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Archie Shepp: Knowing the Life

By Published: August 23, 2007
ArchieAAJ: And a creative person.

AS: All kinds of possibilities were open to me—law, where I could help people, or I could be a writer, which I'd never thought of. There were no writers where I grew up. People danced and sang, they played "jazz, and that was legitimate. Maybe we didn't even know how rich and beautiful and important what we were doing was. (The term doesn't really say much—it's like Kleenex or Marlboros) But when he said to be a writer, it opened up an entirely new world for me.

So when it was time to choose my major in my third year, instead of doing law, I wanted to be a playwright. That's what I got my degree in, dramatic literature, and I continued to play the saxophone every day. When I wasn't working on my studies, I was playing music. So that connection between words and music, and ideas, has always been there—it's a central aspect of my artistic content.

AAJ: My experiences listening, going back to that group you had with Beaver Harris and Roswell Rudd, something like Live in San Francisco (Impulse!. 1966), all the way up through Attica Blues (Impulse!, 1972) and past that point—granted, they're recordings, but what I gather is that in performing a live concert there's a programmatic aspect to it, almost like a play.

AS: Well, you know, I've always felt (since my days when I began to get into theatre and write plays, and before that I did a lot of acting in college) my concept as being more Athenian in the sense that I began to see the stage as a place where something happens. That was the Greek concept of the stage as a place where something is done, so in that sense I began to see that I could use elements of that in my own work.

For example, poetry and things like that which I'd never dreamt of using. In that regard, things like the poem "Mama Rose or "The Wedding, they were actual attempts to combine music and poetry. I consider that as an early example of "rap, and of course that can (and did) take many directions, as young people today are caught up in the rhyme playing to the drumbeat. In fact, we could go back to Langston Hughes and Duke Ellington's "Black Musique, a kind of dialogue over rhythm, and these are early examples of "rap. Then you enter into the African verbal tradition, and you can easily make connections between that and what evolved in the United States.

AAJ: In light of that, how did it carry over in your experience of the Pan-African Festival and going over to Algeria?

AS: That's where we went first, and we went on to the Ivory Coast, Senegal, Morocco and places like that. That was really quite an experience for me. By that time Trane had opened a lot of doors, into things with Ravi Shankar and Olatunji which were very inspiring to me— Africa/Brass (Impulse!, 1961) and those things—and he made those connections between traditional African music and African-American music. This was true especially when Trane began to open up the modes, which correspond very closely to ragas and the pentatonic scale.

So, by the time of the 1960s, it was clear that Coltrane had opened the door to "world music. It followed Coltrane, because before that there weren't many experiments between so-called jazz musicians and people outside their own idioms.

Archie My going to Africa, by the time I went, I was really ready to engage that music and I understood what was possible. I had to evolve as a musician in order to technically take more advantage of this music (I still am evolving), and I'm very comfortable now playing without a piano or only a drum, and I have exactly the same feeling as I would in a village playing a sacred hymn.

AAJ: When you were first in Paris, one thing that struck me was that you had developed some connections there with a lot of the older bebop players—expatriates or otherwise—like Philly Joe Jones. From my reading, it seems like people tried to paint a picture of there being two camps at odds, at least in New York.

AS: On the contrary, as I said, all my early experience was around people in Philly—Lee Morgan, Ted Curson, Timmons (primarily with Lee, because he was a good friend)—and that's all we played. "Sippin' at Bell's, "Confirmation, and Lee was really playing those songs at that time [chuckles].

The reason I'm identified at all with avant-garde music is because of Cecil Taylor. When I came to New York, I had never conceived of myself as playing that type of music; I didn't even like it, and the first time I heard Ornette I wasn't that impressed by what he was doing. I was totally committed to chord-change music, and it was only by chance that Cecil identified me on the streets of the West Village and asked me to record with him. He really didn't even know me; his bassist, Buell Neidlinger, had suggested me.

We became very good friends and colleagues and Cecil was very important to me, again like Coltrane opening up other directions, even intellectually because Cecil was not only very well-read, but his ideas were very cogent and imaginative. For example, one day he was talking about the piano (you know, he'd studied dance), and he said, "Sometimes I feel like my hands are dancers on the keys, and that was an image I'd never conceived.

Frequently, he made me aware of just how intelligent this music is and how intelligent some of the people are who play it and how important it has been to African-Americans in terms of our liberation and our struggle. So, Cecil Taylor was a very important guy to me, certainly musically because the first time we played, I didn't play chords with him. That's when my avant-garde career began, but actually they used to call me "Big Foot because all I could play was the blues. It's ironic that so many people don't think I played the blues, and that I arrived at my own tradition rather late. It's just the contrary.

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