Interview: Archie Shepp on John Coltrane, the Blues and More

Phil Freeman talks to the legendary jazz man about his work.

Saxophonist, educator and playwright Archie Shepp has long been a crucial figure in American jazz. Complex and multifaceted, he’s difficult to pigeonhole, but his first decade-and-a-half as a leader includes some of the most forceful and important jazz – free, bluesy, swinging, gospelized – ever recorded.

Shepp debuted in Cecil Taylor’s band in 1960, but it was a friendship with John Coltrane that finally brought Shepp into the spotlight: He played on tracks that were recorded for A Love Supreme, but not released until 2002, and also appeared on 1965’s Ascension. The two saxophonists’ groups also split a live LP, 1965’s New Thing at Newport. Shepp’s Impulse! debut as a leader, Four for Trane, featured reworkings of four Coltrane compositions and one of his own.

Between 1964 and 1969, Shepp recorded regularly for Impulse! Albums like Fire Music, On This Night, Live in San Francisco, The Magic of Ju-Ju, The Way Ahead and Mama Too Tight are blustery, forceful outings that combine blaring free jazz fury with tender ballads, interpretations of vintage jazz standards, dramatically recited poetry with a civil rights/social revolutionary tone, and a deep feeling of and for the blues.

In the summer of 1969, he traveled to Paris, and joined a group of avant-garde players who recorded for, and performed at festivals sponsored by, the upstart BYG/Actuel label. Making several albums, and guesting on several more between 1969 and 1971, his sound grew even more radical and fiery, and groups came to encompass not just horns, piano bass and drums but harmonica, various vocalists, violin, electric guitar and more. Discs like Blasé, Black Gipsy, Poem for Malcolm and Yasmina, A Black Woman contain some of the most arresting music of the period, even incorporating Touareg percussionists on Live at the Pan-African Festival.

When he returned to the United States in the early ’70s, Shepp’s music shifted gears again. As the political fires of the ’60s burned down, and jazz became art music for the white middle class, he embraced vernacular African-American forms more explicitly, incorporating funk, soul, gospel and more of the blues than ever. Attica Blues, a mournful response to a prison uprising, juxtaposed Duke Ellington-esque big band swing, Isaac Hayes-esque orchestral funk, deep blues balladry, poetic recitations, and even an album-closing ballad, “Quiet Dawn,” sung by a child. Albums like For Losers, The Cry of My People and Things Have Got to Change offered additional, and at times equally rewarding, takes on this “trans-African” blend of sounds.

In the ’70s and ’80s, Shepp almost entirely abandoned the avant-garde and soul/funk/R&B both, choosing to concentrate on the blues, gospel and the jazz tradition. Releasing mostly live albums, and collaborating with a broad range of American and European musicians, he explored standards and ballads. At times, music of rare beauty resulted, as on Goin’ Home, an album of saxophone-piano duo versions of spirituals and gospel tunes recorded with Horace Parlan. But as jazz got more gentrified and festival-oriented, it became difficult for him to retain an audience in the US, and most of his albums were made for European labels like Enja, Soul Note, and Steeplechase.

Last year, Shepp revisited the music of Attica Blues on I Hear the Sound, a live recording with the Attica Blues Orchestra, featuring guests like pianist and singer Amina Claudine Myers, Art Ensemble of Chicago drummer Famoudou Don Moye, and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. This was his third time recasting this music; in 1979, he released a double album, Attica Blues Big Band, which featured a nearly 40-piece ensemble. I Hear the Sound was funded through Kickstarter, and appears on his own Archieball label, which he’s been running from his home in Paris for a decade.

What was your first recording session as a leader?

That’s quite a while ago; it was with Bill Dixon. We had an arrangement at a studio in New York called Gulf Sound Studios, and the man who was the engineer was named Art Chryst. We did several recordings, and one of them we managed to sell to Herman Lubinsky at Savoy Records.

What did you see as the aesthetic common ground between you and Bill Dixon? Your approaches to the music seem very different.

