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Archie Shepp: The Sound and the Fury

Archie Shepp
Archie Shepp
Archie Shepp

Cincinnati’s April riots, ignited by the police shooting of Timothy Thomas and fuelled by lingering racial tensions, took me back to the culmination of Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing: I was searching for a context in order to understand the images of violence and destruction unfolding on my television. The blazing sun and stifling heat throughout had foreshadowed the film’s eruptive climax. Personal tensions mounted as the mercury rose in the thermometer. Cincinnati was not this hot-not in April, anyway. But it wasn’t hard to comprehend how a single act of violence had compelled an entire community to rise up and lay waste to its own home.

Mention Cincinnati and Do the Right Thing to Archie Shepp, however, and you’ll get a far different reaction.

“I found that film somewhat nostalgic,” says the veteran saxophonist and legendary ’60s firebrand. “I mean, all I could think was, didn’t we do that in the ’60s? Break somebody’s windows? Is that what the new black experience is about, simply recapitulating old failures?”

Shepp is not speaking metaphorically. “At the end of Do the Right Thing, I thought, well, this is ironic. I can remember myself in the 1960s on the corner of 125th Street, breaking the window of a jeweler. I don’t know exactly what had happened, but there was a huge manifestation in the streets that night. There were people all over 125th Street breaking windows, looting, doing all sorts of antisocial things. I think it was part of the spirit of the time. There had been many instances of police brutality against the community. I mean, people weren’t just out breaking windows and looting, they were responding to some grievance that they considered profound enough to respond in that manner.

“I suppose it was something like we saw in the film, with Spike, you know. Something had triggered it off, and the reaction was at that point arbitrary. It had no political end other than to prevent anger. But I was saying, when I saw that film, it seems as though we should have some answers now, other than just our rage and frustration.”

For Shepp, that answer came in the form of his music. He was not the first to inject politics into jazz-Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Max Roach were all there before him. But Shepp harnessed the rage and frustration he saw and felt into a potent style of playing and writing unlike any that came before or since. His anger and defiance manifested themselves in such compositions as “Los Olvidados” and “Malcolm, Malcolm-Semper Malcolm,” both from his breakthrough 1965 Impulse! release Fire Music. The shards of broken glass were in his tenor saxophone, an aggressive, brawling sound. The most overtly political of the young avant-gardists coming up under the wing of John Coltrane, Shepp became the jazz world’s analogue to Malcolm X. His impassioned, sometimes inflammatory statements about race relations and justice only added to this perception.

An abiding loyalty to the jazz tradition set Shepp apart from such fellow “energy” tenor players as Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler-both of whom also recorded for Impulse! On The House I Live In, a 1963 Copenhagen club date with baritone saxophonist Lars Gullin issued 30 years later by SteepleChase, Shepp performs “You Stepped Out of a Dream” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” with a European bop rhythm section. In his solos, he tugs and strains against the conventions of the form much as Coltrane had done on tour with Miles Davis in 1960, but otherwise the record captures a typical mainstream set.

Even as he established his radical saxophone language and forward-thinking compositional style in subsequent years, Shepp continued to engage the tradition. His first record for Impulse!, 1964’s Four for Trane, featured cubist reconfigurations of music by his mentor. Fire Music included “Prelude to a Kiss” and “The Girl from Ipanema,” performed without irony or condescension, while Live in San Francisco (Impulse!, 1966), contained a version of “In a Sentimental Mood” that, aside from Shepp’s roiling opening solo, lived up to its name. His tone evoked the throaty growl of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, the virile balladeering of Ben Webster. And while Ayler’s rhythm sections shattered and splintered time to bits, Shepp swung, and swung hard.

Late in the ’70s, Shepp seemed to turn his back on his avant-garde past. A 1977 album, Ballads for Trane (Denon), found him once again covering works associated with the elder saxophonist. But this time he played them straight, leaning heavily on the pop standards that Trane had recorded during his earlier years. Shepp went on to record albums of traditional blues, gospel tunes and tributes to Charlie Parker and Sidney Bechet, some well received, some less so. Rehabilitating his embouchure after surgery in the early ’80s, he began to sing more and more often. He performed live less and less frequently, immersing himself in academia and spending much of his time in Europe. He recorded frequently for small European and Japanese labels. Shepp was assuming the mantle of elder statesman, just as Sanders had done in recent years. But in the process, he was rendering himself invisible.

