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Poets of Action: The Saint Louis Black Artists' Group, 1968-1972 (Part 2-4)

By Published: December 19, 2004
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4


The new intersection of politics and the arts that emerged in the 1960s enabled BAG members to engage in projects reflecting some of the political and social tenor of the time. The theater component of BAG, in particular, chose to tackle experimental and highly political material, exploring important social issues of the late '60s and early '70s. BAG's members were influenced especially by the political prose, plays, and poetry of radical writers such as Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins, Jean Genet, and Frantz Fanon, and Elliott urged BAG members to become "poets of action." Scholar Peter Madden declares, "The awareness of class issues beyond just the [artists'] own advancement, as demonstrated by ... BAG's participation in activism like a rent strike, posit the collectives as progressive entities with an acute understanding of the problems facing their communities."

LeFlore remembers that the musicians did not always set out to address social issues in their music. Nevertheless, LeFlore adds, the music couldn't help but reflect many important trends and issues because of the way in which music and sociopolitical concerns intertwined in the late 1960s. "All different types of music were doing that: acid- rock, rhythm-and-blues, jazz," LeFlore says. Similarly, Oliver Lake in a 1998 interview remarked:

I never really thought of [BAG'S work] as political. ... In the '60s, when the BAG started, there was so much politics, even the way the BAG started, how it was named was political, because of the civil rights movement that was happening. So everything that you did was interpreted as a political move. We had our own building, we were teaching, presenting ourselves, that in itself was a political statement that we were taking control of our musical destinies.

BAG's involvement in local activism led to relationships with other artistic groups with varying political and aesthetic goals. The Human Arts Ensemble (run by BAG drummer Charles "Bobo" Shaw), the Big River Association, and the Solidarity Unit, interracial musical groups that included non-BAG members, were examples of the loose offshoots of BAG often put together for specific benefits, recording projects, or concerts.

The importance of African American artists' collectives went beyond their involvement in activist causes, says Monson: "I think they had an enormous symbolic value ... in the sense that in the early '60s there starts to be a lot of examination of the racial stratification of the economic structure in the jazz business." Indeed, saxophonist Archie Shepp once poignantly referred to jazz clubs as "crude stables where black men are run until they bleed, or else are hacked up outright for Lepage's glue." The movement towards artistic collectives gathered steam from the unfair treatment black artists frequently received at the hands of white record executives and club owners, or the downright exclusion from white theater and dance companies and venues; examples of such collectives included trumpeter/composer Bill Dixon's Jazz Composers' Guild, Rahsaan Roland Kirk's Jazz and People's Movement, the Collective Black Artists, and Amiri Baraka's Harlem-based Black Arts Repertory Theater, as well as, in some ways, Sun Ra's Arkestra. By organizing their own performance venues and recording opportunities, not controlled by white club promoters or record label bosses, Monson contends that "it felt like the musicians were trying to take control of the means of production." The founders of the collectives simultaneously defended themselves from exploitation by organizing their own appearances and took responsibility with other members of the black community by training young artists in various fields.

The Afrocentric consciousness that arose in the black community during the 1960s also was evident in the music and lifestyles of BAG's artists. The group may have been formed to increase exposure and earning power for the members, but a more coherent philosophical direction began to emerge. Oliver Lake remarked that the influence of the Black Power movement had created "energy towards having groups in the community" in St. Louis. It is within BAG's community-oriented framework that we can see what scholar Paul Gilroy has called "the power of music in developing black struggles by communicating information, organising consciousness, and testing out or deploying the forms of subjectivity which are required by political agency"; Gilroy highlights here the nexus of artistic, political, and cultural practices that was central to the group's philosophy.

Musically, BAG embraced many of the sounds being created by better-known free- jazz musicians in New York and their emerging counterparts in Chicago. This new music, itself, carried social implications, such as those of the tempestuous and seemingly unstructured group improvisations. Critic Frank Kofsky in 1970 controversially wrote:

Collective improvisation symbolizes the recognition among musicians that their art is not an affair of individual 'geniuses,' but the musical expression of an entire people-the black people in America. ... In every respect the combined social-musical revolution in jazz amounts to a repudiation of the values of white middle-class capitalist America. This is most obvious from the statements of the musicians themselves; but it is also apparent (to those who trouble to listen with open ears) in the wild and exciting music which the revolution is producing.

While many critics and musicians would dispute the far-left analysis of writers like Kofsky, several of BAG's members did see a strong connection between the new musical dialects and emerging social phenomena. J. D. Parran remembers that the intense new music, with innovations such as "open tonality and form as well as unmetered rhythmic momentum ... excited some while it confused and horrified others, musicians and lay listeners alike." Yet jazz radio host Owsley claims that, due to the city's conservatism, groups in St. Louis found it difficult to present a set of ideas overtly tied to the Black Power or other radical political movements. Parran recalls, "Early Afro-centric Free Jazz could not find refuge in traditional venues such as black churches and public schools," remembering also that the conservative St. Louis society, including many blacks as well as whites, frowned upon "Afro"-styled hair and dress.