Well, in fact, Bill was like an older brother to me. He was at least ten years older than I am, and maybe more than that, and at the time we were broke, looking for a gig, and didn’t have anyplace to work. Personally, I always liked Bill and respected him; as a younger man, he always gave me good advice. So first we were good friends, and then musically, everything else just fell into place. At the time, I had just been fired by Cecil Taylor, and I needed a place to work, as he did. Bill was doing some copying, copying music for George Russell at the time, and his ideas coincided with mine. It was a period in which, because of my having worked with Cecil, I had a much more experimental perspective on the music, and we coalesced and got together very easily. We had a very good relationship.

What was your relationship like with John Coltrane? You played on A Love Supreme, though the tracks weren’t released until later, and you were on Ascension, and you recorded his songs on Four for Trane. Was there a sense from Impulse! that you were being groomed as the next man in line?

Oh, I don’t think so. What eventually happened was rather fortuitous for me, in the sense that I had the chance to meet John Coltrane and it was he who was the intermediary for me, in connecting me with Bob Thiele and Impulse! Records. In fact, Bob was totally negative in terms of doing that recording [Four for Trane]. I had been calling him for months, trying to get him on the phone, and his secretary always told me he was either out to lunch or he was gone for the day. [laughs]

He said, “You’re a free jazz player,” which I wasn’t. My father was a bluesman, I grew up with the blues.

But by this time I had met John Coltrane, and John’s always been a hero to me, and was certainly very helpful in my career. I spoke to him personally and told him that I’d been trying to reach Bob, and I never could get him, and so he told me – the way he would answer was, he wouldn’t say he’d do it, he said, “I’ll see what I can do.” And the next day, after months of calling Bob Thiele, I called him again, and his secretary Lillian, whom I got to know rather well after some time, she said, “Well, Bob’s out to lunch, but he’ll be back in an hour.” [laughs]

So John had apparently spoken to him, and we arranged to do this recording, and even then I think he tried to turn me off by saying, you know, “You’re a free jazz player,” which I wasn’t. My father was a bluesman, I grew up with the blues. It was only because of Cecil Taylor and my association with him that he had turned me in another direction. So Bob said, “You’re a free jazz player, and really what I wanted was someone to play Coltrane’s music.”

You’ll see on the album [cover photo], John [Coltrane]’s not wearing any socks, because he got out of his bed to come hear the recording.

Well, I knew about this predilection on his part, that he did want someone to record, to cover John’s music, and I had already been working on it, in fact. I had chosen the songs we would do – which appear on that album. So I told him, “No problem, I love John’s music.” In fact, the night of the recording, at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio, Bob was there – he was totally in bad spirits, totally against this recording, and was way at the other end of the studio when we did the first track.

He smoked a pipe – you could see him smoking the pipe like a chimney. But after the second or third cut we did, he said, “Hey, this stuff isn’t so bad!” So he got on the phone and called John, and said, “Hey John, this stuff is great!” Because he didn’t like free music, but that wasn’t exactly free music. I wasn’t Albert Ayler or Ornette. I had a very clear concept, to try to fuse so-called standard jazz with the New Thing, and I think it came out rather well on that album. So by the fourth song, he called Trane and told him he should come down to the studio and listen to the music. Which he did. He was living on Long Island, and it was about 11 PM when Bob called. So you’ll see on the album [cover photo], John’s not wearing any socks, because he got out of his bed to come hear the recording.

Your Impulse! albums had a lot of blues and standards in addition to free music – did you think other players were ignoring the blues, to their detriment?

Well, I wasn’t so much concerned about what other people were doing, though some other people seemed to be concerned about what I was doing; they accused me of selling out by playing the blues and so on. But I was raised with the blues, my people were blues people, so I’ve always felt that was an essential element of African-American music, whether one decides to call it “free” or whatever. It should never lose that aspect of the blues.

I think that’s borne out by the music of people like Charlie Parker, and Coltrane, who was an excellent blues player. In fact, in my estimation, any of the great improvisers and performers in this music have always been great blues players. That’s true of Art Tatum and Fats Waller [for example], and those who can’t play the blues are really, I believe, somehow outside the box.

