‘The Story I’m Telling’: An Interview with Archie Shepp
My father, the saxophonist Archie Shepp, has recorded more than 110 albums since 1962, performed all over the world, and received numerous honors, including the 2016 Jazz Master’s Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. In the 1960s, he helped define “free jazz,” a new idiom in which the details of melody, harmony, and rhythm are all improvised to create a grand conversation: voices rise and fall, sometimes echoing one another, sometimes dissonant and discordant. In the 1970s and 1980s he wove the blues into his music, extending our understanding of this tradition. His cultural influence reaches far beyond the realm of jazz, touching artists as diverse as Ntozake Shange and Chuck D.
When I was growing up with my parents, brother, and two sisters in an apartment on Cooper Square in the East Village, my father always worked late, going to bed at four or five in the morning even when he wasn’t performing. His “studio” was separated from our apartment by a creaky hallway. But in the dysfunctional design of tenement buildings, the bathtub was part of that unit, so we sometimes trooped through rehearsals wet and shivering, and I would go to bed listening to him playing with Roswell Rudd, Beaver Harris, and other musicians.
My father was a revolutionary, both musically and politically. His music is intimately connected with the Black Power movement of the 1960s. At home there were Black Panther Party magazines lying about, and it was around the dinner table that I first heard of the Tuskegee Experiment, the FBI infiltration of the Black Power movement, and the fact that Thomas Jefferson had fathered Black children. Mostly, though, the talk was of music. I remember hearing stories about Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and other people my father knew; about the 1969 Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algeria, which he participated in while visiting Eldridge Cleaver in exile; about Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and one of her last performances on the Lower East Side, which my father had attended shortly before her tragic death.
It felt important, in this moment of great social change, to ask my father the question “What is the role of the artist?” Our conversations on this subject—and many others—began in September 2018 and have continued up to the present. What follows is an edited compilation of those discussions.
My father—your grandpop—was a real blues man! He played banjo; his tastes leaned toward blues and the music of the 1940s. He was a fan of the Mills Brothers, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. He didn’t like Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, that was not his thing—Mr. Meyers introduced me to music that came after the blues. In fact, Mr. Meyers took me and my friend, the bassist Reggie Workman, to hear Charlie Parker at the Met in Philadelphia. But the banjo was my first instrument, really. I grew up with that sound in my ear and that kind of music really motivated me.
Did you ever meet Charlie Parker?
In a manner of speaking. That concert at the Met was in 1954, less than a year before Parker died. Reggie and I were both about sixteen years old.
Bird [Charlie Parker] was two hours late for the performance, and it turned out that Herb Gordy—another neighbor—had had to get Bird’s horn out of pawn. Gordy was an unsung genius who had arranged Bird’s music for a thirty-nine-piece orchestra that night.
It was like waiting for Godot, you know. It was summer and the sun went down late. I was very discouraged; I thought that we weren’t going to see Bird.
So I went outside onto Warren Avenue. I saw this guy—huge, corpulent—from the back, walking with a blond white woman. Immediately, I knew this must be Charlie Parker because no Black man in Philadelphia would dare to be walking with a blond woman. Especially during that era.
His suit was so wrinkled that even the cuffs of the pants had wrinkles. And he wore what was perhaps the first afro that I’d ever seen. You couldn’t see his ears, he had a growth of hair—because he was a drug addict and he didn’t always take care of his… couture. But I knew it was Charlie Parker, even though I didn’t see his face. I went back into the theater, and maybe twenty minutes later he came in. And he really played.
For some musicians, their music and their politics don’t interact that much. But for you, they have. How did that come about?
Well, that’s existential. Having been a victim of social and political oppression, it was only natural that it would influence my music, my art, my writing.
How did that process play out for you? In the 1950s, there wasn’t much space for a young Black musician, just starting out, to express a radical politics.
I joined the pianist Cecil Taylor’s band almost immediately after I got out of college. He himself was very politically engaged—you don’t necessarily know that from his songs, and his approach to music. But it was Cecil that got me into what they called “free jazz.” He turned my whole concept of music around.
I would never have thought of myself as a free jazz musician while I was growing up in Philadelphia. I grew up around people like Lee Morgan, Jimmy Oliver, Jimmy Heath, Bobby Timmons, and, though I hadn’t met him yet, John Coltrane—people who were very influential to me. And they had nothing to do with what you would call “free music.” It was only when I met Cecil, that’s what he played. And he gave me my first chance to make a professional recording.
He was very aware of who he was as a Black man. The first time I heard about Malcolm X was from Cecil Taylor. I used to go to Cecil’s house every day and practice his music, which was very complicated. I had to pay a lot of attention to his work in order to learn it. After we’d finished our rehearsals—frequently, it would just be him and me—we would just talk. We’d talk for hours sometimes.
You also mentioned writing. What kind of writing have you done, and how did that come about?
When I was in college, I had intended to become a lawyer. I had the idea that I wanted to help create social and political change in the lives of my people.
In my sophomore year at Goddard College, I took a course in short-story writing with the man who created the theater department, Joe Rosenberg. He said to me, “Archie, you write dialogue very well. Have you ever thought about becoming a writer?” Well, I hadn’t, because where I grew up, Black people were not known for writing anything.
