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'Poets of Action': The Saint Louis Black Artists' Group, 1968-1972 (Part 3-4)

Benjamin Looker By

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

ST. LOUIS, PARIS, NEW YORK CITY

After four years of operation in St. Louis, the leading musicians of BAG had grown frustrated with the lack of opportunities in St. Louis and in the United States. As mentioned earlier, Hemphill's record label Mbari, which he started because few domestic labels would record BAG's type of music, suffered from poor distribution. Outside of a small underground arts audience, most St. Louis jazz fans in this period had little interest in the type of music played by BAG, and the Mbari records received no local radio play. The final decision to leave St. Louis, however, was precipitated by two more specific occurrences: the disappearance of grant funding and the AACM's glowing reports of opportunities in France.

In June 1969, the Anthony Braxton Trio and the Art Ensemble, both groups that had developed from Chicago's AACM, moved to France with no booked performances or engagements. Within two months of their arrival, the groups had recorded six records and appeared in numerous live and televised concerts. Several of the returning AACM musicians stayed in BAG's St. Louis building following their work in Paris. Lake recalls, "My friend Lester Bowie had arrived in Paris a couple of years before with the Art Ensemble and when he returned he was very excited about the acceptance of the music; hence my interest was piqued." The combination of diminishing grant money in the U.S. and the plethora of overseas musical opportunities recounted by Bowie and his comrades had enticed leading BAG musicians to leave St. Louis. Their destination, Paris, had been a traditional host for marginalized African-American visual artists, musicians, and writers. Monson cites musical examples ranging from singer/dancer Josephine Baker (another St. Louisan), trumpeter Louis Armstrong, and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins to bebop musicians such as Charlie Parker and Kenny Clarke, and avant-garde performers like Steve Lacy and Archie Shepp. "One of the things about European audiences is that [they] always respected the avant-garde explorations," she remarks.

Oliver Lake remembers, "BAG had begun performing throughout the St. Louis bistate area and we were looking to expand our musical and performance horizons, so we said, 'Let's go to Paris.'" Eventually Oliver Lake, Joseph Bowie (brother of Lester Bowie), Baikida Carroll, Charles "Bobo" Shaw, Floyd LeFlore, and several others raised enough money in St. Louis for the trans-Atlantic trip and purchased two vans for driving to the French provinces for gigs. Their first gig, a televised concert at the American Center (a Parisian cultural organization that played host to many of the more radical American artists of that era), was cancelled because of a French television strike. However, the appearance was rescheduled and the group immediately began to attract the attention of listeners and the press as well as obtaining money from the French Ministry of Culture.

Admiring features appeared in French magazines, and the BAG musicians in return admired the knowledgeable French audiences. "It seemed the French were more educated, because we were doing some more abstract stuff. There were kids over there who could tell you about Louis Armstrong, and who knew who Sun Ra was, which was really impressive," says LeFlore. BAG and AACM musicians achieved much higher visibility in the French mainstream press than at home, and the French jazz press seemed to take the BAG musicians, in particular, far more seriously than St. Louis music writers of the time. Reviewing an October 1972 concert featuring several BAG members, a writer for the French Jazz Magazine commented on the "politics of exchange" between the AACM and BAG and lauded the "many tries, meetings, exposés (that seem to be practiced with care), of vagabond-likeness within the sounds." The critic also made clear that the BAG and AACM musicians did not produce a monolithic body of work, writing:

Concerning the sound work ... the B.A.G. musicians cleanly distinguish themselves from those from Chicago. First in their use of relationships between sound and silence, breath and music. ... Here the music is often born of a very progressive invasion, very slow, of space. Here also, the gesture precedes the sound and participates in the music.

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