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.