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Negro music and culture are intrinsically improvisational, existential.
Nothing is sacred. Archie Shepp – 1990









Archie Shepp was born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on May 24th, 1937, but raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he studied piano, clarinet and alto saxophone before focusing on tenor and soprano saxophone. He is best known for his passionately Afro-centric music of the late sixties which focused on highlighting the injustices faced by the African race, as well as for his work with the New York Contemporary Five and his collaborations with his “New Thing” contemporaries, most notably Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane.

He studied dramatic literature at Goddard College, earning his degree in 1959. He played alto saxophone in dance bands and sought theatrical work in New York. He also produced plays, among them The Communist in 1965, and Lady Day: A Musical Tragedy in 1972 with trumpeter/composer Cal Massey.


The following conversation took place in Toronto the summer of 1985.

Are people beginning to treat you as a more traditional artist these days?

Well yes, it’s hard to accept me that way, but I suppose they are. I think music, especially this kind of music, is very much involved with the time or the period in which it’s played, so people grow up with it, unlike Western classical music. They develop almost an allegiance to a certain style of music. For example you have people who listen to Louis Armstrong in the nineteen-twenties and say he didn’t play anything after that. It’s unfortunate because it doesn’t allow us the same flexibility in this area to change, even to re-create music from past eras. People feel you’ve defected somehow from your generation. I think it’s all about generations, this music. I notice my audience, at least the hard core, the old guys, are all getting grey and bald like me. The kids who are coming out have not heard a lot of this music, so in order to form a kind of connection I do try to play some of the more melodic things, and the kinds of things they have some reference to.

People expect re-created music; you go through all the styles or periods of the artist, but in a music like this that is being created on the spot, you might say, there are other social factors involved.

In the early times when you first became a player, in 1960 with Cecil Taylor, that was considered in its day to be a revolutionary music, by the audiences.

Yes I think so, and by my own standards I still consider it so given the organization of those pieces and the fact that they were being done for the first time. Also Cecil [Taylor] writes quite differently to Ornette [Coleman] or John Coltrane. Both John and Ornette were primarily dealing with short forms of music — haiku, 32-bar, but Cecil I think broke that by bringing to the small group a concept of larger structures.

They probably sound “inside” now, whereas at the time they were breaking new ground. Since groups like Anthony Braxton and the Art Ensemble of Chicago and David Murray, who evolved out of that period, it’s sort of standard fare in a way. People have become more sophisticated, those who listen to that sort of music. Unfortunately not a lot of people listen to that kind of music.

There was a great deal of difficulty in that time to be recorded at all. Because Nat Hentoff had the possibility to record you for labels like Candid — that was the only reason you got recorded.

That’s right. Archie Bleyer, who was working with Arthur Godfrey [arranger, bandleader and record company executive], was making a lot of money and he decided to invest in this jazz label. So I got the chance to record, because I had just joined Cecil Taylor’s group.

In that same period you were seriously beginning to be a writer of plays and poetry.

I had a piece that was produced off Broadway, originally entitled The Communist. It was produced under the title June Bug Graduates Tonight. It’s now published in the Black Drama Anthology, a good anthology published by Signet Books. As a written work. [Still available as used from several sources]

One of the other people in that period who had access to record companies was Bill Dixon — Savoy Records.

Right. Actually I might have turned Bill onto Savoy. He became a good friend of the assistant producer there. Bill did some artwork for them and stayed on there for quite a while. We had a good quartet, a good idea during that time [1962]; I think we produced a lot of good music.

Bill was very helpful to me in learning how to write. I didn’t write at all during that time, and he did quite a bit of writing, as well as copying for George Russell. He and Roswell Rudd were very helpful to me in learning how to notate music. I used to have a lot of problems with it. Still do — I still notate in a personal way as far as academically trained musicians are concerned. It seems as though I can never satisfy them. But I think it’s improved a bit since those days.

Archie Shepp with Jimmy Garrison & Beaver Harris

Archie Shepp with Jimmy Garrison & Beaver Harris










You were one of the first musicians to take the music into Europe and introduce the new music of that period to European audiences with the New York Contemporary Five [1963].

That’s right. John Tchicai was very instrumental in that. He did a lot to help put the group together, in fact we impacted very strongly on the European audiences. Much stronger than I thought we would. We had a lot of confidence and we had good musicians. J .C. Moses [drums], Don Moore [bass], John Tchicai [alto saxophone] and of course Don Cherry [trumpet]. It took place mostly in Copenhagen, Denmark, and we were also in Sweden; although we did not get up as far as Norway and Finland.

