‘The Story I’m Telling’: An Interview with Archie Shepp | by Accra Shepp
My father, the saxophonist Archie Shepp, has recorded greater than 110 albums since 1962, carried out all around the world, and obtained quite a few honors, together with the 2016 Jazz Grasp’s Award from the Nationwide Endowment for the Arts. Within the Sixties, he helped outline “free jazz,” a brand new idiom during which the main points of melody, concord, and rhythm are all improvised to create a grand dialog: voices rise and fall, typically echoing each other, typically dissonant and discordant. Within the Nineteen Seventies and Eighties he wove the blues into his music, extending our understanding of this custom. His cultural affect reaches far past the realm of jazz, touching artists as various as Ntozake Shange and Chuck D.
After I was rising up with my dad and mom, brother, and two sisters in an residence on Cooper Sq. within the East Village, my father at all times labored late, going to mattress at 4 or 5 within the morning even when he wasn’t performing. His “studio” was separated from our residence by a creaky hallway. However within the dysfunctional design of tenement buildings, the bath was a part of that unit, so we typically trooped by means of rehearsals moist and shivering, and I might go to mattress listening to him enjoying with Roswell Rudd, Beaver Harris, and different musicians.
My father was a revolutionary, each musically and politically. His music is intimately linked with the Black Energy motion of the Sixties. At house there have been Black Panther Celebration magazines mendacity about, and it was across the dinner desk that I first heard of the Tuskegee Experiment, the FBI infiltration of the Black Energy motion, and the truth that Thomas Jefferson had fathered Black youngsters. Largely, although, the discuss was of music. I keep in mind listening to tales about Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and different individuals my father knew; in regards to the 1969 Pan-African Cultural Competition in Algeria, which he participated in whereas visiting Eldridge Cleaver in exile; about Billie Vacation’s “Unusual Fruit” and certainly one of her final performances on the Decrease East Aspect, which my father had attended shortly earlier than her tragic loss of life.
It felt vital, on this second of nice social change, to ask my father the query “What’s the position of the artist?” Our conversations on this topic—and lots of others—started in September 2018 and have continued as much as the current. What follows is an edited compilation of these discussions.
Accra Shepp: How did you turn out to be politically energetic?
Archie Shepp: My third-grade instructor gave us an task to put in writing about something we selected, and I wrote a paper about prejudice and the injustice that minorities confronted. I didn’t use precisely these phrases. However she was actually fairly shocked that I ought to increase questions that had such grownup implications.
She requested me the place did I find out about prejudice and racism, maybe not pondering that, actually, I used to be a sufferer of these issues. I advised her that I realized from my father [John Shepp] and our upstairs neighbor, William Meyers, who—on the weekends, once they weren’t working—used to have lengthy political debates that went on all day in our residence in Philadelphia. They might talk about social, political, financial issues that confronted our individuals. So I had merely repeated issues I had realized whereas listening to them.
What affect did Grandpa have on you musically?
My father—your grandpop—was an actual blues man! He performed banjo; his tastes leaned towards blues and the music of the Forties. He was a fan of the Mills Brothers, Duke Ellington, and Depend Basie. He didn’t like Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, that was not his factor—Mr. Meyers launched me to music that got here after the blues. In truth, Mr. Meyers took me and my good friend, the bassist Reggie Workman, to listen to Charlie Parker on the Met in Philadelphia. However the banjo was my first instrument, actually. I grew up with that sound in my ear and that sort of music actually motivated me.
Did you ever meet Charlie Parker?
In a way of talking. That live performance on the Met was in 1954, lower than a 12 months earlier than Parker died. Reggie and I have been each about sixteen years outdated.
Hen [Charlie Parker] was two hours late for the efficiency, and it turned out that Herb Gordy—one other neighbor—had needed to get Hen’s horn out of pawn. Gordy was an unsung genius who had organized Hen’s music for a thirty-nine-piece orchestra that night time.
It was like ready for Godot, you understand. It was summer season and the solar went down late. I used to be very discouraged; I assumed that we weren’t going to see Hen.
So I went outdoors onto Warren Avenue. I noticed this man—big, corpulent—from the again, strolling with a blond white girl. Instantly, I knew this should be Charlie Parker as a result of no Black man in Philadelphia would dare to be strolling with a blond girl. Particularly throughout that period.
