black Power in jazz, telling Leroi Jones in 1965, “The Negro musician’s purpose ought to be to liberate America aesthetically and socially from its inhumanity.” And in both words and music, he articulated a bold assertion of the primacy of black culture in the jazz tradition, into which he inserted gospel songs and spirituals, classic blues, theater music, Sousa marches, Ellingtonia, bossa nova, drum chants, poems, polemics and a tenor saxophone sound that ranged between the barnyard and the boudoir.

Shepp’s career got a major boost when Coltrane interceded on his behalf with Impulse! Records and encouraged Bob Thiele to produce a record on him in 1964. Thiele agreed on the condition that Shepp devote his first album to tunes composed by Coltrane, and thus his debut became Four for Trane. Shepp went on to create one of the most substantial bodies of original and varied work for Impulse! over the next decade; before signing him, Coltrane was the sole avant-gardist in the Impulse! catalog (three titles by Cecil Taylor were buried under Gil Evans’ name on Into the Hot), but the ABC Records subsidiary eventually established itself as the major label home of the avant-garde, producing sessions on Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler, Roswell Rudd, Marion Brown, Charlie Haden, Alice Coltrane and Sam Rivers.

In addition to the role he played in securing Shepp’s Impulse! contract, Coltrane intended to feature him on his most deeply personal recording, A Love Supreme. Shepp appeared on the first take of “Acknowledgment,” the opening movement of A Love Supreme, but it was the second that was released. ”I didn’t use [Shepp’s] part,” Coltrane said in 1965. ”I had two [takes], I had one that I was singing on [the chant, “A Love Supreme”]…then I had another that Archie and [bassist Art Davis were] on.” That take, long believed to be lost, was eventually unearthed and included in the deluxe edition reissue of A Love Supreme in 2002.

Where Coltrane obviously respected Shepp and expressed “admiration” for him, Miles apparently feared him. When the two were on the same bill during a long 1967 European tour that George Wein produced, Davis, though the headliner, insisted on playing the opening set. According to his biographer Ian Carr, the trumpeter said “he didn’t want to play to an audience of sick people—the implication being that they would be sick after listening to Shepp.” More likely, Miles wasn’t up for coming on after a charismatic figure like Shepp, who played with a marked degree of theatricality and had a devoted following of his own. (Archie studied playwriting and acting at Goddard College, appeared in the Living Theater’s production of The Connection, and wrote three plays that were produced Off-Broadway: Junebug Graduates Tonight, The Communist and Lady Day: A Musical Tragedy.)

But there was already bad blood between Davis and Shepp, and it reputedly stemmed from an encounter that took place a year earlier at the Village Vanguard, one that proved to be something of a watershed. Late in 1965, during Davis’ Thanksgiving week engagement at the Vanguard, Shepp, at the urging of Tony Williams, asked to sit in with the band. Ian Carr says that Miles rejected him, and an argument broke out that could be heard outside the Vanguard’s dressing room. Once the matter seemed settled, the group returned to the bandstand. But when Wayne Shorter concluded his solo on the Davis standard “Four,” Shepp “walked out of the shadows playing his tenor and sat in with the band. Davis simply melted away and was not seen again that evening.”

As Carr writes, “Accounts of the occasion said that Shepp’s playing sparked Miles’ group into a new level of vitality.” And as disagreeable as it seemed to Miles, it may have precipitated an expansion of his repertoire. For even though the group with Shorter, Williams, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter had released highly acclaimed recordings featuring their compositions, Miles had yet to begin incorporating any of the new material in concert. Indeed, Davis’ concert repertoire hadn’t changed much since 1960. But not long after the night of Shepp’s bold incursion, the group began agitating to incorporate newer compositions in concert, and as we know from newly released recordings like Live in Europe: The Bootleg Series, “Footprints,” “Riot,” “Agitation,” “Masqualero,” and other originals became part of the repertoire.

Credit Archie Shepp with broadening the consciousness not only of America but of Miles Davis too.

9 Comments

  • Jun 06, 2012 at 06:28PM Jazzologist1

    This is a much-needed appreciation of Archie Shepp on the auspicious occasion of his 75th birthday. However I'm always troubled by any efforts at downing one artist in favor of raising another. Apparently the writer is unaware that no matter who he was billed with Miles ALWAYS insisted - by contract - on performing first. To posture his insistence in playing first on this bill with Shepp as some form of slam is at best uninformed conjecture.

  • Jun 06, 2012 at 09:21PM Steve L

    It amazes me how drivel like this gets published. Miles feared Archie Shepp! Here's a quote from Miles's autobiography " I think Tony was the one who brought Archie Shepp to the Vanguard one night to sit in, and he was so awful that I just walked off the bandstand. He couldn't play, and I wasn't going to stand up there with this no-playing motherfucker." Yeah, Miles feared him...

  • Jun 07, 2012 at 05:32PM Chris

    Yes - unlikely Miles Davis feared many musicians- though quoting Miles Davis' autobiography as fact is a big stretch too. It's not hard to imagine the angry young lions types like Shepp influencing the older generation and shaking things up...an important time in Jazz.