How would you come upon a Danish player like John Tchicai?

Quite fortuitously. John had come to the United States seeking to make it as a musician. At the time the lady who was his wife worked for the Danish Embassy. John was a chef in a Swedish restaurant. Word got around downtown that there was this cat who sounded like Ornette, but he sounded like two Ornettes. So I really wanted to hear this guy and when I heard him he really knocked me out. He was playing with Don Cherry and that’s how the idea began. We were all very young and all very excited. The criticism they all had of me — the one that’s lingered through the years — was that I was playing too long. The drummer and I used to get into big arguments; God bless him, J.C. [Moses], I really love the guy, he used to shout on the bandstand: “Next man next man!” You know. To tell me to stop playing. We had really terrible arguments about that.

In this same period, which I think is the development period of the so-called American “new music”, we come upon the Jazz Composers Orchestra [1964], and the Jazz Composers Guild. You were actively involved in that.

Archie Shepp & John Betsch

Archie Shepp & John Betsch


Yes I was. That was a very crucial time for new music. Albert Ayler, Paul Bley, Carla Bley, Sun Ra, there were a lot of people. The idea was essentially Bill Dixon’s. Bill you know, has a very creative mind that way, especially organizationally. When I met him he was working for the United Nations. He’s a person who is well accustomed to putting together group situations, and he managed to organize this setting, which I thought was very positive. That’s the one drawback: we were all struggling at the time, and I had just, through the good graces of John Coltrane, been offered a contract with ABC Records [Impulse], and the group charter had decided that we were not going to record,

we were going to withhold our services. Well this turned out to be perhaps one of the biggest debates in the organization because people thought that guys like me were scabbing out. But I explained that as the father of four children, and most of these people were single, and when they were married they didn’t have any children, so they didn’t understand my position at all. I was on welfare, and I had struggled for years, for just this chance, and as I advised them, by our holding out on the record companies we were by no means going to stop the jazz record industry from recording. We were not going to break them. So as it turned out I did hold on to my record contract, and I think it was a good decision, because the Guild eventually broke up. It was a good idea, but to make those kinds of demands of musicians was somewhat unrealistic. This was a record contract with Impulse and John Coltrane had helped me to get that, and Bob Thiele [producer] had been very impressed by my first record Four For Trane.

People often refer to you being very influenced by John Coltrane, both as a player and a spiritual person. Would that be true?

Well certainly as a musician, and certainly I feel influenced by his perception and the perspective that he brought to music, from a social political standpoint. He seemed to understand a lot about generations: the fact that in order for this music to evolve, and I think it’s been proven correct, by the things we see today — older players, players who had some stake in this, today guys like Miles Davis who made money, have to begin to invest their time, energy and so on into the bringing up of younger players of newer experiences in the music. He [John Coltrane] was perhaps the only one who saw and anticipated that this music would change, and was flexible enough, at least in his outlook, to have a philosophy that would have accommodated that change.

And so the first record that you did for Impulse, Four For Trane, is a thank-you to him.

It’s a strange thing. Bob Thiele had been very averse to my recording for Impulse. In fact he didn’t like the so-called “new music” at all. He accepted John’s innovations because they sold, and they had a lot of money, but the young guys who were coming out of him, who often played a lot less melodically, he couldn’t understand that. It turns out that John had offered the prospect to record to a then-young saxophone player, Byron Allen, and Byron had known Trane through his brother, or something like that, and Trane had offered him the possibility to record for Impulse. Then he met with Bob Thiele, who had this gimmick he would use. He would tell all the new players — “Well if you are going to take this option to record that Trane has offered you, you’ve got to play all his music.” Which would usually turn most of these avant gardists away. But I had been a student of Coltrane’s music for years, and I really liked his music, so when I heard that Byron had turned down the record date — which he did, because he wanted to do all original music — I remember very well I had a conversation with Bill Dixon, it was perhaps just after I’d had a big blowout with Miles [Davis] in the Village Vanguard (he wouldn’t let me sit in; of course we became friends later, but I was young then and I reacted very sensitively to the way he treated me). The next day I was talking to Bill Dixon. Bill’s about ten years older than I am, and he was a confidant as well as a colleague, and I was telling him how on welfare it was hard for me and my family and I was trying so hard to get a record date but Bob Thiele, whom I used to call up with my welfare money — I lived on a fifth floor walkup, I would take a dollar a day in dimes and I would call Bob ten times a day, this went on for months and he was never in according to his secretary.