The idea of becoming a writer really intrigued me. After Goddard, I worked with Joe on a play called Heaven, which I wrote. Then my play Junebug Graduates Tonight was produced off-Broadway. It was originally titled The Communist, but after I got a Rockefeller grant, it was suggested that I change the title [laughs]. It was a good play! The actors loved it; Moses Gunn, Rosalind Cash, Glynn Turman—they all went out to Hollywood after that.
The thing that killed us was the review opening night. The critic didn’t think much of the play because he thought it was a repeat of the ideas of LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka]. I was very influenced by Roi but it was an entirely different work. My play was an allegory; his, Dutchman, was very contemporary. They both dealt with the theme of Black men and white women, so I think the critic just associated the two and said mine was a repeat of Roi’s. I was so disappointed by that experience, I eventually gave up my intention of becoming a playwright.
But I did write four works: a full-length play, and three one-acts. I’m still sort of a closet playwright. I have several ideas.
Tell me about the political group you were part of in the 1960s—the On Guard Committee for Freedom. Was it a direct political action group?
Oh yeah, absolutely. It was formed with Cal Hearn, Calvin Hicks, Brenda Walcott, Aisha Rahman, Sarah Wright, and others. Amiri and Cal Hicks were the leaders of the organization. We had many of the African-American intellectuals and artists from the Lower East Side, which was where we were living at that point. It was the civil rights movement, so we were publicly engaged, giving speeches, passing out leaflets, and so on.
Do you see a connection between the work you were doing back then and the work of the Black Lives Matter movement now?
Today, we say “Black Lives Matter” and “I’m Not Your Negro.” But I thought we’d said that more than fifty years ago under Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In fact, we proved it, we fought for it. The murders of the civil rights workers Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964, the bombing of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four children the year before—people gave their lives, and it was clear that we were not anyone’s negro.
Why are we raising the same cry today? The election of an African-American president should have concluded all the implications of the Civil War. That should have finalized the whole problem of racism—the election of a Black president.
Obama seemed to be rather ineffectual—a nice man, an excellent orator. He was elected on the idea that he was going to make some profound changes in the sociopolitical fabric of this country. But the part of his legacy he seems to be most proud of was killing Osama bin Laden. I would have hoped that it would have been the resuscitation of, the revitalization of, the promise and hope in the inner city.
In one year, twelve hundred Black youth were shot on the streets of Chicago. Apparently, it did not matter so much to the president. When the children were killed in the school in Newtown, Connecticut, he went there and made a very impressive speech and wept. But I never saw him go to Chicago to weep for the Black children whose lives matter.
So Black lives must matter to people of other races. Apparently, they must matter first and foremost to Black people, so that we stand up and we change the situation in our communities. We can’t do that without help from the larger society.
In the 1971 uprising at Attica State Prison near Buffalo, New York, prisoners, most of them Black and Puerto Rican men, demanded an end to physical abuse by the white prison guards and better living conditions. The four-day revolt escalated into a standoff in which ten hostages and twenty-nine prisoners died at the hands of police. It quickly became a symbol of social injustice and systemic racism. You responded to this event with the album Attica Blues. Did you know right away that you wanted to respond musically?
Well, actually I hadn’t thought about it until my drummer at the time, Beaver Harris, came to me and said, “Hey, Shepp, let’s do an album about the tragedy at Attica Prison.” I had a picture in my mind of what the album would need to be almost immediately—that image was like being released from a shackled environment. I realized that this was something I’d wanted to do for a long time. I was awash with ideas, because they’d always been there. And now I saw the relationship these ideas had with the blues—to blues music, blues idioms—and how they can be made political and relevant.
Up until that point, I think most people knew you for playing free jazz. How did you know that for the Attica album, it had to be the blues?
That was an important transition for me because people did associate me with the kind of music that is more free expression. I can remember when I went home and your grandmother [Vertelle] said, “Son, are you still playing the little tunes that ain’t got no melody?” [laughs] Working with my own ensemble gave me the chance to develop some of my own ideas and to go back to blues, where I had started.
When my mother died, in 1970, I recall a conversation with a lady who had been a good friend of the family. We were sitting in the car after Mom’s funeral when she said, “Well, Archie, I’ve got a lot of your records. When are you going to play something that I can understand?” It made me reflect on the fact that I was doing something that wasn’t connecting with people who were very important to me.
In the late 1970s, I recorded an album of spirituals with Horace Parlan that got the DownBeat critics’ award. When we played the first song, I choked up. I immediately reflected on my grandmother, Mama Rose, taking me to church when I was a little boy—and the “battles of song.” Battles of song were musical competitions waged between gospel groups during church revivals. Those were the conventions for the gospel singers like the Swan Silvertones, the Five Blind Boys, and the Clara Ward Singers. They would all get together and it was quite impressive because their music was provocative—provocative in the sense that it recalled the suffering and the enslavement of Black people: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “My Lord, What a Morning.”
So, when we started the recording date, tears ran down my face, and I thought for a moment I couldn’t do the recording. I was too full of memories and emotion. But then I decided, if I don’t tell the story, who will? If I’m too full of tears, no one will ever know the truth. And I held back those feelings so that I could be the messenger of a story that needed to be told.
There could have been no music without that experience. There could’ve been no blues if I hadn’t heard my father sing the blues, if I hadn’t seen my father suffer the blues and seen my mother suffer the blues. So the story I’m telling is really the story of my life.