Recently, though, Shepp has mounted something of a comeback. In 1998, Austrian producer Paul Zauner united Shepp with bassist Richard Davis and drummer Sunny Murray, fellow ’60s avant-garde icons, to record St. Louis Blues. If early live performances had been tentative, the album, recently issued domestically on Jazz Magnet, was bold and assured, reacquainting the modern day itinerant blues singer with his radical past. The following year, A.A.C.M. percussionist Kahil El’Zabar invited Shepp to record Conversations with his Ritual Trio for Delmark. The album forced critics to take notice.

Late last year, trombonist Roswell Rudd-who has been enjoying a renaissance of late himself-invited Shepp to join him for a week at the Jazz Standard in New York City, revisiting the territory they had first explored on Live in San Francisco. The engagement also reunited Shepp with trombonist Grachan Moncur III, who had joined the band after the 1966 San Francisco run to record the funky Mama Too Tight (Impulse!) and the volcanic Live at the Donaueschingen Music Festival (MPS) alongside Rudd. Bassist Reggie Workman, a longtime colleague and boyhood friend, and drummer Andrew Cyrille completed the band. For Shepp, it marked a return to form, the results of which can be heard on Live in New York, to be issued in August on Verve. Reporting in the Village Voice, Gary Giddins quoted playwright Edward Albee: “Sometimes you have to go a long way out of the way to come back a short distance correctly.”

Archie Shepp was born in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., in 1937. His father, who worked a succession of blue-collar jobs to support the family, introduced Shepp to music via the radio and through his collection of swing sides and folk songs. He took up his father’s instrument as well.

“My first instrument was the banjo,” Shepp says, “and as a young child I learned to play the first four bars of James P. Johnson’s ‘Charleston’ rag. I could make four-string chords-not too easy for a young kid, but I could do that.” The family relocated to Philadelphia when Shepp was seven, and soon the young musician felt he needed to switch to an instrument more suited to his new urban surroundings.

“As I got into elementary school, my friend Reggie Workman was taking piano lessons, and I told my mother that I wanted to take piano lessons, too.” Shepp’s mother granted his wish when he was 10 years old. Around the same time, a friend of his father rented a room in the family house, bringing with him a collection of more recent recordings by Sonny Stitt and Lester Young. Those records provided a decisive influence. “When I got into junior high school, I picked up the clarinet, and a year later I started playing the saxophone. I continued playing piano through high school, but the saxophone became my instrument of choice.”

Shepp’s political activism was inherited early on from his father as well. “When I was in the third grade, I wrote a paper on racism. I used to hear my father and the man upstairs talk all day about political matters. After work, they’d often discuss the way things were, and as a young child I was very much influenced by that. My third grade teacher was shocked that I would take on such worldly matters, and it’s stayed with me throughout. When I began to get into music, I’d look for ways in which my music could begin to state some of the things that I felt.”

Such worldly concerns did not manifest themselves immediately, however, as Shepp was drawn initially to the popular music of the day. “I’m a bluesman, basically,” he asserts. “My first experiences were in blues. When I was 16, I played in an R&B band, the Jolly Rompers. Carl and John Holmes were the two brothers that ran the band. I saw Carl maybe 10, 15 years ago and we laughed and reminisced about the old days.”

But Shepp soon found himself accompanying a neighbor in casual weekend practice sessions. Trumpeter Lee Morgan was a year younger than Shepp, but already an accomplished musician. Shepp would comp behind him on piano while Morgan practiced the standard jazz repertoire on Saturday afternoons. The two went on to work together in public, if only briefly. “I got Lee in the same band I was in. ‘Course, he was such a good player that the guy eventually fired me and kept Lee,” he adds with a laugh.

