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

By Published: December 19, 2004

As BAG continued to develop, its members formulated a coherent guiding philosophy, the goal being "to bring performances and arts instruction of high quality to the St. Louis community..., to synthesize the proud black past with the black present, and to bring together many art forms into a unifying experience."

Many of the musicians in BAG already lived or subsequently took up residence in LaClede Town, a federally funded, mixed-income housing complex built on sixty five acres between Channing, Ewing, and Laclede Avenues and Olive Street on the edge of downtown. LaClede Town, with its racial and economic diversity, small-scale design, and its residents' varied mix of professions, proved an excellent breeding ground for artistic endeavor as well as for social activism. Architectural historian Ramin Bavar contrasts LaClede Town with the superblock complexes typical of the time (including the neighboring Pruitt-Igoe), recounting that "[l]ittle stores were placed throughout the project for various uses such as: a barber shop, laundry, a small grocery, coffee shop, and a bar with a sidewalk café. The project was designed at human scale and it tried to bring back some of the old ways of life." Planners envisioned the complex as an "urban utopia." To the sometimes-idiosyncratic director Jerome Berger, one of the most important principles was diversity, and he tried to keep LaClede Town integrated; during the late 1960s, the project was 50 percent white, 40 percent black, and 10 percent other minorities, including many immigrants to the U.S. BAG trumpeter Floyd LeFlore fondly remembers his days living in LaClede Town and the "real cultural experience" LaClede Town's racial, socio-economic, and immigrant mix provided for his children.

LaClede Town's Circle Coffee House, where saxophonist The Lake Art Quartet got its start, hosted poetry readings, productions by improvisational theater groups, and performances by future BAG saxophonists Hamiett Bluiett and Julius Hemphill. In many ways it became the center of life in the community. Open to unusual artistic ventures, the Circle Coffee House was where Parran first heard the instrumental combination of a sax- duo sans rhythm section, as Hemphill joined forces with then-St. Louisan David Sanborn. Hemphill recalls the help that BAG members received from LaClede Town director Berger: "[He] allowed us to use his office so that we could put out mailings to people around the community about our group's projects. We got non-profit status, incorporated, and put on our initial program at the City Art Museum." Berger believed the success of the housing community depended on the participation of residents in its cultural life. He provided musicians performing at the Circle Coffee House three months of free rent in order to encourage a creative and active social environment within LaClede Town.

The BAG members living there and elsewhere soon began using the Gateway Theater on Boyle Avenue (in St. Louis's Gaslight Square district) for more elaborate multimedia concerts and presentations, including the group's weekly performance series held Sunday evenings. The series included varied offerings, such as dance and music, but primarily strove for collaboration and a multidisciplinary approach. Thematic material evolved out of current issues in the black community and out of historical issues related to the African-American cultural experience. The phrase "layers of transparency," according to Malinke Elliott, summarizes how participants' interaction was geared in this multimedia setting, which also included films developed for rear-screen projection during shows. "Our idea was that no one element of theater should dominate; the lighting and everything was ... one seamless tapestry," he says.

Perhaps it was the complex interweave of various artistic mediums with trenchant cultural themes that led BAG poet Bruce Rutlin (then known as Ajule) to comment, "We're not artists. We're cultural aestheticians." Because of the interartistic diversity of performances, reviewers sometimes had difficulty characterizing BAG productions, calling them everything from ballets to operas to dance dramas. Elliott draws a parallel between the heavy emphasis on improvisation in the theater component and the free jazz of the BAG musicians. "A lot of times people would approach us and ask to see the scripts for the performance, and we had no scripts," Elliott remembers; "It had all been improvised and worked out in rehearsing. We collaborated continuously."

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