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

By Published: December 19, 2004
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The most thorough overview of the Black Artists' Group to date is Peter Madden's unpublished Master's Thesis, "Creative Collectivism: A Study of the AACM, BAG, and the CAC," (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, April 1996), though Madden's focus is only on the musical component. BAG's musical component is also briefly discussed in John Litweiler, The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958 (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1984), pp. 186-89; and Valerie Wilmer, As Serious As Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz (London: Allison and Busby Ltd., 1977), p. 222. To my knowledge, there is no published work on any of BAG's artistic components besides music. The two main BAG documents from the period are A Black Theater for St. Louis: A building proposal for The Black Artists' Group (St. Louis, MO: Privately printed, 1970), and Malinké Kenyatta [Robert Eliot], Black Theatre Notebook (St. Louis, MO: Privately printed, 1971); both have now been deposited in the MHS archives. Many of BAG's existing reel- to-reel recordings are no longer accessible, having been stolen from member Bakaida Carrol. Background materials on the local music scene might include William Howland Kenney, "Just before Miles: Jazz in St. Louis, 1926-1944," in Miles Davis and American Culture, ed. Gerald Early (St. Louis: MHS Press, 2001), and the Spring 1996 issue of the Black Music Research Journal, which focuses entirely on St. Louis.

Sources of the quotations are as follows: The remarks from Ingrid Monson, assist. prof. of music at Washington University 1996-2001 and now at Harvard, are drawn from an interview by the author, 02 December 1998. The remarks attributed to Dennis Owsley are drawn from a telephone interview by the author, 28 December 1998; the reference to Kelvyn Bell and Marty Ehrlich, as well as the statement that BAG albums received little or no local radio play, also rely on the Owsley interview. All remarks by Floyd LeFlore are from a telephone interview by the author, 18 December 1998. Oliver Lake's comments "In our meeting...", "I never thought of [BAG's work] as political..", "My friend Lester Bowie had arrived...", and "BAG had begun performing..." are from Lake's May 1998 interview by Le Jazz , 23 Nov. 1998; his remark "In St. Louis, it was about doing it..." is quoted on Gallery 41 , 23 Nov. 1998; "It could be that there is a singular way..." is quoted in Clifford Jay Safane, "The World Saxophone Quartet," Down Beat (October 1979), p. 29; his comments "energy towards having groups in the community" and "We're not going to eat any pork..." are quoted in Madden, pp. 24 and 26. Julius Hemphill's comment "A number of people before that I didn't know..." is quoted in Madden, pp. 23-4; the remark "[He] allowed us to use his office..." is quoted in Miyoshi Smith, "An Interview with Julius Hemphill," Cadence, vol. 14, no. 6 (June 1988), p. 14; his comments "They would come down here.." and "In the '60s, there was a lot of interest" are quoted in Harper Barnes, "Visit to St. Louis Stirs Memories of '60s for Julius Hemphill," SSt. Louis Post-Dispatch (9 April 1989), p. 3E; his BAG-AIR goal "to make black people more aware..." is quoted in "Black Artists' Center to Offer Free Classes," SSt. Louis Post-Dispatch , 13 March 1969; his remark "Without being condescending Parran's remarks "were entering new territory...", "open tonality and form..", "Early Afro- centric Free Jazz", "musician/educators", and "formed and flourished, then disappeared..." are taken from his unpublished essay "The St. Louis Black Artists' Group (BAG)," presented April 1999 at the University of California, San Diego as part of the symposium Improvising Across Borders ; other Parran remarks are from a telephone interview by the author, 30 August 2000. The Bruce Rutlin (Ajule Menelek) assertion "We're not artists. We're cultural aestheticians" is quoted in Malinké Kenyatta [Robert Eliot], Black Theatre Notebook (St. Louis, MO: Privately printed, 1971), p. 3. Malinké Eliot's remarks "[O]ut of these discussions...", The Blacks "would be a perfect vehicle...", "layers of transparency", "A lot of times people would approach us...", audiences "were usually very raucous...", "Twenty four hours [a day] for the next several years...", "BAG performances at that time...", and "BAG was an evolutionary process..." are drawn from his tape recorded correspondence to author, February 2001; his comments "Black arts is family..." and "poets of action" are from his Black Theatre Notebook, pp. 3 and 6. Hamiett Bluiett's remark "The critics who were going to the different halls..." is quoted in Safane, p. 29.