As he struggled to master his instrument, Shepp learned of another local player quickly establishing himself as a major figure. “There was a boy I played with from time to time in high school, and one day I told him, ‘I’ve been trying to play above high F on the saxophone, and I’m having so many problems. I wonder who plays like that?’ I said to him, sort of naively. And he said, ‘There’s a guy in North Philadelphia named Coltrane who’s known for that.’ And from that time on, John was a guy I sort of made it my business to find somewhere.”

After high school, Shepp intended to become a lawyer. He entered Goddard College as a pre-law student, while continuing to play the saxophone. But a dramatics teacher convinced Shepp to change his course of study. “I wrote a short story for him, and he said that I had talent and I could become a playwright. So that was my major area of concentration for the next two years, until I graduated.”

Shepp finally encountered Coltrane during a vacation in New York in 1957. “I saw him down at the Five Spot with Monk. After his performance, I came to him and told him I was from Philadelphia and I knew of him and wondered if I could take a lesson. He was very gracious, and wrote his name down for me on a piece of paper in a very neat hand.” Coltrane invited the younger man to stop by his home.

“The next day, I was at his place very early, 10 or 11 in the morning. And I hadn’t thought at all that he’d just given me his autograph at about five that morning! He had a habit of going home and practicing until he went to sleep, so when I got there, he hadn’t been asleep very long.”

Juanita Coltrane-Naima-invited the young man to wait for her husband to arise. “He didn’t get up until about 1:30, but I waited patiently. When he got up, he came out in his T-shirt, and I was amazed at how big he was. His arms were really quite developed, and he had a set of weights in the corner, so he’d apparently been working out and trying to get himself together physically. John had a lot of problems with drugs back in the old days, and I think at that point he had just stopped.

“When he smiled, all his teeth were rotted out except for the two incisors, and I understood at that time that he had a great deal of trouble playing. It’s amazing that he played so well, ’cause he was always in pain. His saxophone was lying there on the sofa. He picked it up and he sort of ripped off something that might have been ‘Giant Steps.’ He played about 10 minutes of uninterrupted saxophone, just coming out of bed like that, you know, just stepped into his horn. And then he put his horn down and says, ‘Can you do that?'”

Shepp laughs at the memory. “He wasn’t being arrogant or anything-he was just trying to find out where I was. I think he wanted to know if I understood what he was doing.” Shepp explained that no, he hadn’t reached that level yet. Coltrane asked him to play something, and gave him advice on fingering the horn. “For the rest of the day, we talked about the techniques of music, harmony and his favorite musicians, who were Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Art Tatum.

“Trane was so helpful to me, as a man who wanted to see beyond the techniques of music, who saw music as a spiritual and a healing force, in a way. I was quite naturally drawn to that, because I felt music as having other implications as well. He was able to reconnect black music up with its most spiritual aspects. The preacher, really, is what Coltrane was. He opened my eyes to the fact that other elements could also be brought out by the music, that things I’d learned from the theater could be used in my performance. In fact, I began to look at the stage as a stage-not simply as a musical stage, but a place where something dramatic takes place.”

Shepp earned his degree from Goddard two years later, and headed back to New York. “My major was in dramatic literature. And I came to New York, playing the saxophone but looking for parts in a play, or thinking that I might someday write a play.” He auditioned unsuccessfully for several roles. A chance encounter on the street with pianist Cecil Taylor provided his entrée into the theater, if indirectly. It also introduced him to the “new thing,” New York’s burgeoning avant-garde jazz scene.

Taylor was supplying the music for an off-Broadway play, The Connection, and invited Shepp to join his band. “I knew who he was, and I hadn’t particularly liked his music. Blues was my thing, and when I met Cecil, initially it was a conflict. Up to that time I hadn’t taken any music seriously but music that came out of the tradition. But I began to like his music more and more, and I tried to give him as much as I could as far as what he asked me to do.

