Archie Shepp

Let's start from the beginning.

Well, my father, he was a banjo player and he liked to sing. There was music all around me. My community was rich with music and from that point of view, my cup runith over. It was inspiration for me. That was the one thing that poor black people had was music and a musical environment. It was a very rich musical environment and a very original one.

Why did you put down the banjo?

Well, you know, Fred, it wasn't hip. I guess when I got to Philly, I was born in Florida, in the South, where things are much more bucolic and rural, but as I moved to the North, the guys were playing pianos and saxophones and basses and I began to see other things and hear other things. It is your personality as well. I guess I wanted to some degree to be out front. Since then, I have found out that basically, I make as much money as a saxophone player as I would have being in the back (laughing). When we moved to Philadelphia, I started formally on piano. My parents were poor, but music lessons were not really very expensive because, here again, Philadelphia is so rich, like many of the cities, Detroit and Chicago, there were always black people and instructors who had graduated with degrees and Ph.D.s and couldn't find a job in music and symphony orchestras because of the racism. So they ended up teaching kids in the park in their neighborhood for a dollar a lesson, two dollars a lesson. That is how I studied.

It is difficult for the current generation to relate to the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement.

The question that I would ask, Fred, is why aren't they familiar with it because I don't think things have changed profoundly much. You might say that there is a black middle class that has become less and less observant of its own community and its responsibility to that community, but that doesn't mean that the problems have disappeared. I see more and more homeless people on the streets. I see my people struggling harder than ever. I think the facade has changed. Cities are being gentrified. Fortunately, thank God, I am living in a nice home, but I know a lot of my people don't enjoy those opportunities. (...)

Let's touch on your collaborations with Cecil Taylor.

Yeah, I joined his band in 1960. Here again, Fred, the times were quite different. This music was, in a sense, right in tune with the whole revolution and the speeches of Martin Luther King and the Black Panthers, the black Muslims, we were right in tune with all of that. We weren't making any money, but I mean, we played at lofts for five dollars a night. Dennis Charles and Don Cherry and whatever money we made, we split up and would give it to our political organizations.

That kind of loyal dedication is so sadly missing these days.

Well, because we were in struggle at that time. We would give money to our political organizations to press leaflets. We would go up to Harlem. We would support whatever was going on at the time, Urban League, the more radical Black Panthers, whatever. I played concerts, gigs, spoke on the streets. I was engaged. You don't find that these days, but why would you? I think the world has been made more comfortable. It is the world of Oprah Winfreys today. She is the model for black women, in the sense that she is a billionaire. I don't think she does much. She is typical. There is nothing against Ms. Winfrey. She is a very talented and a beautiful woman, but I don't think she is very effective even though she is rich. That is typical of our people today with young billionaires and all these musicians and Michael Jordan and Shaq. What is the name of that singer? She is quite beautiful. She has had some problems recently.

Whitney Houston.

Whitney, yeah. I think they form a class of people today that for young black people, they are set up by the establishment to be seen as models, but in fact, these are really hollow men and hollow women. They are people without any clue of their own political history or historical knowledge of where they come from, even their understanding of their own culture and what they produce and its meaning to other things that are produced within their own culture and so called jazz music. They don't see any relationships and they don't make any relationships.

(~2000, interviewed by Fred Jung for Jazz Weekly)

I find that here in the States, audiences are generally less knowledgeable, from the cognitive point of view, though they are emotionally more receptive. Americans, particularly white Americans, have spent so much time in the company of each other that I find that when I play for an American audience it’s a much more intimate experience. It’s a language that by now everybody understands, especially because of rock and roll and popular music. A whole generation of young whites have involved themselves with traditional Negro music. What is important to them are the focal aspects: the beat, the blues scale. Jazz was absorbed here even though there was no particular movement or philosophy which went with the post-’60’s music. There was never anything comparable to the European movement in this country. In Europe it evolved out of a whole intellectual process. The European intellectuals were and are very much into so-called avant-garde music. In America, for a brief time, people who followed Coltrane were studied and considered important, but it didn’t last long. The result is that the kind of music I played in the ’60’s is completely dismissed in this country as a wrong turn, a suicidal effort.

With the avant-garde movement in Europe, is it not so much a question of magnitude - that the movement was bigger there - or is it just that it lasted longer?

