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Archie Shepp: The Cries of My People

By Published: February 24, 2005

AAJ: But there aren't many places in the black community where jazz artists can perform.

AS: That's not the point. There aren't any places that are owned by black people. We take it for granted largely because it's called jazz. What does jazz mean? Can you define it? It has no real technical meaning.

AAJ: So you prefer the term "black art music?"

AS: That's what it is. It is a black art music. It's not a dance music. It's not a popular music. Furthermore, jazz was a term applied to this music shortly after the Spanish-American War, when for the first time the Marine band put many instruments on pawn in Louisiana and around the United States. For the first time poor black people, who had previously been playing in juke band on harps and wash tubs, could for the first time buy a contrabass or a trombone. And they bought them at cheap prices because the Army put them on sale at cheap prices. This is the beginning of so-called jazz music around the turn of the century. When blacks began to put their spirituals and blues and their folk melodies on Western instruments. The white man called it jazz. In fact, you didn't call it jazz, you called j-a-s-s. And it referred to the activities that took place in the places where this music was played. Not the music. In the original jass emporiums, the music was played on piano. And it was played behind a screen by people like Jelly Roll Morton and Tony Jackson, while light-skinned black women danced for white men. And when the white men wanted to see these women, they said they were looking for jass. And today we treasure that word jazz as though we created it. It's absurd.

AAJ: Has the music died?

AS: The music isn't dead. We've allowed it to die. When I taught school at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, frequently I would mention the name Sidney Bechet and not a single black student even knew who he was. We've lost our tradition. How can we expect to find it again overnight?

AAJ: Why was it lost?

AS: Maybe twenty percent of our young people are in jails. That's one of the reasons we've lost it. There's been a whole socio-economic decline - the breakup of the black family, the fact that the black middle class has fled in droves, including black musicians, to New Jersey and comfortable places outside the area of the scene of the action. I hear Bill Cosby and these people talking that nonsense about black kids reveling in their oppression, not really taking advantage of going to school, that the opportunities are there. But they never did. The same problems that exist today existed then.

I went to school with Bill. There were curfews frequently in Philadelphia because of gang violence and so on. The fact that we expect more of our children today than we expected before - we should expect more of ourselves, we adults who have arrived at the middle class. What are we giving back to the community?

No wonder they don't listen to that music. They have no reason to respect it. The music they hear is the music created by themselves. And I respect them for that. In fact, the Negro middle class has been aloof of its responsibility and now it comes to criticize the very people who have had to survive on their own. And so they don't listen to so-called jazz music. I don't blame them. I listen more and more to blues and folk music myself today, too. This music is becoming more and more a middle class white phenomena with very special handpicked blacks, usually young musicians under 40 or so who are being used to front this music as though it's still a black phenomenon. But it is no longer. It is a white middle class phenomena.

AAJ: How do we fix it?

AS: Well, ask not for whom the bell tolls, the bell tolls for thee. What can we do? For example, I'm trying to start my own record label. How can we come together? Look at people like Quincy Jones and Oprah Winfrey, all these wealthy Negroes. Why don't they start recording companies? They could make a billion dollars off it. You don't have to just produce jazz. If I had money I would be producing everything from rap to rock n' roll to George Coleman. I think our millionaires lack imagination. It is they who must come back to start a new entrepreneurism in the Negro community as regards culture.

Visit Archie Shepp on the web.

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