“Joining Cecil’s band really opened my eyes to a world of other music and possibilities I’d never dreamed of. The stuff he was writing at that time, I don’t think anyone else has come close to, up to this time. Technically, he showed me that there were other ways to still play correctly outside the structure of a chord, through scales, modes and so on. Apart from that, he showed me the connections, the social meanings [in music]. We would practice all day in his loft on Day Street, and then we’d talk and he would explain things to me. Cecil gave me an impression of the implications of Negro music, how powerful it was, and how, if we nurture it, we can make it work for us.”

Shepp remained with Taylor until 1962, recording for Candid and Impulse! But a year earlier, he had co-founded a new group with trumpeter Bill Dixon, another architect of the New York avant-garde. The band toured Europe and recorded for Savoy (a session long since lost and highly sought after). By 1963, Dixon developed embouchure problems that prevented his playing in the group. Trum-peter Don Cherry joined the group, by then known as the New York Contem-porary Five. Dixon continued to write for the band and lead its rehearsals, but after another tour of Europe, he and Shepp went their separate ways. They owed the label another album, however, and ended up splitting it, each recording a side apiece. Savoy reissued that album, Bill Dixon 7-tette/Archie Shepp and the New York Contemporary 5, earlier this year.

After the dissolution of the New York Contemporary Five, Shepp performed frequently as a guest in John Coltrane’s band, which had become a de facto workshop for many of the leading young saxophone firebrands of the day, including Ayler, Sanders and altoist Carlos Ward. Shepp prevailed upon Coltrane to help him get a recording contract with Impulse!, which led to Four for Trane. Later that year, Shepp joined Coltrane to record a long-lost session for the A Love Supreme album. In 1965 Shepp shared the album New Thing at Newport with Coltrane, played on his seismic 1965 album Ascension, and made a notorious appearance with him at the Down Beat Jazz Festival in Chicago.

Over the next four years, Shepp recorded for Impulse! the albums upon which the bulk of his reputation rests, including Fire Music, On This Night, Live in San Francisco, Mama Too Tight and The Way Ahead, all reissued in recent years. He gave free rein to his dramatic and political leanings in the impassioned declamation of his poetry in “Malcolm, Malcolm-Semper Malcolm” and the quasi-classical “On This Night (If That Great Day Would Come).” The records cemented Shepp’s stature as a leading member of his generation’s avant-garde. In 1967, he realized his ambition of writing and producing a play, Junebug Graduates Tonight!, which ran off-Broadway in 1967.

Shepp parted with Impulse! briefly, performing and recording for a time in Paris with artists as diverse as Philly Joe Jones and the up-and-coming Chicagoans Lester Bowie and Roscoe Mitchell. Returning to Impulse! in the early ’70s, he began to make albums with a notable R&B influence and an expanded instrumentation orchestrated by Cal Massey. Shepp’s political agenda was never more overt than on Things Have Got to Change, The Cry of My People and Attica Blues.

Impulse!, under the new ownership of ABC, continued to allow Shepp to pursue his vision for a time. “That was my very best recording contract, for a number of reasons. They gave me an almost unlimited budget. Any shot I called, they would back up, because they had the budget to accommodate my artistic ambitions. I spent my whole days just writing.

“Ironically, I was on welfare, because I lived off my check from ABC. My contract called for 15,000 dollars a year, which they paid me in two installments. To raise three kids on 7,500 bucks even at that time was not easy. And I was often at odds with the company for that reason. I wanted them to record me more, ’cause I needed money and there were things I could do. But I wasn’t a commercial success, so there was no real incentive for them to record me more.”

Shepp noticed that a handful of jazz tunes were beginning to appear on pop music radio stations. “That’s when I decided I’d try to do more commercial things. Blue Note was doing all these things with Herbie [Hancock]’s ‘Watermelon Man,’ and you could hear Freddie Hubbard everywhere on the jukeboxes. I recorded a thing called ‘Money Blues,’ and they did make some 45s for me. But I think I’ve got all the 45s that were ever made of that record!” he laughs. “They never did a damn thing with them.”