This evening after this blowout with Miles, I was talking with Bill and he said, “Well why don’t you ask John Coltrane to get you a record date?” he said sort of gruffly — “He’s supposed to be a friend of yours isn’t he?” As a young man I had never really thought of it, but then I remembered this story of Byron Allen having been offered the record date and having turned it down — so why the hell not, I’ll ask John. Because I wouldn’t mind recording his tunes at all. So I went to the Half Note where he was playing and on his intermission, I wanted to ask him, but I was really very shy, so I hemmed and hawed, and he sort of looked me down — he said “Shepp what are you trying to ask me” so I said, John, I want to get a record date, can you help me. And for the first time he looked at me in a way that was rather stern and he sort of looked through me and he said, “You know a lot of people take advantage of me because they think I’m easy.” That’s what he said — he looked me straight in the eye like that. So I trembled because I didn’t want him to think I was thinking he was easy. But it was an insight into John that I had never seen, he had never talked to me that way before. Then he said, “Okay, I’ll see what I can do.” The next day I called Bob Thiele and I got him on the phone for the first time ever. That was the start of a ten-year association with the company. In fact, when he made the gimmick, the deal, you are going to have to do John’s tunes, I said I’ve got them all arranged, we’ve been rehearsing, we’re ready. That was the Four For Trane date.

In that period [1965] you presented poetry with music on record, that apart from Langston Hughes, Leroi Jones and Charles Mingus, was not a common occurrence.

Of course Duke [Ellington] had done some things earlier — Peter And The Wolf and those kinds of things, and he had done some monologues that I had found very impressive, but also my theatre training in college was very helpful. I had heard Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, which showed me records had dimensions other than musical works.

One of the great ones is the poem for Malcolm X, Malcolm, Semper Malcolm. He was a very strong political force for young black musicians and artists in America at that time.

No question about it. I was very moved by the assassination of Malcolm X. However I would say my earlier training since I was born in the south, I am a southern negro as Cecil Taylor always points out, it made me first aware of Martin Luther King and I was always very close to the things that Dr. King was trying to do. Because I felt that if you put King and Malcolm together you had a real political solution for black people in the United States.

Considering what we were just talking about, about how difficult it was originally for you to record on Impulse, eventually when John Coltrane made the record Ascension [1965], which was a very startling record, it seems almost impossible to think now, based on what you’ve told me, that such a record would ever take place.

John was a nexus, a connection between his generation, of so-called “beboppers” and what he himself was about to create. What they call the avant garde today. I say he created it because in a sense he was able to synthesize in his work, perhaps the most important innovations of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, and to maintain the basic elements that we consider vital to the organization of black music. Namely — swing. Because Trane was never an intellectual or academic musician, he was always a real hard swinger. I think what upset a lot of people is that he could combine all the theoretical, the most innovative qualities of his time and his peers into the context of “hot music”. All the guys he chose for Ascension felt very sympathetic with his efforts because, like Coleman Hawkins before him, I think he was very much in touch with the tenor of the time, so a record like Ascension if I think of an analogy: there was a baseball game, the American League Championship, and they asked one of the players, a black player who was an outfielder — was he scared when the ball was hit out there to him, and it was the last ball of the game, and it was the winning catch? And he said, “no man I was just waiting on it to get there”. That was the feeling of the Ascension date, that many of the people there, we were right on time.

End Notes:
• I’ve posted a companion piece to this – A Dutch Treat – Fontana Recordings from the 1960s – at On The Radio
• This conversation was originally published in the October/November 1985 issue of Coda Magazine.

Recommended Recordings:
Ascension (Impulse)
Four For Trane (Impulse)
New York Contemporary 5 (Storyville/Sonet)
Cecil Taylor with Archie Shepp (Real Gone Jazz – a budget label 4CD set of early recordings)
Bill Dixon / Archie Shepp – Quartet (Savoy)
Bill Dixon / Archie Shepp – 7-Tette (Savoy)

Imagine The Sound (Sphinx Productions) (DVD) (A documentary that features Paul Bley, Bill Dixon, Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor. Produced by Ron Mann & Bill Smith)