Archie Shepp: Admired by Trane, Feared by Miles

Reconsidering a reclusive giant at 75

John Coltrane with Archie Shepp, Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ 1965
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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.

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.