The early days of the AACM, as well as the school it ran, are described in John Litweiler, The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958 (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1984), pp. 173-84, and reciprocity agreements between collectives, including Detroit's Artists' Workshop, on p. 183. See, as well, the work of Ronald Radano on the AACM and on Anthony Braxton. On the AACM's relationship with Delmark Records and Downbeat, see Madden, p. 23. Robert Palmer's observations about the Hemphill album are from his liner notes to the Dogon A.D. re-release (1978, Arista 1028), reprinted in Setting the Tempo: Fifty Years of Great Jazz Liner Notes, ed. Tom Piazzo (New York: Anchor Books, 1996), pp. 244-5; the information about the Dogon ethnic group is also drawn from this piece, pp. 243-44.

The overview of the origins of BAG's theater component is based almost entirely on Malinké Eliot's tape recorded correspondence to the author, February 2001. The critical remarks on Jean Genet's play The Blacks are from Megan Conway and Joseph M. McMahon, "Jean Genet: 1910-1986," in French Novelists, 1930-1960: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 72, ed. Catherine Savage Brosman (Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1988), p. 184. The importance of The Blacks to another of the period's black collectives (this one in Britain) is mentioned in Anne Walmsley, The Caribbean Artists Movement: 1966-1972 (London: New Beacon, 1993), p. 208. BAG's goal "to bring performances and arts instruction..." is from A Black Theater for St. Louis, p. 1. The list of the "variety of venues around town" is from Parran, "The St. Louis Black Artists' Group [BAG]."

The information on LaClede Town is from Ramin Bavar, "LaClede Town: an analysis of design and government policies in a government-sponsored project," unpublished Master's Thesis (St. Louis: Washington University School of Architecture, 1995), especially pp. 79 and 83-4; and John M. McGuire, "Farewell to Utopia: LaClede Town Was a '60s Vision or an Urban Paradise," St. Louis Post-Dispatch (12 February 1995), p. 1D; though neither of these pieces mentions BAG. Regarding the Circle Coffee House, see also Architectural Forum (Nov. 1968): pp. 60-61, and regarding Lake's early appearances there (as well as a more general overview of Lake's career), see Harper Barnes, "Jazz Threads Through Life of Oliver Lake," St. Louis Post-Dispatch (14 February 1993), p. 6D. On the three months free rent for musicians, Floyd LeFlore, interview by author. The notes on Hemphill's early career rely on Parran, "The St. Louis Black Artists Group (BAG)." Parran's recollection of the Hemphill and David Sanborn sax duo is from the interview by author.

Regarding the collectives' rejection of the club setting, see Madden, pp. 26-7, (from which are drawn the quotes "the illicit atmosphere of nightclubs" and "[R]ejecting traditional modes of jazz performance..."); and George E. Lewis, "Singing Omar's Song: A (Re)construction of Great Black Music," Lenox Avenue: a journal of interartistic inquiry (Vol. 4, 1998), p. 75, who describes the "club-oriented, 'set'-based notion of temporal restriction" as leading to the "commodification and ultimate objectification of the music." Regarding the collectives' voluntary behavioral codes, see Madden, pp. 22 and 26; and a brief discussion in relation to Sun Ra's Arkestra in John F. Szwed, Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (Pantheon Books: New York, 1997), p. 117. Although many-if not all-BAG musicians appear to have had no problems with the terms "free" or "jazz" to describe at least some of their work, it must be noted that in the AACM and in the wider community of radical black musicians, one or both terms were often rejected for ideological reasons: see Lewis, pp. 81-6; and Michael J. Budds, "The Art Ensemble of Chicago in Context," Lenox Avenue: a journal of interartistic inquiry (Vol. 3, 1997), p. 66.