But the city's relative social conservatism did not prevent the group from displaying more subtle aspects of the Black Power movement's philosophies. Madden asserts, "Presenting themselves as serious artists and intellectuals, the collectives were living up to the examples of respectability that had been set by popular figures like Coltrane, King, and Malcolm X." Indeed, an important component of the Black Power movement was a conservative notion of personal responsibility. The often-aprocryphal stories surrounding jazz legends such as alto saxophonist Charlie Parker unfairly presented the black jazz musician as a drug-addicted womanizer, and members of BAG worked hard to counteract these derogatory stereotypes. As Oliver Lake recalls, BAG members were acutely aware of these images, and actively sought to avoid them: "We're not going to eat any pork, not going to take any drugs... We were responsible, and still are."

Musicians in BAG also counteracted negative stereotypes surrounding black jazz musicians by holding daytime performances in their own building and performance spaces, separating the music from what was often seen as the "illicit atmosphere of nightclubs and the attendant drugs and drinking." Indeed, members of the group seemed always to prefer non-club settings: from the Circle Coffee House in LaClede Town and the BAG building in Gaslight Square to the American Center in Paris and the mid-'70s "loft-jazz" scene in New York City. With its own building, BAG changed the traditional context of jazz performance. "Rejecting traditional modes of jazz performance carried an ideological dimension that was consistent with the unique musical philosophy of the collectives," contends Madden. By collaborating with artists in other fields, creating new performance venues to replace static nightclub appearances, and operating a school, BAG members expanded their positions to empowered and inclusive roles such as—in the words of J. D. Parran—"musician/educators" and "cultural ambassadors."

In a similar vein, scholar and trombonist George Lewis—a member of the AACM—has claimed that an expanded role for the black artist became necessary in the face of "a wide-ranging denial of African histories, [which] could well result in the erasure of cultural memory." BAG and AACM members functioned not only as artists but also as scholars, historians, educators and cultural critics as part of an intervention in this process. Elliott, in his 1971 Black Theatre Notebook (both acting manual and cultural critique), commented on BAG's increased orientation towards the needs and experiences of its own community: "Black arts is family and the black arts movement considers any concept that places the black artist outside of his community as a western corruption of that natural unity of aesthetics and ethics." The group's artistic focus on its local context thus exemplifies what sociologist Les Back has called "community as a narrative achievement."

In addition to the voluntary behavioral codes, new performance settings, and black audience orientation that the group adopted, BAG's incorporation and creative use of so- called traditional African influences was another manifestation of the period's social and political tenor. Jazz scholar Monson comments, "The whole point of embracing Africa is something most of these groups were really into-wanting to validate African roots, a lot of them experimenting with African instruments, especially percussion instruments, and entitling tunes with names suggestive of Africa." Certainly members of BAG exhibited signs of the emerging Afro-centric consciousness. Hemphill's record label, mentioned earlier, bore the African-inspired name Mbari, and his first album was called Dogon A.D. after an African ethnic group living along 125 miles of rocky escarpments to the southwest of the Niger River bend. BAG's dance instructor Georgia Collins (the first black dancer to appear with the New York City Ballet) featured much in the way of "authentically derived" African dance in BAG productions, remembers Elliott. Album covers and pictures of BAG musicians in Paris also show them dressed in African clothing and patterns. In 1979, Hemphill commented on the positive response his music usually received from black audiences: "Without being condescending, I'd say that black audiences are like home ground. Nowadays, with the advent of communications and what not, I think that white people have a more literary approach."

While grant money helped establish the important educational programs of the AIR-BAG team, the money and programming disappeared within several years. The tenor of the artists' work, and especially of the dramatic performances, made the funding agencies, the Danforth Foundation, in particular, reluctant to continue supporting the project. The Rockefeller Foundation's Norman Lloyd listed a number of concerns voiced as early as September 1969 by Danforth Foundation president Merrimon Cuninggim: "The program has tended to exacerbate white-black relations and increase rather than diminish tension ... [and t]here have been no effective working relationships set up between the Katherine Dunham group and the AIR-BAG group." Cuninggim characterized as "starry-eyed" the glowing BAG reports of Michael Newton, president of the Arts and Education Council, which administered the grant. The Danforth Foundation's consultant for the project, Gene Schwilk, reported to the Rockefeller Foundation his concern that artists were more interested in "social reform" than "art," citing involvement of the artists in housing strikes and demonstrations. Norman Lloyd told the Rockefeller Foundation, "[Schwilk] feels the contact between blacks and whites in the program has been very limited. The impact of the program has been mainly on black youth. Artists have been heavily involved in social reform efforts. ... [The program] is not particularly aimed at Danforth's definition of urban problems."

The charge that BAG exacerbated racial tensions, claims Elliott, never was expressed to the group's leadership, instead being voiced only in a series of private memos and telephone conversations between Danforth and Rockefeller personnel and their consultants. Elliott heatedly disputes the suggestion that BAG exacerbated racial tensions, arguing that "BAG performances at that time in St. Louis [were] the only place where you had blacks and whites communing together, enjoying each other, understanding where we each were coming from, and contributing to one another." Elliott also highlights the number of white youths who were taught in the BAG school. Nonetheless, for a variety of reasons, most local and federal grant money had disappeared by the eve of the BAG musicians' move to Paris.

Continue to Part 3...

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