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Archie Shepp’s Deep Blues

Catching up with an out-jazz veteran

Archie Shepp
Archie Shepp at Belgium's Jazz a Liege festival, may 2014
Archie Shepp at Belgium's Jazz a Liege festival, may 2014
Archie Shepp, August 1964

In September 1971, a riot broke out at the Attica Correctional Facility in western New York State, leaving 43 people dead, including 10 officers and hostages. Despite their initial denials, state troopers and National Guard soldiers, under orders from Governor Nelson Rockefeller, were responsible for all of the deaths. A few months later, saxophonist Archie Shepp released Attica Blues, a large-group recording that responded vigorously to the uprising with a muscular combination of jazz, funk and blues. He reprised the album for a 1979 live recording in France and returned to it once again in 2012 to commemorate the riot’s 40th anniversary.

Attica Blues epitomized Shepp’s combination of sociopolitical fervor and free-jazz vehemence. Raised in Philadelphia, the saxophonist became a close collaborator to avant-garde innovators like Cecil Taylor and Bill Dixon and cofounded the New York Contemporary Five featuring Don Cherry, John Tchicai, Don Moore and J.C. Moses. Shepp was championed by John Coltrane, whose support led to a string of records on Impulse! throughout the 1960s that provided the new music with some of its most frequently used nicknames: “Fire Music,” from his 1965 album of that name, and the “New Thing,” from his split LP with Coltrane, New Thing at Newport.

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