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Poets of Action: The Saint Louis Black Artists' Group, 1968-1972 (Part 1-4)

Benjamin Looker By

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

St. Louis has always been careful to cover its tracks, razing its history so it can start over again with a clean slate. Occasionally, though, the past sticks a foot in the door of the future and demands to be let in. One such stubborn caller, whose voice has been muffled, but not quite silenced, is BAG.

Between 1967 and 1972, St. Louis was home to an arts cooperative known as the Black Artists' Group or BAG, which brought together and nurtured local African American experimentalists involved with theater, visual arts, dance, poetry, film, and jazz. The members of BAG, inspired by the formation of artistic collectives around the country, particularly Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), fused ideas of artistic modernism with the local experience of blacks, Afrocentric ways of viewing art, and traditional forms of blues, jazz and narrative expression with social activism and a communal focus. But unlike other artistic collectives of the period, BAG was fundamentally committed to a collaborative interweaving of its members' diverse artistic mediums. Most significant, perhaps, were BAG's theater and music components. The musicians built on the free-jazz vocabulary developed by John Coltrane and others before his death in 1967, and their innovations later energized the seminal mid-'70s loft-jazz scene in New York; meanwhile, BAG's actors and directors developed a theater which provided an engaging synthesis of avant-garde European techniques with cultural traditions of African Americans and issues of importance to progressives generally.

The group, in embracing much of the program of the Black Arts Movement, was emblematic of an emerging social phenomenon; many of its founders, in the words of former BAG saxophonist J. D. Parran, "were entering new territory culturally and politically as well as artistically." During their time in St. Louis, these artists not only contributed to the cultural richness of the city, but also created a strong model for interartistic cooperation and arts-driven social activism.

FORMING BAG

BAG emerged from two parallel trends towards consolidation in the black St. Louis arts world of the late 1960s, in theater and in jazz. Although rooted in the underground free jazz scene that emerged in St. Louis during the mid-1960s, the musical segment of BAG found fertile soil in a St. Louis that had produced a number of nationally recognized black musicians during the 1940s and 1950s, including Clark Terry, Miles Davis, Grant Green, and Jimmy Forrest. The amateur and semi-professional local music scene also was lively at the time, with members of the black community actively participating in drum and bugle corps, school music programs, church choirs, and dance and jazz ensembles.

The St. Louis scene changed to reflect the times following the bop era, with a small but healthy cadre of free jazz musicians developing new sounds and interests. Noted trumpeter Lester Bowie started out as a participant in this scene, but decided that the opportunities for his music were better in Chicago and moved there in 1966. The free jazz community that Bowie left behind was relatively concealed from the St. Louis music-listening public. Many of these musicians made their livings playing bebop or rhythm and blues, gathering to rehearse newer styles at the home of saxophonist Oliver Lake or in Forest Park. Local jazz radio host Dennis Owsley, who came to St. Louis in 1969, describes these free-jazzers gathering at Art Hill in Forest Park and playing in different intrumental combinations. These groups almost never included a complete rhythm section, mirroring their future nonstandard groupings.

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