Poets of Action: The Saint Louis Black Artists' Group, 1968-1972 (Part 1-4)
St. Louis has always been careful to cover its tracks, razing its history so it can start over again with a clean slate. Occasionally, though, the past sticks a foot in the door of the future and demands to be let in. One such stubborn caller, whose voice has been muffled, but not quite silenced, is BAG.
Between 1967 and 1972, St. Louis was home to an arts cooperative known as the Black Artists' Group or BAG, which brought together and nurtured local African American experimentalists involved with theater, visual arts, dance, poetry, film, and jazz. The members of BAG, inspired by the formation of artistic collectives around the country, particularly Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), fused ideas of artistic modernism with the local experience of blacks, Afrocentric ways of viewing art, and traditional forms of blues, jazz and narrative expression with social activism and a communal focus. But unlike other artistic collectives of the period, BAG was fundamentally committed to a collaborative interweaving of its members' diverse artistic mediums. Most significant, perhaps, were BAG's theater and music components. The musicians built on the free-jazz vocabulary developed by John Coltrane and others before his death in 1967, and their innovations later energized the seminal mid-'70s loft- jazz scene in New York; meanwhile, BAG's actors and directors developed a theater which provided an engaging synthesis of avant-garde European techniques with cultural traditions of African Americans and issues of importance to progressives generally.
The group, in embracing much of the program of the Black Arts Movement, was emblematic of an emerging social phenomenon; many of its founders, in the words of former BAG saxophonist J. D. Parran, "were entering new territory culturally and politically as well as artistically." During their time in St. Louis, these artists not only contributed to the cultural richness of the city, but also created a strong model for interartistic cooperation and arts-driven social activism.
BAG emerged from two parallel trends towards consolidation in the black St. Louis arts world of the late 1960s, in theater and in jazz. Although rooted in the underground free jazz scene that emerged in St. Louis during the mid-1960s, the musical segment of BAG found fertile soil in a St. Louis that had produced a number of nationally recognized black musicians during the 1940s and 1950s, including Clark Terry, Miles Davis, Grant Green, and Jimmy Forrest. The amateur and semi-professional local music scene also was lively at the time, with members of the black community actively participating in drum and bugle corps, school music programs, church choirs, and dance and jazz ensembles.
The St. Louis scene changed to reflect the times following the bop era, with a small but healthy cadre of free jazz musicians developing new sounds and interests. Noted trumpeter Lester Bowie started out as a participant in this scene, but decided that the opportunities for his music were better in Chicago and moved there in 1966. The free jazz community that Bowie left behind was relatively concealed from the St. Louis music- listening public. Many of these musicians made their livings playing bebop or rhythm and blues, gathering to rehearse newer styles at the home of saxophonist Oliver Lake or in Forest Park. Local jazz radio host Dennis Owsley, who came to St. Louis in 1969, describes these free-jazzers gathering at Art Hill in Forest Park and playing in different intrumental combinations. These groups almost never included a complete rhythm section, mirroring their future nonstandard groupings.
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.
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."
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:
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."
Eventually the cultural enrichment center component of the grant and the Artist-in- Residence component came to operate independently. Katherine Dunham proceeded with her cultural enrichment centers in East St. Louis, while the BAG-AIR group developed different goals and objectives. "The St. Louis group went for younger artists, mostly local," reported Norman Lloyd, the Rockefeller Foundation's director of arts programs, in June 1969; "These younger artists do not want to accept Katherine Dunham's role as leader, since they want to develop their own style. ... The program, therefore, has been split into two parts-one for St. Louis and one for East St. Louis."
As BAG expanded its membership and received more funding, the group was able to move into its own building, complete with living quarters, performance space, and a teaching area. By July 1969, the BAG-AIR group had obtained (for a nominal annual rent of one dollar) a building on Washington Avenue, located several blocks from the Pruitt-Igoe housing project. The building would serve as a center and site for classes. Monsanto soon renovated one first-floor room for the group; another room served as space for theater and dance workshops, rehearsals, and classes. Upstairs was a huge loft, ideal for a painting studio. "Twenty four hours [a day] for the next several years, you could walk into the BAG building and something would be going on," Malinke Elliott recalls of the nonstop teaching, rehearsing, and performing that took place at the center.
BAG members instructed young, mostly African-American aspiring artists over the course of several years at the center, usually averaging an enrollment of about fifty students at any given time. The teaching staff came to include Bruce Rutlin (creative writing), Georgia Collins (dance), Thurman Falk (film), and Emilio Cruz (visual arts), in addition to the BAG musicians and actors. Elliott's sister Marian Hill, BAG's staff secretary, served as the center's "house mother," proctoring the students and helping them to solve problems such as lack of money for instruments and books. Successful musicians such as clarinetist/saxophonist Marty Ehrlich and guitarist Kelvyn Bell, both now playing in New York, emerged from the BAG classes, as well as other artists such as poets Michael and Jan Castro.
Oliver Lake playing soprano: Photo 2001 by Roscoe Crenshaw
J.D. Parran: Photo 2001 by Roscoe Crenshaw
Julius Hemphill/Floyd LeFlore: Photo ca. 1969, courtesy Oliver Lake
Cast of a BAG play: ca. 1969, courtesy Oliver Lake