His attempt at crossover failed and, shortly afterward, ABC dismantled the Impulse! label. Shepp continued to record frequently, for such well-regarded independent labels as Freedom, Enja and the nascent Black Saint. But by the end of the decade, on his albums for Denon, Shepp was recording standard repertoire almost exclusively. Was this a conscious decision, a repudiation of his avant-garde past and political agenda?

“It was part of a strategy,” Shepp asserts, “and I have, thank the Lord, survived. I think I would not have, had I continued to do the things that you’re talking about. I’m speaking artistically. I would have been more vulnerable to the wrath of everything from establishment critics to clubs that were changing their whole demographic profile in terms of younger people. Nowadays, kids come to hear me, man; I sing the blues. To me, the most important part of this whole thing is an aspect of survival. And that’s as much as a man can say.”

For his efforts, Shepp sometimes faced critical rebuke. Making matters worse, in the early ’80s, he was plagued by problems with his embouchure, which required two operations on his lower lip. A handful of the recordings released over the past few decades rank among the finest of his career, particularly the two albums of gospel tunes and blues standards recorded with pianist Horace Parlan for SteepleChase, Goin’ Home and Trouble in Mind. But Shepp himself, in a recent interview, admitted to the unevenness of some of his recent output.

“It was a personal and honest observation,” he now says. “I think it can be used against you, and it has been by some people. And it’s coming from people that I wouldn’t have expected. But it was honest-I didn’t have to say it. I don’t think they would have known any difference.

“One advantage of being an avant-garde player-people don’t know the difference,” he adds, with a tone of rueful irony. “I could be very chesty about it- ‘I’m playing better than ever.’ But I always want to be honest with myself and with the people I’m performing for. I continued to work and play, but I wasn’t as happy with my work. But I had to survive. I had a family, and my kids were in college at the time, so I kept working and recording.”

Shepp also supported his family by taking an active role in academia. He taught at the State University of New York in Buffalo from 1969 to 1974, then moved on to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where he remains active. “I’m a fully tenured professor, and I teach two courses. One is a lecture course, ‘Revolutionary Concepts in African-American Music,’ and the other is a practicum for performers, ‘The Black Musician in the Theater.'”

Still, over the years Shepp has seen a sweeping change in the makeup of his classes, a change reflected in the audiences for which he performs. “This music is becoming a white, middle-class phenomenon. There are very few blacks that are getting into so-called jazz music. Most of them are engaged in rap and dance music idioms. The clubs in the black communities very seldom produce this kind of music. The radio and TV is given over to production of primarily rock’n’roll and rap music.”

Shepp doesn’t begrudge rappers their popularity, however. He views the music as a continuation of the work with texts that he pioneered with “Malcolm, Malcolm-Semper Malcolm” and “Mama Rose.”

“I think that aspect of my work is overlooked, the fact that I’ve been doing that for years,” he asserts. “Just because young kids weren’t dancing and they weren’t selling a million records, it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t rap.”

Beyond the mass media, Shepp sees more fundamental reasons for the decline in interest in jazz among young African-Americans. “I think since Reaganomics, since the 1980s, a lot of the schools have cut back special programs. When I was in school, we had the special music programs, and there were teachers in the schools. You could borrow instruments to take home. I can remember very well Reggie Workman borrowing his bass on weekends to make gigs with Lee Morgan and Leon Grimes, Henry’s brother.

“After the ’80s, all these programs were out, and I think we see this music becoming more and more a middle class phenomenon. You see people more like the Marsalises, where the father’s a schoolteacher, or who come from rather middle class backgrounds. It’s much more complex than when I was a kid. Coltrane and all those people were accessible. These people used to live in the black neighborhoods. The local saxophone player who was my teacher told me the guys to listen to. Lee Morgan lived just up the street, and Bobby Timmons lived in South Philly. There was a really diverse community of young people and older people who were actively playing this music. Today I think it’s become more and more a conservatory experience, and to some degree it’s attenuated the real meaning of this music. The blues elements are slipping away.”