BAG's influence from Baraka, Bullins, Genet and Fanon is mentioned in Parran, "The St. Louis Black Artists' Group [BAG]." Regarding the increasingly limited opportunities for black experimentalists in the U.S., see Budds, especially p. 70. Comments on the limited career opportunities for black musicians in St. Louis draw from Parran, "St. Louis Black Artists Group (BAG)." The Frank Kofsky quote is from his book Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), pp. 139-40. The Archie Shepp quote is taken from Kofsky, p. 145. Litweiler's evaluation of Oliver Lake's musical style is from The Freedom Principle, pp. 187-8. Madden's quotes "Presenting themselves as serious artists..." and "The awareness of class issues..." are from "Creative Collectivism," pp. 28 and 30. The Paul Gilroy quote is from his important book on ethnicity and culture The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 36. Les Back's phrase "community as a narrative achievement" is from his "Finding a Way Home Project" with Michael Keith and Phil Cohen, Working Papers 2 and 5, (London: Centre for Urban and Community Research & the New Ethnicities Unit, 1999). Lewis's comment "a wide-ranging denial of African histories..." is from his article pp. 72-3. Regarding my comment on BAG's "incorporation and creative use of so-called traditional African influences": "authenticity"- itself a construction of the colonizing West-is of course a problematic issue, especially in post-colonial studies. Important here is the self-conscious embrace of a racialized identity and continuous reinvention of Africa by an oppressed minority; the notion of "strategic essentialism" would be of interpretative value, though a discussion is outside the scope of this essay.

The examples of other artistic collectives (except for Baraka's group) are taken from Charley Gerard, Jazz in Black and White: Race, Culture, and Identity in the Jazz Community (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1998), pp. 95-6; Lorenzo Thomas, "Ascension: Music and the Black Arts Movement," in Jazz Among the Discourses, ed. Krin Gabbard (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995) briefly discusses Amiri Baraka's Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in Harlem, which sponsored concerts featuring Archie Shepp, Sun Ra's Arkestra, and Albert Ayler. The Jazz Composers' Guild is also discussed in Kofsky, p. 141. On Britain's Caribbean Artists Movement, see Walmsley. The Solidarity Unit, Children of the Sun, Human Arts Ensemble, and Big River Association are mentioned in Wilmer, p. 222, and Parran, interview by author.

The materials on the Artist in Residence Team and on BAG's grant funding are drawn from the Rockefeller Foundation Archives, Record Group 1.2, Series 200R, Box 289, Folders 2720-2722, copies of which were kindly given me by Mary Seematter. On the initial 1968 grant of $100,000, Rockefeller Foundation Resolution 68036, approved 04 April 1968 (Folder 2720). The quote from the Arts and Education Council is from "Grant Supports Art Program in St. Louis Model Cities Areas," publicity packet from Arts and Education Council press conference, 14 May 1968 (Folder 2721). Regarding Hemphill's and Lake's selection for the AIR-Team, Dr. Leo B. Hicks (Project Consultant), "Progress Report of the Inter-City Art Project Funded by the Rockefeller and Danforth Foundations," December 1968 (Folder 2721). Norman Lloyd's comment, "The St. Louis group went for younger artists..." is from his memorandum summary of an interview of Michael Newton, 02 June 1969 (Folder 2722). The description of BAG's new building at 2665 Washington Ave. is from Norman Lloyd's report to the Rockefeller Foundation after a visit to St. Louis of 16-17 July 1969 (Folder 2722). On the BAG building and classes, see also "Black Artists' Center to Offer Free Classes," St. Louis Post-Dispatch , 13 March 1969. Information and quotes regarding the concerns of the Rockefeller and Danforth Foundations over the BAG-AIR Team's activities are from Norman Lloyd's memo summary of telephone interviews of Merrimon Cuninggim and Gene Schwilk, 16- 18 September 1969 (Folder 2722). That executives were responding from a distance, and that only Michael Newton was in regular attendance, Malinké Eliot, correspondence to author. The Danforth Foundation has claimed to have no remaining archives on the BAG-AIR grants. The assertion that the AIR Team "was created out of the conviction...", the remark "This partnership developed as a result of the similar goals...", and the partial list of the BAG-AIR teaching staff, are all taken from "Black Artistic Experience," Artist 6-10pm, St. Louis. The information on Georgia Collins is from Eliot, correspondence to author.

