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Archie Shepp: Knowing the Life

By Published: August 23, 2007
AAJ: Not only that, but it has a deep history of double meanings within its texts.

AS: Absolutely, and the connection between its two forms is profound because without the one, you wouldn't have the other.

AAJ: In light of saxophone players who were involved in the advances of the sixties' music, "free jazz or however one chooses to characterize it, the idea of preaching from the horn gives a revelatory aspect to some of the music.

Archie AS: That was basically true of John Coltrane, who really articulated basically that—that he was a preacher on his horn, and he talked about that in an article called "The Black Composer Speaks that was put together in a compilation of interviews by David Baker at the University of Indiana.

Trane speaks very movingly about the time when he left Miles and thought that God had taken the gift of music from him. He said to God that if He would give him back the gift, he would become a preacher on his horn. That's exactly how he put it, and I think Albert Ayler is close to that same kind of spiritual identity. Perhaps technically not the same man as Coltrane, but the feeling of the songs and his meaning—he's a very special saxophonist. That's why Coltrane felt that identity with Albert and thought that he was on to something.

AAJ: And the scenario at that time was interesting insofar as the music also served very secular political ends, or was viewed by some as such, as well as an intense spiritual connection. At that time you were right between those areas; how would you characterize the differences or that setting?

AS: Well, I feel like I'm a bluesman. I started playing the blues when I was a kid. When I first started to play professionally it was with a blues band, with young kids, and it was always something I had an affinity for. My father played the banjo and he sang a lot of blues, so it was something that came to me the way some people play Mozart and Beethoven. I grew up listening to "St. Louis Blues and "Lazy River and stuff my dad was playing on the banjo.

When I finally met people like Lee Morgan, Clarence Sharpe (C Sharp, an alto saxophonist), I didn't know much about chords but I already knew the blues, and that's one thing that helped me to get into the circle of musicians as easily as I did. Lee Morgan, who was one of my first mentors (we're basically about the same age; I'm a little older than Lee), he was already playing very well when he was fifteen or sixteen.

People like that were very helpful to me at that point, and it was my peers who really helped me—and one of the things Lee liked about me was the fact that, even though I couldn't play many chord changes, as a young man I could play the blues. This is how I began to learn chord changes, from Lee and some of the piano players like Timmons, because my blues was fairly good. The blues is a very important aspect of this music, and I consider myself basically a blues player.

AAJ: There's a bit of a period where you were at Goddard College studying theater, and I've always been intrigued by your relationship with literature and theater as you were coming up and subsequently. Could you talk about how poetry and theater were intertwined with the music for you?

AS: To tell the truth, when I went to college my initial ambition was to become a lawyer. I wanted to study law, and my first few years were crammed with political science and those kinds of courses. From the time I was a young child, I was very aware of the problems my people faced socially, politically and economically, and I was made aware by family and hearing my father in discussions with his friends, so that the connection between politics and music was not that difficult for me to make. When I played the blues, I didn't know many chords or notes to play, but they were real notes and they came out of my experience, out of my blues and my soul. That's something that you can't teach anybody. So, making that connection between words and music was not difficult.

More specifically, when I was in college I began to listen to poetry by people like Ezra Pound and Eliot on vinyl recordings. I had never thought—not in my wildest imagination—of people putting words on records. In my third year, I encountered a playwright, Joe Rosenberg, who was very important for me in terms of choosing which way to go and what my options at that point were. He read a short story that I wrote and told me, "You could write plays. Your dialogue is quite good.

Again, that's what universities are for, to awaken the possibilities that you haven't dreamed of. For a young black kid who had come straight out of the ghetto into college (I was on full scholarship), I had thought of going into law because at that point I was driven by my own sense of social engagement and doing something for my people. Joe opened up another door for me—"yeah, there's your people but you've got to think about yourself. So for the first time, my Black Nationalism began to open up, and my sensibilities—I'm not only a person, but a man.

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