Shepp gives Wynton Marsalis credit for his efforts at educational outreach. “I heard a thing that Wynton did on public radio the other night. He was making the comparison between Jelly Roll Morton’s compositions and King Oliver. I thought it was astute and impressive, and certainly it’s important to establish these kinds of community outreach.

“The problem is that I think Wynton is probably too much caught up in re-creative music, with the result that African-American music, which used to be a dynamic music, is now becoming a kind of classical music, locked into the 1920s and techniques which were valid then but which may or may not be valid now. We should know about our history, but we should not be so locked into our history that it keeps us from evolving new ideas. I think that builds out of Wynton’s antipathy toward the ’60s, that whole generation that I come from. I mean, you can’t ignore Coltrane today, or even Cecil Taylor. Those sounds are in the air.”

With St. Louis Blues and Live at the Jazz Standard, Shepp reengages that history head on, reclaiming for his own what he helped to create, with the added benefits that hindsight and experience bring. “I feel I know a lot more now. In the old days, I could execute almost anything; I just didn’t have the ideas. Now I’ve got the ideas and I wish I had all the chops I had back then! I could really do a lot more than I’m doing. But I’m not unhappy now; I feel very satisfied by my work. My embouchure’s beginning to regroup, and I feel better about it.”

The ideas, as he says, are proliferating. Shepp has personally recorded several albums’ worth of music that he hopes to release. He wants to collaborate with an Afro-Cuban band such as Irakere. Boom Bop, a Jimi Hendrix-infused collaboration with jazz-rock guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly recently released by Jazz Magnet, has left him eager to try his hand at making a straightforward pop record. But ultimately his larger ambition lies elsewhere.

“Eventually I’d like to retire from teaching, and continue in music if I’m able to. Performance, I’m doing a lot of that, more than I had been. But if I had my druthers, I’d go into film. I’d really like to make my own film and to write the music for it. I’d like to begin to really put it all together in a kind of a context, and to make a statement or statements, somewhat the way Spike Lee has been able to do. But I think I could do it another way. There are many dimensions, even the intellectual, psychological ones, which can be augmented through music. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to do that, but it’s something I dream of doing.”

Listening Pleasure

“I’ve been spending a lot of time lately listening to blues, both urban and rural, particularly for the course I teach… Robert Johnson and Charley Patton, especially. B.B. King is someone I’ve admired for many years, ever since he did ‘Sweet Sixteen.’ I also like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Johnny Copeland.

“I listen to a lot of traditional African music, especially music of West Africa, from Nigeria, Ghana and the Ivory Coast, music of the Yoruba people and so on.

“I’ve been listening to some rap lately as well. Public Enemy is a group I admire. Digable Planets as well.

“In jazz, Roy Campbell and James Carter are two players I admire. Roy is a fine player, sort of in the avant-garde group, but I think he’s got a lot of talent and he’s a very sensitive man. James Carter is another, I think he’s a fine player, he’s very sensitive, and he’s playing a very good saxophone. I think he’s going to be okay.

“I listen to Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, all those guys. They’re fine musicians, just maybe overrated too early on. You don’t become a Marcus Belgrave or a Clark Terry overnight, you know. Branford Marsalis, too, is a fine saxophonist. But music is more than notes; it’s experience. Anyway, I know I listen to those guys more than they listen to me!

“I don’t listen so much to classical music, but lately I’ve been listening a lot to Mozart for technique. I never used to like him, but just recently I’m beginning to appreciate what he did. I’ve got a ‘Music Minus One’ recording of his Flute Concerto in G major, which I’ve been adapting to soprano.”


“Since 1962 I’ve used an Otto Link metal mouthpiece. I bought it secondhand at a shop in Copenhagen-it used to belong to Paul Gonsalves. During the 15 or 20 years that I was having embouchure problems, I switched to a hard rubber mouthpiece, ebonite, but I’ve just recently switched back to the Otto Link. It’s a #3, and I use a medium Rico reed with it, though lately I’ve been experimenting with plastic reeds made by Harry Hartmann, a friend of mine in Stuttgart. On soprano I exclusively use a La Voz #3 with a hard reed. My horns are Selmers.” Originally Published