When you were first breaking into music in Philadelphia, there was this incredibly fertile music scene that included some familiar names from jazz history that you met, like Lee Morgan.
Bobby Timmons, Bill Barron—that was before his brother Kenny became famous. The guy I studied with, Tony Mitchell. And they were all associated with John Coltrane. They were all contemporaries.
Specific to your time period, bebop and jump blues and R&B were all happening at the same time, and I remember you speaking of how Lee Morgan looked upon you at the very beginning.
They used to have jam sessions for young kids in Philadelphia, and there was a guy named Tom Roberts who was a radio announcer and started up this activity for young people. He would invite guys with big names who were playing in town on Friday afternoons, and the kids could go down and hear the big professionals—Ben Webster, Max [Roach], Art Blakey, guys like that. And after that they would have the young kids perform. Lee Morgan was frequently there and he’d perform before the professionals or after they had played and I was very impressed by his technique, his swing, and so on.
Were you near that level at that point or were you intimidated?
Totally intimidated. Even now I listen to some of the guys that I really admired, and Lee was a little younger than I was, but I suppose he was kind of a genius. He was only 15 or 16 and playing with John Coltrane, Clarence Sharpe. So I asked him to help me to learn to play chord changes and he consented very graciously to let me come to his home and we had a little jam session. At that time I only heard Stan Getz because they didn’t play many African Americans on the main radio stations. You could hear Fats Waller or maybe Jimmy Lunceford, but Stan Getz was probably the only jazzman that you’d hear from time to time.
So Lee asked me to play something for him and I reached for my version of Stan’s version of “How High the Moon.” I noticed that he and [alto saxophonist] Kenny Rodgers, a guy he played with frequently, were snickering on the side. I don’t think they were very impressed by my imitation of Stan Getz and furthermore they didn’t like Stan that much. It was looking pretty hopeless. Finally they said, “Let’s play the blues,” and that’s how I got into the music. My father played the banjo, and my first instrument was actually the banjo. I not only knew what the chords were but I could sing the blues. I knew the blues from the inside. Born in Florida—that’s the music and the people there.
I took the four first choruses and when we were finished, Lee seemed to be rather impressed and he said, “Man, don’t ever change.” That’s how I got to meet Lee, and frequently after that when he had blues gigs, only the blues, he would call me to play. I could sing the blues, which means I really felt that from the inside. I could sing “St. Louis Blues”—[sings] “I hate to see … that evening sun go down.” It was something that was endemic and intrinsic.
Auditioning for a 15-year-old Lee Morgan …
Yeah, he was a young kid. You wouldn’t believe it, and he played with all the big names around town. I remember when he was hired by Dizzy Gillespie when we were in a bar they called Pep’s and the only reason we were able to get in was because all the barkeepers, they knew him.
Was it Pep’s where Freddie Freeloader was the bartender or the Showboat?
They’re only a block apart. Showboat was at Broad and Locust and Pep’s was at Broad and South, and Freddie could have been at either one of them. When I met Freddie I said, “Freddie the Freeloader.” He said, “No! No ‘the’! Freddie Freeloader.” He was Freddie Tolbert [pronounces with French accent]. His name was “Tol-bert” but he seemed to like the French pronunciation.
[Audience question] Thank you, Mr. Shepp, for coming. I wanted to ask you about Attica Blues, one of my favorite albums of yours. You were saying that you do singing and you also read from your plays—did you set up Attica Blues as a play?
You know, that’s interesting. Even though I might not have done that consciously, I see all my recordings having some theatrical connection, so it might have been that. I not only thought of Attica Blues as a piece of music, but at that time there were a lot of terrible things going on in the prisons—and still are—but it was around the time of the assassination of [Soledad State Prison activist] George Jackson and the Attica [State Prison] uprising, so I suppose I put all that together [as] being representative of the black community itself, and the enormous tragedies that we suffer as far as housing, education, and violence. I had about 20 musicians on my recording and, partly because of that, that recording represented the community for me. The musicians had another role to play as far as that was concerned—they represented not only people who played instruments, but the criminality, the violence was being expressed through their instruments, and love. It might have had [that] connection, if not in my conscious thoughts.
[Audience question] You did a wonderful album, Four for Trane , with a very different version of “Naima” from the original recording. There were counterlines, there were numerous …
That was the arrangement by Roswell Rudd.
Is that particular arrangement something that you ever incorporate in performances?
Well, I have recorded and performed “Naima” on several occasions but never exactly like the arrangement on Four for Trane, because it was a written arrangement and it had several different movements that would make it difficult for me just to perform it as it’s done on that recording because I no longer have the music. I try not to use written music during my performances. I try to make it as much like old New Orleans as possible: that is, completely improvised and nonacademic.
That was your first album for Impulse! Records.
Yeah. I had been calling them trying to get a recording date for quite a while, and each time I called the A&R man, Bob Thiele, he had a secretary, Lillian [Seyfert], and she would always say, “Bob’s not here.” Finally I got the courage to ask John Coltrane, who was a mentor to me. He was performing at the Half Note down on Spring Street, and at intermission I said, “John, would you talk to Bob Thiele for me? Because every time I call, he’s either gone for the day or out to lunch.”
He looked at me, gave me an intense look and said, “You know, a lot of people think I’m easy.” And they did. They took advantage of John [because] of his kindness and his accessibility. So I reassured him: “John, I’m not trying to take advantage of you. It’s just I’ve got four kids and I need some help.” So he said, “Well, I’ll see what I can do.”
The next day I called Impulse! and Lillian said to me, “Well, he’s gone to lunch but he’ll be back and he’s expecting your call.” So that’s how I got to do Four for Trane, and it turned out to be pretty good—it was at Rudy Van Gelder’s [studio in] Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Bob was there and smoking his pipe, he didn’t even turn around to look at me because he only did that [session] because of John Coltrane. So we did the first recording, and by the time we did the second he said, “Hey, this stuff is great! I’m going to call Coltrane and ask him to come down.” John lived out in Long Island, it was quite a ways and it was about 11:00 in the evening. But he called John and said, “Hey John, I want you to come up.”
Eventually we took some photos, one of which was used on the album, and if you look carefully you’ll see that John doesn’t have on any socks. I don’t know [why]. Some people say he didn’t wear socks much anyway because he had the same problems with his feet that I have, probably a little worse. In fact, he commented once when asked about his feet, he said, “Even the air hurts.”