Information about BAG in Paris was obtained from the interviews with former BAG members and from Madden, pp. 31-4. The following French-language articles also contain information on BAG in Paris: "Salone d'Automne," Jazz Magazine no. 206 (December 1972); "Jazz en Direct: Paris," Jazz Magazine no. 207 (January 1973); Maurice Cullaz, "Black Artists Group of St. Louis," Jazz Hot no. 296 (July/August 1973). The French reviewer's comments are from "Salon d'Automne,", p. 48, translated for this article by Washington University graduate student Paul J. Venhuizen, September 2000. The AACM members in Paris are discussed in Litweiler, pp. 183-4. BAG members' initial gig at the American Center and the funding from the French Ministry of Culture are related by LeFlore, in the interview by author.

Madden discusses BAG and AACM members in New York on pp. 34-6. The New York Times remark on the World Saxophone Quartet is quoted in Richard Woodward, "Four Saxmen, One Great Voice," New York Times Magazine (12 April 1987), p. 47, though Woodward does not cite the original NYT article that provided his source. For more on BAG and AACM members in New York's "loft jazz scene," see: Vladimir Simosko, "Studio Rivbea: Spring Festival," Coda no. 149 (July 1976); Nancy Carter, "AACM Bash in New York," Down Beat (11 August 1977); Robert Palmer, "New Jazz From the Midwest Moves East," Cadence vol. 16 no. 12 (December 1990). For information on Lake's and Hemphill's post-BAG careers, one might also see David Jackson, "Profile: Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake," in Downbeat, v. 19 (June 1975); on the World Saxophone Quartet, David Ruben, "World Sax Quartet Swings to Its Own Beat," San Francisco Chronicle (Pail 9, 1989, Datebook 48). On the New York program subsidizing loft space for artistic purposes, see Sharon Zukin, Loft Living (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1982).

The quote "Sadly, BAG exists now..." is from Wilmer, p. 222. Both Owsley and current AFM Local 2-197 secretary Kaid Friedel share the opinion stated here that the loss of the black AFM Local 197's rehearsal hall on Pine Street dealt a blow to St. Louis jazz; these are expressed in Owsley, "The Jazz History of St. Louis," KWMU-FM St. Louis radio script, 1989; and Friedel, private correspondence to the author, 29 March 2001, although Friedel notes that the loss of performance and rehearsal spaces for black musicians was part of a national trend and was not unique to St. Louis. The quote "some to thrive, others to disappear..." is from Litweiler, p. 197. The paragraph on creative urban milieux draws from Sir Peter Hall, Cities in Civilization: Culture, Innovation, and Urban Order (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998), pp. 11, 18-21; regarding "marginality," Sir Peter cites psychologist Howard Gardner, Creative Minds (New York: Basic Books, 1993); regarding "structural instability," Sir Peter works from ideas of geographer Gunner Törnqvist, "Creativity and the Renewal of Regional Life," in Creativity and Context: A Seminar Report (Lund Studies in Geography. B. Human Geography, No. 50), ed. A. Buttimer (Lund, Sweden: Gleerup, 1978), pp. 91-112. The William Clay quote is from his introduction to John Wright, Discovering African-American St. Louis (St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 1994), p. xi.

My sincere thanks for source suggestions and comments on drafts to Katherine Douglass, Rockwell Gray, Robert Hughes, Mark Looker, Ingrid Monson, and Mary Seematter.

First published in Gateway-Heritage: The Quarterly Magazine of the Missouri Historical Society, Vol. 22 No. 1 (Summer 2001). Footnoted copies and originals (with photos) available from the Missouri Historical Society, P.O. Box 11940, St. Louis, MO 63112-0040 USA.

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