Archie Shepp will mark his 83rd year on May 24, and will surely have to delay celebrating it in proper style until the coronavirus crisis passes. These days, he moves at a more deliberate pace than he once did, using a stylish French walking stick, ebony and white. It fits with the sartorial sense he favors these days—tailored suits, fedoras with snap-down brims—a far different look from what he wore when he first rose to prominence in the 1960s. Then he was the outsider fighting his way onto the scene, and came to serve as the spearpoint of The New Thing: a generational movement focused on politically charged, avant-garde jazz. Sixty years on, with almost 100 albums to his credit, he looks and fits the role of an éminence grise.
For the fortunate sold-out crowd who recently caught him performing as part of the PDX Jazz Festival in Portland, Oregon on February 22—and sharing stories and answering questions in a pre-concert talk—the experience proved historic, both because it preceded the current national lockdown, and because it was, according to the legendary saxophonist, his first Portland appearance in more than 40 years.
Shepp is judicious in choosing when to perform and where, and mindful of various health challenges, including dental issues which have affected his embouchure. His wife and manager Monette Berthomier is now a constant in his life. He still divides his time between western Massachusetts—where he taught for many years at UMass Amherst—and Paris, where he has initiated a number of projects like the big-band revival of his classic 1971 album Attica Blues (which generated the live album I Hear The Sound on his Archieball label) and groups like Citizen Jazz (which has included a rotating lineup with the likes of Shabaka Hutchings, Jason Moran, Nasheet Waits, and vocalist Marion Rampal) and a smaller outfit featuring pianist Lafayette Harris, Jr., bassist Avery Sharpe, and drummer Ronnie Burrage.
It was this U.S.-based quartet that Shepp brought with him to Portland, performing at the city’s Newmark Theatre. He delivered a heartfelt mix of old favorites—standards; Ellington, Monk, and Coltrane originals—singing in his bluesy baritone at times, and blowing brief solos, the rich emotion propelled as much by the spaces in his statements as in the expressive lines he chose.
Many of the evening’s attendees also showed up in the auditorium lobby a few hours before the concert to hear Shepp answer questions and speak of his voluminous history, which he did openly and matter-of-factly, tempered by a sense that all the parts he’s played—actor and playwright, saxophonist and firebrand, student and educator—deserve equal consideration.
JazzTimes: Before we jump into anything historical, can you tell us about what we can expect musically this evening?
Archie Shepp: Well, I never know what you can expect. That’s the nature of jazz, if you like, and there’s always the element of surprise, hopefully a good surprise. I’m trying to do a little of this and a little of that, some originals and I’m a big fan of Duke Ellington—my tradition—so I try to include a diverse program, sometimes using poems. I like to add the element of the theater to music performance. I acquired that habit when I started university at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont. Goddard is a little like Reed [College, in Portland]. There’s a background of experimentalism, with teachers who actually changed the path of education.
When I started college I had only thought of recordings as musical events. Then I met a man named Joe Rosenberg who taught theater and I started to get into literature. One evening I was in what we called the Manor Lounge and someone put on a recording of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, Archibald MacLeish, and I began to realize that recordings were not only for music.
By the time I graduated and I made my first recording, I thought of combining music with poetry. So I expect to do a little bit of that as well.
There’s this consistency in the way you looked at music in the ’50s and now …
Yeah. Then I had a play that I wrote Off-Broadway in the ’60s [The Communist] and a couple of the one-act plays I did, one that was presented at Brooklyn College with Maurice Watkins directing—Maurice was the guy who taught Laurence Fishburne. So literature has also been very important for me, particularly playwriting. I wrote plays after I got out of college, but I realized that somehow music is calling me, and then I had the chance to perform on recordings—with Cecil Taylor.
Yeah, and so I haven’t stopped since. Actually, I’ve been playing music for about 60 years. And I used to be able to get up the stairs without having to be helped, but it’s come to that.