Well, I think, too, it’s because of the climate in Europe. Their historical, cultural and aesthetic values were formed from a critical perspective that was, at first, Anglo- and Francophilic: with Hughes Panassie, Andre Hodeir, Ernst Ansermet, Eric Borneman. some of the major artistic movements exploded there: cubism, Stravinsky’s "Rite of Spring", the poets - Rimbaud and all those. There is a tradition of intellectual and aesthetic radicalism in Europe which is also peculiarly related to politics. Beginning in the 1960’s, I think Europeans - particularly the European Left - saw me as a spokesperson for the avant-garde because I tended to articulate some of the political frustrations that black people felt in America at the time, vis-a-vis people like Martin Luther King and organizations like the Black Muslims. It was a particularly interesting and exciting time, and the European political and artistic establishment was turned on by the Civil Rights Movement and the artistic revolution that was becoming a part of jazz. (...)

John Coltrane was perhaps the greatest radical of the avant-garde. It couldn’t be far enough out for Trane. Trane is the guy that created us, in a way. He believed in us. He was our mentor. To view it from an historical perspective, he freed black music from the entertainment syndrome. Black artists had always been told, there was a certain amount of "time" in which to do your thing. Coltrane was an artist who decided to play not simply because people wanted to be entertained. He could, as Elvin Jones has pointed out, play a matinee for three hours without a break. He played what he felt. The way Stravinsky might have thought on paper, he did in his head. That was his genius - improvisation. It is amazing that this kind of process could have evolved out of the black experience. The question is, can we accept this? Does a black artist have the right to demand our attention the way we attend to beethoven, Stockhausen, or Phillip Glass? It’s a challenge. Coltrane’s challenge is, I think, still before us. Today, music is visual. You get a show where people are jumping up and dancing, but it’s not a critical event in the sense of profound catharsis. Essentially it’s celebratory. Coltrane was celebratory in that original sense. He was digging for something; he was looking for that other dimension and he often found it. With music he did create a fourth dimension; the sound was something total - at some points fear. He could combine all of those elements, audience participation, the response mechanism; it was like church sometimes with Coltrane’s performance. What was interesting was that the experience informed members of disparate people as an audience, blacks and whites - and this was not an easy music to listen to. That it didn’t survive here in the states is, I think, partly because we tend to be very conservative politically. (...)

It seems that the only real difference is coming out in rap music.

Rap is probably the most original. Here I find an amazing phenomenon. These kids don’t learn poetry in school. Nobody taught them iambic pentameter or rhymed couplets. They, unfairly, haven’t read Pope or Dryden. Yet here they are, spinning this stuff off and making money reciting poetry. On the one hand, I think that is really commendable and exciting, but I also find it very limited. For example, I’ve done a few poems, which I don’t think the black community has heard much of (laughs). My work isn’t as accessible as Miles Davis’ or Herbie Hancock’s. Most of the recordings that I made were done in Europe. They aren’t popular recordings in the sense that their intellectual content renders them less marketable to a mass audience. In rap music, even though the element of poetry is very strong, so is the element of the drum, the implication of the dance. Without the beat, its commercial value would certainly be more tenuous. In fact, without the orchestral and theatrical concepts that evolved with it, the lights, the spectacle, etc., it’s doubtful what you would have. Denuded of all accoutrement what you would have is rapping, which perhaps wouldn’t be as exciting to the mass of our youth. Also, there is the dimension of the media, television, that thrives on the youthful image, the pretty girl, the handsome young man or the bizarre: The Fat Boys, King Sized Dick and the like. This is the nature of pop art in our country today. Much of it is defined by Negro spirit and the thrust of black art. This is presented to us as Jefferson Airplane or the Rolling Stones. It’s not clear who actually created all this. It’s not made clear and it never was. The packaging of black art forms is a highly sophisticated and insidious business.

(December 1990, interviewed by Scott Cashman for Spit: A Journal of the Arts)

Jazz was such a strong black cultural expression when you came up. Is it still?

No, not at all. The ambiance has changed. For example, it seems to have moved from Harlem to Lincoln Center, that is from uptown to midtown. It’s taken on another meaning. It also is attracting an entirely different audience. It used to be this music – African-American music — was in the African-American community. You’d find it in Chicago in the South Side, in North and South Philadelphia, in Harlem. But all those clubs are gone now; they’ve disappeared.

