CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Archie Shepp: Memoirs of a Gunfighter

The saxophonist reminisces about auditioning for Lee Morgan, John Coltrane’s dislike of socks, and a Wild West-style confrontation with Miles Davis

Archie Shepp
Archie Shepp at the Newmark Theatre, Portland, Oregon, February 22, 2020 (photo: Mark Sheldon)

I’m going to end with this: There’s a new Miles Davis documentary called Birth of the Cool and Archie, you’re in it sharing a story, but the documentary only includes the first part of the story. I’m wondering if you can complete it for us.

Well, I knew Tony Williams, [Miles’] drummer, because when I was with Cecil Taylor we did a show by Jack Gelber called The Connection at the Living Theater. We were replacing the Jackie McLean/Freddie Redd ensemble [which left the stage production for three weeks to work on the film version of the play]. When [the McLean/Redd group] came back, they hired a new drummer, Tony Williams. And later on, Tony was hired by Miles Davis.

So this night I came down to the Village Vanguard where Miles was performing, because Tony had left Jackie McLean’s ensemble and he was with Miles. He’d acquired quite a reputation by that time as one of the important drummers on the scene. I was carrying my horn with me, and I was hoping by chance that maybe I could sit in. As soon as I got in the door Tony recognized me and he said, “Archie, take your horn out, man, come on and play some with us.” I said, “Tony, I don’t know, Miles may not be open to the idea.” He said, “Oh no, don’t worry, you hear stories. He’s a nice guy.”

I allowed myself to be talked into this and so I approached [Miles] very delicately, because he was surrounded by a coterie of admirers and he was deep in conversation. I dared to interrupt his conversation and I said, “Mr. Davis, my name is Archie Shepp.” He said, “Archie who?” “Archie Shepp.” He said, “Fuck you.” I was a young man but I had two children and I was married. I had respected him but I felt that he was totally disrespectful of me. So I responded to him in kind. “Fuck you—who the fuck are you?”

We got into this terrible argument, which went on for quite some time. One of his sons was there, who was a boxer, and Miles was a boxing enthusiast, and he says to me, “My son will kick your ass.” I said to him, “I’ll kick your ass on the bandstand, that’s where the music is made.”

At that point he took another attitude altogether. It was rather like the Old West. He said, “Take your horn out, motherfucker.” So that’s how I got to sit in with Miles Davis. [Cheers and laughter from audience

The first tune he played was “Four” and when I took my solo, I was both intimidated and angry, and so I played intimidation and anger. It had nothing to do with the song. The next one was “’Round Midnight,” on which I did more or less the same thing. The third was “Oleo,” and I’d even learned John [Coltrane]’s solo from their rendition. It was Wayne Shorter on tenor and Herbie and Ron Carter and Tony Williams and about the middle of the song, Miles shook his horn one more time and walked off the bandstand, shortly after my solo. A little later Herbie got up from the piano and walked off, and then Wayne followed Herbie. 

So that just left me with Ron Carter and Tony. I didn’t use the piano much anyway. We went on for about another half-hour, just bass, drums, and tenor. All of a sudden I heard the piano and it was Herbie, he had come back. Then after that I heard a tenor saxophone playing and it was Wayne, he had come back. The story goes that Miles didn’t come back for the rest of the week, and after that he began to play some of the originals of Herbie and Wayne, who were both fine composers but he never played their music until that point. Up to that time he had played mostly standards and ballads.

That’s incredible. I think you won the showdown. 

Well, I don’t know if I won it, but I was in it. 

In the documentary—no spoilers here, but you’ll see that whole story is truncated, and ends with “Fuck you.” 

I still say that Miles was an idol to me, a man who, despite how he felt about me, I felt was one of the great people, musically speaking, in the African-American tradition. I told him that it embarrassed me to have to engage him on that level because I looked at him more as an artist, a genius, and there are other ways to tell people that they can’t perform other than just saying, “Fuck you.” 

Ladies and gentlemen, Archie Shepp.

Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.