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'Poets of Action': The Saint Louis Black Artists' Group, 1968-1972 (Part 3-4)

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


After four years of operation in St. Louis, the leading musicians of BAG had grown frustrated with the lack of opportunities in St. Louis and in the United States. As mentioned earlier, Hemphill's record label Mbari, which he started because few domestic labels would record BAG's type of music, suffered from poor distribution. Outside of a small underground arts audience, most St. Louis jazz fans in this period had little interest in the type of music played by BAG, and the Mbari records received no local radio play. The final decision to leave St. Louis, however, was precipitated by two more specific occurrences: the disappearance of grant funding and the AACM's glowing reports of opportunities in France.

In June 1969, the Anthony Braxton Trio and the Art Ensemble, both groups that had developed from Chicago's AACM, moved to France with no booked performances or engagements. Within two months of their arrival, the groups had recorded six records and appeared in numerous live and televised concerts. Several of the returning AACM musicians stayed in BAG's St. Louis building following their work in Paris. Lake recalls, "My friend Lester Bowie had arrived in Paris a couple of years before with the Art Ensemble and when he returned he was very excited about the acceptance of the music; hence my interest was piqued." The combination of diminishing grant money in the U.S. and the plethora of overseas musical opportunities recounted by Bowie and his comrades had enticed leading BAG musicians to leave St. Louis. Their destination, Paris, had been a traditional host for marginalized African-American visual artists, musicians, and writers. Monson cites musical examples ranging from singer/dancer Josephine Baker (another St. Louisan), trumpeter Louis Armstrong, and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins to bebop musicians such as Charlie Parker and Kenny Clarke, and avant-garde performers like Steve Lacy and Archie Shepp. "One of the things about European audiences is that [they] always respected the avant-garde explorations," she remarks.

Oliver Lake remembers, "BAG had begun performing throughout the St. Louis bistate area and we were looking to expand our musical and performance horizons, so we said, 'Let's go to Paris'." Eventually Oliver Lake, Joseph Bowie (brother of Lester Bowie), Baikida Carroll, Charles "Bobo" Shaw, Floyd LeFlore, and several others raised enough money in St. Louis for the trans-Atlantic trip and purchased two vans for driving to the French provinces for gigs. Their first gig, a televised concert at the American Center (a Parisian cultural organization that played host to many of the more radical American artists of that era), was cancelled because of a French television strike. However, the appearance was rescheduled and the group immediately began to attract the attention of listeners and the press as well as obtaining money from the French Ministry of Culture.

Admiring features appeared in French magazines, and the BAG musicians in return admired the knowledgeable French audiences. "It seemed the French were more educated, because we were doing some more abstract stuff. There were kids over there who could tell you about Louis Armstrong, and who knew who Sun Ra was, which was really impressive," says LeFlore. BAG and AACM musicians achieved much higher visibility in the French mainstream press than at home, and the French jazz press seemed to take the BAG musicians, in particular, far more seriously than St. Louis music writers of the time. Reviewing an October 1972 concert featuring several BAG members, a writer for the French Jazz Magazine commented on the "politics of exchange" between the AACM and BAG and lauded the "many tries, meetings, exposés (that seem to be practiced with care), of vagabond-likeness within the sounds." The critic also made clear that the BAG and AACM musicians did not produce a monolithic body of work, writing:

Concerning the sound work ... the B.a.g. musicians cleanly distinguish themselves from those from Chicago. First in their use of relationships between sound and silence, breath and music. ... Here the music is often born of a very progressive invasion, very slow, of space. Here also, the gesture precedes the sound and participates in the music.

While Paris would provide a congenial respite for BAG musicians, eventually they and their AACM compatriots migrated to New York City, where they came to dominate the influential "loft-jazz" scene of the mid-1970s. In this case also, the musicians eschewed the traditional club setting, taking advantage of a city government program that subsidized use of city-owned loft space for artistic purposes. Former BAG member Hamiett Bluiett says, "The critics who were going to the different halls where they were supposed to be were bored. They came downtown where we were playing in the different lofts, and they began jumping up and down." The New York members of BAG carved out a niche in the jazz scene. Three of them-Hemphill, Lake and Bluiett (along with David Murray of Berkeley, CA)-formed the World Saxophone Quartet, which The New York Times hailed as "probably the most protean and exciting new jazz band of the 1980s."

The artists, actors, dancers and musicians remaining in St. Louis did not fare as well in the subsequent period of grant cuts. In 1977 jazz critic Valerie Wilmer observed, "Sadly, BAG exists now only on a spiritual level. Its members continue to work together and exchange ideas, but the demise of the group was hastened by the collapse of their funding programme which coincided with the departure for Europe of their five leading members. Unlike the AACM, the younger members proved insufficiently mature to carry on the aims of BAG." St. Louis jazz was dealt another blow when, after the merger of the black and white musicians' unions (American Federation of Musicians Local 197 and Local 2) in the early 1970s, the black union's rehearsal hall was closed. But many of the participants always had seen BAG's demise as inevitable and felt that it had served its purpose during the years of its existence. "BAG was an evolutionary process, and so I never lamented the passing of BAG," says Elliott; "BAG was merely a seed that allowed so many of us to develop out into the world community of arts." By the time of BAG's demise, the influence of the collectives as models for other artists had grown, and critic John Litweiler observed that by 1975 "any number of music-producing cooperatives had appeared, some to thrive, others to disappear, from California to Connecticut and also in Europe."


How did St. Louis become, for a few short years, a crucible for such creative vitality and experimentation? Urbanist Peter Hall, in his study of creative milieux in European and American history, identifies several factors leading to periods of cultural innovation in urban settings. Among these is the material context: state of economy, mode of production, relationship between social classes, and so on; artists work "against the background to their life's experience, which is powerfully shaped by the state of the world they grow up in." Hall also asserts that marginality, due to ethnicity, gender, or class, can be key in a creative process nourished on constant interface with mainstream or establishment culture. In addition, "structural instability," or an ongoing shift in the organization of society leading to a genuine uncertainty about the future, is often a feature of urban creative milieux. In the St. Louis of the late '60s, we see these forces at work in interconnected ways: BAG members nourished their art from prevailing social, cultural and economic conditions and directed it back towards the same set of conditions; the artists drew from their experiences as a marginalized racial and occupational group; and BAG's artistic ferment was uniquely situated at a time of local and national "structural instability."

For a short time, wrote participant J.D. Parran, the St. Louis black collective "formed and flourished, then disappeared from its urban community setting. But for a few years, productive years, it nurtured and gave voice to the burning creative impetus at large in that city and the nation." While St. Louisans still on occasion run across former BAG members in performances around town, it is odd that BAG has not been the subject of more extensive scholarship or attention in the popular press. As former U.S. Congressman William Clay has noted in his introduction to Discovering African- American St. Louis, "The role played by black Americans in the history of our country has been ignored, distorted, and downplayed ... by those who write the textbooks and ... by the so-called master historians." The Black Artists' Group provides one of St. Louis's most important links to the emergent Black Arts Movement of the late '60s and early '70s; by joining together social concern and artistic innovation, the BAG school, the multimedia performances, and the group's social agenda significantly reshaped the St. Louis arts landscape. The astonishing artistic richness of the Black Artists' Group deserves to emerge into full view as a unique and engaging effort to discover an artistic voice adequate to the social and cultural dislocations of its time.

Continue to Part 4...

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