It’s only to be expected, because it’s become more and more a middle class music and less and less a music that comes from the working classes. It seems people in the ghetto would rather spend their money on Prince or Michael Jackson than Coltrane. To some degree it’s the fault of the jazz musicians; their music has become more intellectual or academic. The people in the community have held onto their blues invention. It’s a question of musicians going to colleges and universities and becoming more and more like Stravinsky and less and less like Charley Patton.

Archie, you’ve lived through lots of arguments over the word “jazz.” Nicholas Payton, the trumpeter, wants to retire the term. He’s campaigning to bring the music under the big umbrella of what he calls “BAM” – an acronym for Black American Music. What do you think of that?

He’s right. Jazz is a term that seems to originate in questionable circumstances. It begins in New Orleans with the bordellos and the houses of prostitution. And it’s probably no accident that the first people, scholars, to seriously write about this music were francophones, people like Hugh Panassie, Andre Hodeir, Charles Delaunay.

Also, it seems the term “jazz” itself might have some French origins. For example the French use a term “jaser,” a verb that means to talk, to chat, to speak in light conversation. And in the Occitan dialect, which one finds in the southwest of France, they actually have a term “jass,” which is spelled as it originally was spelled in New Orleans, with an “s.” In this case, it means a stable, a place where the animals were kept. So the term “jazz” might have some French origins: The fact that the first people to write about it were francophones, and that the people in New Orleans were people who spoke French.

Nicholas may be right. People like Sidney Bechet rejected the use of the term jazz. Also Duke Ellington, Max Roach, Yusef Lateef. Why are we saddled with it? It’s not a name created by black musicians for their own music. It’s a word created by the critics who wrote about the music, and at a certain point one wonders why the “King of Swing” wouldn’t be Count Basie or Louis Armstrong. In fact, all the important innovators in this music are black. There are a lot of great white musicians; I like Scott LaFaro, Charlie Haden. Roswell (Rudd)’s a great player, and you can talk about Beiderbecke. But none of them fundamentally changed or led this music.

Look at the impact that Coltrane has had on modern music. There’s not a saxophone player today, not a young one, who hasn’t gotten something from Coltrane. And that goes for trumpet players and others, too, because he brought so much to the music from a theoretical standpoint. (...)

Archie, for me, one of the greatest moments on any of your records happens on “Live at the Donaueschingen Music Festival,” in ’67, when the whole band is in the midst of this amazing, beautiful chaos – and then, it’s like a curtain is lifted, and suddenly, it’s just you, playing “The Shadow of Your Smile.” How hard did you work at the arrangement to make that happen? It’s like magic.

Believe me, it was carefully worked out. We had worked on it for months — because we didn’t get many gigs! I used to work in my little studio; I was just learning to arrange and I worked some of it through by ear, and we’d do it over and over again. I was inspired originally by a march by John Philip Sousa, called “King Cotton.” The band also recorded it with tuba on “Mama Too Tight.” And on the record you mention, “Donaueschingen,” it evolves into all this freedom, and in the middle of all this freedom, I had crafted this version of “The Shadow of Your Smile” — which was always a shock whenever we performed it, because it seems to come out of nowhere.

We performed it one time in Paris at a big hall called the Salle Pleyel, where we followed Miles Davis. Now, Miles had gotten a standing ovation. This was in 1967, just before the student rebellion in Paris. And so we came on, and we were shocking to look at: Roswell was wearing a baseball cap; I was wearing a dashiki. And there was this explosion of sound, cacophonous, and we only played one song, one long piece for about an hour and a half. And about 15 minutes into it, all the people who were sitting in the orchestra — they were mostly older people, the bourgeoisie — they all started heading to the exits. And it was just at that point that “The Shadow of Your Smile” evolved out of that arrangement, and it was something to watch. I tell you, the first person — the leader of this mass exit — had his hand on the door and he suddenly stopped, as if something had hit him. He released his hand and he came back to his seat; they all did. They all came back and sat down. It was incredible to watch, because easily 100 people had been about to leave.

And when we finished, contrary to Miles, there was an outcry of boos – oh, it was terrible. But up in the balcony — where all the young people were seated, in the cheap seats — everyone was cheering. So there was a standoff for about ten minutes between the boos and the cheers. And finally I was asked to do an encore; it was amazing. And the following year they had that student rebellion, so I guess it was an indication of things to come.

(October 2012, interviewed by Richard Scheinin for A+E Interactive)

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