A Fireside Chat with Archie Shepp
“ [John Coltrane] is a man that has profoundly affected me and my life. When I have musical problems, I often go to Trane and he helps me. ”
I have read Archie Shepp described as "radical," "controversial," or "disturbing." Why? What is so "disturbing" about speaking your mind about subjects beyond the music? And why should writers even be focusing on Shepp's political views anyway? He is first and foremost an artist and as one, we should judge him by his discography, not his politics. I have always been challenged by the tenor, who was immortalized in the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival concert recording, New Thing at Newport. I was honored that Shepp took time away from his busy schedule to sit down with the Roadshow the day after he returned from Europe. I bring it to our babies, as always, unedited and in his own words.
All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.
Archie Shepp: Well, my father, he was a banjo player and he liked to sing. There was music all around me. My community was rich with music and from that point of view, my cup runith over. It was inspiration for me. That was the one thing that poor black people had was music and a musical environment. It was a very rich musical environment and a very original one.
AAJ: Why did you put down the banjo?
AS: Well, you know, Fred, it wasn't hip. I guess when I got to Philly, I was born in Florida, in the South, where things are much more bucolic and rural, but as I moved to the North, the guys were playing pianos and saxophones and basses and I began to see other things and hear other things. It is your personality as well. I guess I wanted to some degree to be out front. Since then, I have found out that basically, I make as much money as a saxophonist as I would have being in the back (laughing). When we moved to Philadelphia, I started formally on piano. My parents were poor, but music lessons were not really very expensive because, here again, Philadelphia is so rich, like many of the cities, Detroit and Chicago, there were always black people and instructors who had graduated with degrees and Ph.D.s and couldn't find a job in music and symphony orchestras because of the racism. So they ended up teaching kids in the park in their neighborhood for a dollar a lesson, two dollars a lesson. That is how I studied.
AAJ: It is difficult for the current generation to relate to the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement.
AS: The question that I would ask, Fred, is why aren't they familiar with it because I don't think things have changed profoundly much. You might say that there is a black middle class that has become less and less observant of its own community and its responsibility to that community, but that doesn't mean that the problems have disappeared. I see more and more homeless people on the streets. I see my people struggling harder than ever. I think the facade has changed. Cities are being gentrified. Fortunately, thank God, I am living in a nice home, but I know a lot of my people don't enjoy those opportunities.
AAJ: Whereas the racism during the Civil Rights Movement was blatant, the underlying prejudices in this country now are more subtle.
AS: Oh, yeah, you might say that. But in Los Angeles, they had Watts there in the Sixties and Rodney King, why wouldn't black people and people of color be really hypersensitive, oversensitive? I could say what it was for me. As you say, Fred, it was more in our face, but not so much even that. Look at what happened in Brooklyn. The guy was shot by the police, this Haitian guy (Amadou Diallo) raised his hands up to say that he was cool and he was shot forty times. There are atrocious, really terrible things going on in the world today that unfortunately, young people are blind to these things. I think you have a generation of young black people who are totally incognizant of the struggle that went on to put them where they are. For example, I saw an interview with Wynton Marsalis in New Orleans with all his buddies and homies and he was saying, "Growing up for me was like apple pie." That is typical of young kids today. He is not a young kid, but that is typical of young men of his generation. Things were provided for them that people paid a lot of dues for in the Sixties to create. I've been watching some of the old films of Dr. Martin Luther King, especially for the tone of his speeches and the language, which I find more and more inspiring. I can go to it as a resource for my own soul, to answer things for myself. I think of the immensity and the enormity of that struggle and the depth of that struggle and what it did for young people today. I am amazed, especially by black people, of their ignorance of their own time, of their own recent time, their total insensitivity to the dues that were paid by the people to create the changes that we see today.
AS: When I first started out, I guess I listened to a lot of blues and my pop always had Duke on the record player, Count Basie's "Royal Garden Blues." We had quite a collection, even guys like Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. My dad played all that stuff on the radio. Then he played all the folksongs. I really had a good background. The music of that time, which was coming out of the swing era, was my initial exposure. Around the early Fifties, a friend of my father's rented a room out in my father's house and he introduced me to Sonny Stitt and Lester Young and that is how I first got into this music. I had the good fortune to meet Lee Morgan when I was about sixteen and he was really quite a big help to me. He was really a prodigy. When I met him, he only had been playing about a year and a half. He was already playing the first chair in the All Philadelphia High School Orchestra. He transposed and sight-read excellently. He had a very good knowledge of harmony, chord changes, which he himself probably learned from his mentors. By the time I met him, he was already a very advanced musician. He helped me in many ways. I started out taking piano lessons until I was ten years old. On Saturdays, I used to go to Lee's house and he would practice all day, especially Saturdays. He had this book, this trumpet book, which they call the Bible for trumpet players and by the time he was fifteen, he had played that book back to front every Saturday. That is what he used to do. He needed a pianist to play simple changes for him while he went through his "jazz reparatory." I would comp for him and that is how I learned how to comp on the piano, really just playing chords straight up for him in the background while he played.