His swimsuit was so wrinkled that even the cuffs of the pants had wrinkles. And he wore what was maybe the primary afro that I’d ever seen. You couldn’t see his ears, he had a development of hair—as a result of he was a drug addict and he didn’t at all times maintain his… couture. However I knew it was Charlie Parker, though I didn’t see his face. I went again into the theater, and possibly twenty minutes later he got here in. And he actually performed.
For some musicians, their music and their politics don’t work together that a lot. However for you, they’ve. How did that come about?
Nicely, that’s existential. Having been a sufferer of social and political oppression, it was solely pure that it will affect my music, my artwork, my writing.
How did that course of play out for you? Within the Fifties, there wasn’t a lot house for a younger Black musician, simply beginning out, to precise a radical politics.
I joined the pianist Cecil Taylor’s band nearly instantly after I obtained out of school. He himself was very politically engaged—you don’t essentially know that from his songs, and his strategy to music. However it was Cecil that obtained me into what they known as “free jazz.” He turned my entire idea of music round.
I might by no means have considered myself as a free jazz musician whereas I used to be rising up in Philadelphia. I grew up round individuals like Lee Morgan, Jimmy Oliver, Jimmy Heath, Bobby Timmons, and, although I hadn’t met him but, John Coltrane—individuals who have been very influential to me. And so they had nothing to do with what you’ll name “free music.” It was solely once I met Cecil, that’s what he performed. And he gave me my first probability to make knowledgeable recording.
He was very conscious of who he was as a Black man. The primary time I heard about Malcolm X was from Cecil Taylor. I used to go to Cecil’s home each day and follow his music, which was very sophisticated. I needed to pay loads of consideration to his work so as to study it. After we’d completed our rehearsals—ceaselessly, it will simply be him and me—we might simply discuss. We’d discuss for hours typically.
You additionally talked about writing. What sort of writing have you ever executed, and the way did that come about?
After I was in school, I had supposed to turn out to be a lawyer. I had the concept that I wished to assist create social and political change within the lives of my individuals.
In my sophomore 12 months at Goddard School, I took a course in short-story writing with the person who created the theater division, Joe Rosenberg. He mentioned to me, “Archie, you write dialogue very effectively. Have you ever ever thought of changing into a author?” Nicely, I hadn’t, as a result of the place I grew up, Black individuals weren’t identified for writing something.
The thought of changing into a author actually intrigued me. After Goddard, I labored with Joe on a play known as Heaven, which I wrote. Then my play Junebug Graduates Tonight was produced off-Broadway. It was initially titled The Communist, however after I obtained a Rockefeller grant, it was steered that I modify the title [laughs]. It was a very good play! The actors cherished it; Moses Gunn, Rosalind Money, Glynn Turman—all of them went out to Hollywood after that.
The factor that killed us was the evaluate opening night time. The critic didn’t suppose a lot of the play as a result of he thought it was a repeat of the concepts of LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka]. I used to be very influenced by Roi but it surely was a completely totally different work. My play was an allegory; his, Dutchman, was very modern. They each handled the theme of Black males and white ladies, so I believe the critic simply related the 2 and mentioned mine was a repeat of Roi’s. I used to be so disenchanted by that have, I finally gave up my intention of changing into a playwright.
However I did write 4 works: a full-length play, and three one-acts. I’m nonetheless kind of a closet playwright. I’ve a number of concepts.
Inform me in regards to the political group you have been a part of within the Sixties—the On Guard Committee for Freedom. Was it a direct political motion group?
Oh yeah, completely. It was fashioned with Cal Hearn, Calvin Hicks, Brenda Walcott, Aisha Rahman, Sarah Wright, and others. Amiri and Cal Hicks have been the leaders of the group. We had lots of the African-American intellectuals and artists from the Decrease East Aspect, which was the place we have been residing at that time. It was the civil rights motion, so we have been publicly engaged, giving speeches, passing out leaflets, and so forth.
Do you see a connection between the work you have been doing again then and the work of the Black Lives Matter motion now?
At the moment, we are saying “Black Lives Matter” and “I’m Not Your Negro.” However I assumed we’d mentioned that greater than fifty years in the past underneath Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In truth, we proved it, we fought for it. The murders of the civil rights staff Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney in Mississippi throughout the Freedom Summer season of 1964, the bombing of the sixteenth Avenue Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed 4 youngsters the 12 months earlier than—individuals gave their lives, and it was clear that we weren’t anybody’s negro.
