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

By Published: December 19, 2004

It could be that there is a singular way that they would like everyone to operate within a certain system. Somebody doing something outside of that isn't really brought forward or put in the mainstream. Because of this practice, people are not aware that there's another thing happening that is completely different or from another angle which might make them think a little more. The more docile and trained they keep the masses, the less trouble.

Former Washington University ethnomusicologist Ingrid Monson suggests that black jazz musicians in the mid- and late-1960s hoped that their music would continue to be popular with African-American audiences, even as the music moved farther towards experimental, avant-garde, and free jazz. (She describes groups led by arts leaders such as Amiri Baraka using federal money to drive through the streets of New York blasting the free jazz of Sun Ra into African-American neighborhoods.) But jazz critics stopped promoting free and avant-garde music after Coltrane's death in 1967, says local jazz radio host Owsley, who claims, "When Coltrane died it was like the sun went out."

Instead of embracing the increasingly dissonant and seemingly esoteric music, large portions of the African-American music-listening community turned to R&B, soul, Motown, and funk, even as jazz critics turned their attention towards fusion, a new electrified blend of jazz, rock, and other styles. Of course, part of the commercial marginalization of jazz was due to repression by reactionary police agencies (through drug charges, removal of caberet cards, and so on) and an increasingly conservative music business network, both of which limited opportunities, especially for black experimentalists. However, BAG musicians such as Lake continued to work in the free and avant-garde tradition of late- period Coltrane and his '60s sidemen.

In addition to finding performance space, developing audiences, and creating recording opportunities, BAG members worked to gain nonprofit status and incorporate. Unlike their AACM counterparts in Chicago, BAG members actively sought and obtained financial grants from local organizations such as Monsanto, the Danforth Foundation, and the Missouri Council for the Arts, as well as from the New York-based Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In April 1968, the Rockefeller Foundation approved a grant of $100,000, which, paired with a matching grant from St. Louis's Danforth Foundation, was for the establishment of Artist-in-Residence programs and Cultural Enrichment Centers in St. Louis and East St. Louis. In press releases, the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis, the administrator of the combined grant, noted, "The cultural enrichment centers would be an extension of an experiment now being conducted in East St. Louis on a limited scale, under auspices of Southern Illinois University, by Miss Katherine Dunham." The reputation and recognition that dancer and artistic leader Dunham already enjoyed by that point was one key to the grant applications' success.

The Artist-in-Residence Team, or AIR Team as it came to be known, operated on the Missouri side of the river and overlapped to a great extent with the personnel, goals, and activities of BAG. The program was designed to place professional artists in a variety of mediums in work/living spaces throughout inner-city St. Louis, where they could conduct classes for youth and hire several part-time youth apprentices to assist with their work. The AIR Team "was created out of the conviction that the inner city of St. Louis needs the presence of creative, professional working artists living and working in its midst just as it needs lawyers, doctors, educators, etc.," according to a publicity brochure. The Arts and Education Council selected Hemphill, BAG's first chairman, as the director of the AIR program, and named BAG's Lake the director of the AIR Team's music component. "This partnership developed as a result of the similar goals that both these groups have set for themselves," the BAG-AIR consortium announced.

"The whole [BAG] concept really came together when we got some grants together," Floyd LeFlore maintains. This grant money allowed salaries for members of BAG, both musicians and artists in other mediums, to teach free classes and private lessons for disadvantaged African-American youths in St. Louis. The idea for classes also may have originated with the AACM in Chicago, which opened its free music school in 1969 and at times had up to fifty inner-city youths enrolled. The goal of the BAG-AIR center, said Hemphill in the SSt. Louis Post-Dispatch, would be "to make black people more aware of their creative potential."

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