  • Jun 07, 2012 at 10:00PM Steve L

    Really? quoting Miles' own words is a big stretch? Hmm.... You got me there. I guess when Miles expressed his opinion he really didn't know what he meant. I guess when he said Shepp couldn't play what he really meant was Shepp was too advanced for him to comprehend....

  • Jun 09, 2012 at 09:42PM Chris

    Miles Davis' or anyone's autobiography -is opinion - not fact. But I'm not saying Davis couldn't comprehend Shepp of course, or that he feared him in the obvious sense. It's fascinating to see how these young guys shook things up because they didn't imitate or try to fit in with the old school. The fact that Miles' included this minor incident into his life's story (almost 30 years later!) - is proof it had a deeper impact than the obvious way you've interpreted...

  • Jun 25, 2012 at 02:10PM Steve L

    I’ll make this my last post on this subject as I feel the need to respond to your illogical response. In your post on June 7 you state that “It's not hard to IMAGINE the angry young lions types like Shepp influencing the older generation and shaking things up...an important time in Jazz”. So, you are saying that it’s more believable for me to contrive some instance in which Shepp’s music influenced Miles to move his music in a certain direction in which he otherwise wouldn’t have gone. BULL! I hear no evidence of Shepps influence in any of Miles’ recorded history. Now, as far as the other young lions go (I’m not sure how angry they may have been at any given time) Miles did make reference to their influence as well in his biography concerning Wayne Shorter, Herbie Handcock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. As far as what I supposedly “interpreted” from Miles’ quote in saying that “Shepp couldn’t play” was not an interpretation. Miles said it, and for the record had it published as well! And yes, it is his opinion, but it is fact that he made the statement and the only thing that any logical individual could “interpret” from it was that Miles was turned off by Shepp. So, I guess in conclusion you are correct. Shepp did influence Miles. In what not to play.

  • Jul 03, 2012 at 05:57AM Jon123

    This really is a remarkably stupid article. The speculation and extrapolation in reference to Miles Davis is just inane.
    Regarding the chronology: the group had not released 'highly acclaimed recordings featuring their compositions' - only one. E.S.P., the first of the quintet's records, was recorded in Jan.'65, well before the notorious gig, and one tune immediately entered the live repertoire - Agitation. The next studio record was Miles Smiles, from Oct.'66, almost a year after the Vanguard gig, and again one song entered the live book - Footprints. Next was Sorcerer, May '67, and one tune...Masquelero. Then, in June and July '67, Nefertiti is recorded. The Shepp Challenge finally rears its ugly head and TWO tunes enter the live repertoire - Nefertiti and Riot.
    So, your overweening conclusions and connections have no basis in logic or fact. And how did I amass all this arcane knowledge? I looked it up.

  • Jul 14, 2012 at 12:15AM TomReney

    I looked it up too. As I state in the article, in Ian Carr's biography of Miles Davis, he writes (on p.155), "Miles elected to play first because, the story went, he said he didn't want to play to an audience of sick people-- the implication being that they would be sick after listening to Shepp." If this was already standard practice for Miles, so be it, but that's not mentioned in the bio until the tour with Shepp, et. al., in 1967.

    Earlier, in describing the impact of Shepp's insurgent move onto the bandstand at the Vanguard, Carr writes (on p. 145), "Accounts of the occasion said that Shepp's playing sparked Miles's group into new vitality, but Miles himself must have had a most unpleasant shock. Up to this point, musicians of most styles and persuasions had always shown the utmost respect for his musical standards and his ability...Now it seemed there was a new generation of musicians who were not in awe of Miles Davis." Miles recalled the incident in harsh terms 23 years later in his Autobiography, so it apparently had an impact.

    As for Shepp's possible impact on Davis's repertoire, not just the band's "vitality," the saxophonist described in a conversation with me 30 years ago his sense that changes began after the Vanguard episode. Archie's recollections weren't boastful, more a reflection on his experiences with Miles and Trane.

    In any event, "Agitation" did not enter the live repertoire "immediately," as Jon123 states. Upon completion of the E.S.P. sessions, Miles spent most of 1965 recuperating from hip surgery which, according to Jack Chambers, "kept the quintet inactive all that time." The Vanguard engagement at Thanksgiving marked his return to public performances. The first record I find of "Agitation" in the repertoire is the Plugged Nickel engagement in December 1965, one month after the Vanguard episode with Shepp. Indeed, Chambers' comprehensive bio-discography Milestones 2 says (on p. 89), "The engagement at the Plugged Nickel aroused even more excitement than the one at the Vanguard...and Davis updated the repertoire by adding "Agitation," the first of the quintet's new music to enter the working book." You can look that up too.

    -- Tom Reney

  • Jul 15, 2012 at 07:32PM Jon123

    Sorry, but vague or unsubstantiated comments (Carr's or Shepp's) do not merit a revamp of our understanding of the historical record. The tunes in question, on which these idle speculations are based, entered the live repertoire in a methodical manner in the gigs following the recordings. Look at the Miles Ahead sessionography. No sign of Shepp-fueled panic there. And why would Shepp's rude incursion be the defining cause?
    The final sentence is just not supported by the evidence. This article is not historical revision but speculative fiction. Miles didn't fear Shepp - he thought he was an asshole.

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