When you came back to Impulse! in the early ’70s, your music had a lot more elements of soul, R&B, larger ensembles and things – what inspired you to make that change?

Well, part of it had to do with discussions I had with people that were close to me, like my mother. My mother died rather early, when she was 50, but I remember one of my last conversations with her, where she asked me, “Well, son, are you still playing those songs that don’t have any tunes?” And I thought about that. Later, just after her funeral, I spoke with a friend of hers, and she looked at me with this sort of quizzical look and asked, “When are you going to record something that I can understand?”

Very few black people really listened to what I was doing.

I began to see and reflect that basically the audiences for this music were essentially white, middle-class audiences. That very few black people really listened to what I was doing. Even though I had a very strong blues background, I rarely played the blues, I didn’t play standards or songs that might have appealed to them like the recordings of Horace Silver, Freddie Hubbard, or Lee Morgan…so at that point I began to think maybe I should include some of the experience of my youth. I’d played a lot of songs, ballads and so on, growing up in Philadelphia, and maybe I should begin playing some of this music that people could understand. Today it’s different. A lot of younger players have come along, David Murray and people like that, who actually play the kind of music I played then and have found an audience for it.

Attica Blues is one of your best-known records from that period – how did it come together, and what was the inspiration for it, beyond the riot that gave it its title?

Yeah, that was the inspiration – not only the prison uprising, but the fact that there were several rebellions, prison rebellions going on at that time. The ’60s was a time for change, and during my formative period, when I was a younger man, I was very much a part of the civil rights movement that was taking place at the time. So the recording had a lot to do with the whole civil rights ambience, from a political point of view. But from a musical point of view, I got to really explore my interest in the blues and write some compositions that were blues and ballad-oriented.

And you recently revisited that music with the big band, so how would you contrast the newer versions of those songs with the older ones?

Well, in some ways I prefer the second recording, the one that was recorded at the Palais des Glaces, because of the level of musicianship. We had [trumpeter] Eddie Preston, [trombonist] Charles Greenlee, we had 39 pieces on the album, an outstanding ensemble. Some things could not be repeated, but I think on this last recording we did get a feeling which is new, which introduces some very interesting young people like Cécile McLorin Salvant, a very fine young singer, Ambrose Akinmusire.

One of the albums you did in the 70s – Goin’ Home with Horace Parlan – was very interesting; it put you in a whole different light. What are your feelings about that record now?

Oh, it’s still one of my favorite recordings, because it really reaches deep inside, as far as my feelings. I remember we did these spirituals, and somehow before we started to record, I felt full, as though I was going to cry, and I had to really get hold of myself. And I thought, well, if I’m truly too moved to make this recording, I’ll never make the statement that this music requires. So I got myself together, and I think all of that feeling went into the recording, and when I listen to it, I’m very sensitive to what state of mind I was in when I did it, and I think a lot of it comes through in the music. Especially a song like “My Lord, What a Morning.”

You’ve done a few duo records – do you think that kind of very intimate setting works well for your particular sound on the horn?

Actually, I prefer to have at least a trio. I’ve gotten used to playing piano duo combinations partly through working with Horace, because he’s such a great accompanist and has such a wonderful feeling, a deep spiritual feeling on the piano no matter what he plays. So I eventually got used to working without bass and drums, though I still prefer to have at least bass in context of a piano and, when possible, to have a full quartet. But there are things you can do within the duo context that are very special and personal, that can reach an audience.

For the last 10 years you’ve been running Archieball, your own label, and now that you’re doing it, do you have sympathy for the labels you recorded for over the years? What did you learn from them that you’re applying now?

Well, that most of them are crooks. No, my sympathies for record label owners haven’t improved any, but Archieball is pretty much what I expected – it’s working hard, not making very much money. At some point, if we ever do make any money, I’d like to be able to help other musicians to get their careers off the ground.

By Phil Freeman on August 25, 2014

On a different note