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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 began adding more performances and artists, the participants took their artistic collaborations to a variety of venues around town, including Washington University, St. Louis University, the Loretto-Hilton Center at Webster College, the Page Park YMCA, and the Pruitt-Igoe housing project. Many of the performances on college campuses were enabled through the student activity funds that became available with the advent of the student protest movement. Performances began to draw a diverse crowd, which LeFlore says included intellectuals, white progressives, "right-on black brothers," people from the St. Louis County suburbs, and residents of the city's north-side African-American neighborhoods. The typical audience was about 60 percent black and 40 percent white, and Elliott recalls that audiences "were usually very raucous and spirited. ... People would get caught up in the moments of the drama, where they would shout things..., or spontaneously applaud, or even augment the drama by jumping into the aisles and doing their own thing."

The associations and musical give-and-take between St. Louis's avant-garde musicians and Chicago's AACM didn't end with the formation of BAG. LeFlore remembers a reciprocal agreement of sorts between the two groups, with joint performances in Chicago and St. Louis on a regular basis. Trumpeter Lester Bowie, former St. Louisan and a founder of AACM-outgrowth The Art Ensemble, was an important link between BAG musicians and their colleagues in the Windy City, especially since his brother Joseph was a trombonist in BAG. "They would come down here, we would go up there," said Hemphill of the AACM members; "We had a kind of exchange program." This reciprocity between artistic collectives also came to include other cities, including performances with the Artists' Workshop in Detroit. The cooperation led to an affinity of style; LeFlore says there is still a distinctive sound to former BAG and AACM musicians that no one else has: "That will always be a part of me. I can hear it in my playing now."

The atmosphere in St. Louis at the time of BAG's formation was not particularly receptive to the new sounds being explored by Lake, Hemphill, and their musical comrades. Lake describes the lack of new-jazz venues and audiences as part of the impetus for forming the Black Artists' Group: "In St. Louis, it was about doing it or nothing would happen. If we wanted to get exposure for what we were doing, the only way to do it was to make it happen ourselves. Once we did realize that, things happened for us, we were really successful in St. Louis." Hemphill concurs regarding BAG's interest in taking a proactive promotional role, saying, "In the '60s, there was a lot of interest in exploring unfamiliar territory, in putting on concerts instead of waiting for someone else to do it, in playing in places other than clubs." Members of BAG actively promoted their own productions in response to the lack of established performance venues.

Despite a rich tradition of black music in St. Louis, few career opportunities existed for St. Louis's black musicians. African-Americans were excluded from careers in the St. Louis Symphony, the advertising industry, and the socialite gig scene. Local recording opportunities were mostly limited to vanity pressings and demos, many produced by saxophonist and recording engineer Oliver Sain in his studio on Natural Bridge Road. In Chicago, the AACM managed to develop fruitful relationships with critic John Litweiler of Chicago-based Downbeat magazine, the most widely read jazz magazine in the U.S., and producer Chuck Nessa of Chicago-based Delmark Records. The AACM's Roscoe Mitchell recorded his first album in 1965, but such opportunities for exposure were not readily available to BAG's musicians. Oliver Lake, for instance, didn't put out a record as a leader until 1971, when the Arista label released NTU Point From Which Creation Begins. Thus Hemphill started his own local record label, Mbari, to counteract the lack of opportunities to record and document the music of BAG and other new musicians. In liner notes to Arista's 1978 re-release of Hemphill's 1972 LP Dogon A.D. on the Mbari label, reviewer Robert Palmer wrote that in the six years since its original release, the album had "become an underground classic, and reviewers in various publications have compared it to the finest works produced by improvising musicians during the past decade." While suffering from poor distribution, Mbari reflected BAG members' proactive role in attempting to develop a niche in the St. Louis arts community.

Difficulties certainly existed in garnering exposure for music and drama which increasingly stood outside the mainstream. Oliver Lake describes the struggle to achieve visibility for such music and its attendant social ideas:

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