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Poets of Action: The Saint Louis Black Artists' Group, 1968-1972 (Part 1-4)

By Published: December 19, 2004

The free and avant-garde jazz scene that Lester Bowie found in Chicago became, in many ways, the model for the musicians remaining in St. Louis. The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) had been formed in Chicago in May of 1965. Composed primarily of members of the South Side African-American community, most AACM musicians had experience in blues and gospel. They had met as part of the Experimental Band, a group exploring European classical concepts such as polytonality, chromaticism, and serialism as well as free jazz and collective improvisation under the leadership of Muhal Richard Abrams. Many of the future BAG members worked along similar musical lines, developing and building upon the vocabulary of late-period Coltrane and free musicians such as saxophonists Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp. At the same time, BAG members explored modernist European ideas including serialism and the work of composers such as Stravinsky and Schoenberg, fusing elements from a wide variety of sources into their musical aesthetic. When future BAG members first began experimenting, "traditionalists said they were crazy," remembers former BAG trumpeter Floyd LeFlore. Yet, LeFlore claims, such experimentation allowed leeway for musicians to "mess up" and make mistakes as part of their process of artistic development.

In St. Louis, Lake's group The Lake Art Quartet debuted at the Circle Coffee House in LaClede Town in 1967. Saxophonist Julius Hemphill, originally from Fort Worth, settled in St. Louis in the late 1960s after earning his bachelor's degree in Music Education at Lincoln University in 1966. Despite his musical education and navy band experience, Hemphill was initially excluded from the blues and bebop scene by club owners and other musicians due to his atypical style and tastes, one former BAG member recounts. With Chicago's AACM as a model, Hemphill, fellow Lincoln University alumnus Oliver Lake, and other black St. Louis musicians began to consider forming a similar cooperative to facilitate wider exposure and garner additional playing opportunities. Lake describes returning from a visit to Chicago and calling a meeting of his like-minded musician friends. "In our meeting," he recalls, "I suggested that we become a branch of the AACM. Julius [Hemphill] then suggested that we form our own group which included all the artists we had been associated with-poets, visual artists, dancers and actors."

While future BAG musicians developed plans for a collective, impetus was also underway to form a black theater company in St. Louis. Actor and director Malinke (originally Robert) Elliott had been discussing with Country Day School English teacher Russell Durgin the possibility of establishing such a company to provide a focus for the young and developing black theater community in St. Louis. Elliott says, "Out of these discussions we decided that the best way to bring everyone together was to initially have some kind of common experience of working together." Eventually Elliott and others decided on a performance of French playwright Jean Genet's The Blacks as their first collaborative effort. The Blacks (first published as Les Negres in 1958) is a play within a play that, according to one critic, "stands as the obituary of [white] mastery." The play depicts whites watching a group of blacks enact the fabricated story of a rape in a minstrel-show atmosphere, which reinforces the whites' image of them, but meanwhile other blacks are engaged in subversive activities elsewhere.

During the planning period for the play, Elliott remembers that Lake and other musicians contacted him about collaboration with their planned artistic collective. Eventually, the actors and musicians decided, according to Elliott, that by integrating music into the production, The Blacks "would be a perfect vehicle for us all to get together, collaborate, have a common experience, and would be a great foundation to establish a group." The production, Hemphill recalls, served as a catalyst for the formation of BAG in bringing together a range of black artists from various disciplines: "A number of people before that I didn't know, mainly actors, were cast in the play and there was a concentration of talents there." The performance took place in July 1968 at Webster College's Lorretto-Hilton Center, and in both its emphasis on social commentary and its integration of music and drama, it presaged many of the multimedia performances BAG would undertake. The following month, the artists mounted a presentation of music, dance, and poetry at the City Art Museum, and the well-attended concert was also the first occasion that the BAG musicians performed as a large ensemble.

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