Why are we elevating the identical cry at the moment? The election of an African-American president ought to have concluded all of the implications of the Civil Struggle. That ought to have finalized the entire drawback of racism—the election of a Black president.
Obama appeared to be moderately ineffectual—a pleasant man, a wonderful orator. He was elected on the concept that he was going to make some profound modifications within the sociopolitical cloth of this nation. However the a part of his legacy he appears to be most happy with was killing Osama bin Laden. I might have hoped that it will have been the resuscitation of, the revitalization of, the promise and hope within the internal metropolis.
In a single 12 months, twelve hundred Black youth have been shot on the streets of Chicago. Apparently, it didn’t matter a lot to the president. When the youngsters have been killed within the college in Newtown, Connecticut, he went there and made a really spectacular speech and wept. However I by no means noticed him go to Chicago to weep for the Black youngsters whose lives matter.
So Black lives should matter to individuals of different races. Apparently, they have to matter firstly to Black individuals, in order that we arise and we modify the state of affairs in our communities. We are able to’t try this with out assist from the bigger society.
Within the 1971 uprising at Attica State Prison close to Buffalo, New York, prisoners, most of them Black and Puerto Rican males, demanded an finish to bodily abuse by the white jail guards and higher residing circumstances. The four-day revolt escalated right into a standoff during which ten hostages and twenty-nine prisoners died by the hands of police. It shortly grew to become a logo of social injustice and systemic racism. You responded to this occasion with the album Attica Blues. Do you know immediately that you just wished to reply musically?
Nicely, really I hadn’t thought of it till my drummer on the time, Beaver Harris, got here to me and mentioned, “Hey, Shepp, let’s do an album in regards to the tragedy at Attica Jail.” I had an image in my thoughts of what the album would should be nearly instantly—that picture was like being launched from a shackled surroundings. I spotted that this was one thing I’d wished to do for a very long time. I used to be awash with concepts, as a result of they’d at all times been there. And now I noticed the connection these concepts had with the blues—to blues music, blues idioms—and the way they are often made political and related.
Up till that time, I believe most individuals knew you for taking part in free jazz. How do you know that for the Attica album, it needed to be the blues?
That was an vital transition for me as a result of individuals did affiliate me with the sort of music that’s extra free expression. I can keep in mind once I went house and your grandmother [Vertelle] mentioned, “Son, are you continue to enjoying the little tunes that ain’t obtained no melody?” [laughs] Working with my very own ensemble gave me the possibility to develop a few of my very own concepts and to return to blues, the place I had began.
When my mom died, in 1970, I recall a dialog with a girl who had been a very good good friend of the household. We have been sitting within the automobile after Mother’s funeral when she mentioned, “Nicely, Archie, I’ve obtained loads of your data. When are you going to play one thing that I can perceive?” It made me replicate on the truth that I used to be doing one thing that wasn’t connecting with individuals who have been essential to me.
Within the late Nineteen Seventies, I recorded an album of spirituals with Horace Parlan that obtained the DownBeat critics’ award. After we performed the primary music, I choked up. I instantly mirrored on my grandmother, Mama Rose, taking me to church once I was a little bit boy—and the “battles of music.” Battles of music have been musical competitions waged between gospel teams throughout church revivals. These have been the conventions for the gospel singers just like the Swan Silvertones, the 5 Blind Boys, and the Clara Ward Singers. They might all get collectively and it was fairly spectacular as a result of their music was provocative—provocative within the sense that it recalled the struggling and the enslavement of Black individuals: “Swing Low, Candy Chariot,” “My Lord, What a Morning.”
So, once we began the recording date, tears ran down my face, and I assumed for a second I couldn’t do the recording. I used to be too stuffed with recollections and emotion. However then I made a decision, if I don’t inform the story, who will? If I’m too stuffed with tears, nobody will ever know the reality. And I held again these emotions in order that I might be the messenger of a narrative that wanted to be advised.
There may have been no music with out that have. There may’ve been no blues if I hadn’t heard my father sing the blues, if I hadn’t seen my father endure the blues and seen my mom endure the blues. So the story I’m telling is basically the story of my life.