A Fireside Chat with Archie Shepp
AAJ: That seems like it was a proactive time, does it concern you that the time we are living in now is so passive in comparison?
AS: That too of course, but I think that there is something behind all that. All that had to happen anyway with the evolution of African-Americans society as blacks become more and more integrated into the white middle class experience. They begin to shed all their former community reference and values. I also tell my classes that black people are becoming whiter and white people are becoming blacker. Most of the kids in my class who are really hip are white. It is a fact. If I got a class of sixty students let's say and I asked how many of them have heard of Sidney Bechet and maybe five people would raise their hands and invariably four out of five, if not five out of five are white because I know no black kids know who Sidney Bechet is. It is not in their background. He knows who Mozart is. He knows who Beethoven is. That is why he is in school in university, to find out about who somebody else is and not about who he is or she is.
AAJ: Let's touch on your collaborations with Cecil Taylor.
AS: Yeah, I joined his band in 1960. Here again, Fred, the times were quite different. This music was, in a sense, right in tune with the whole revolution and the speeches of Martin Luther King and the Black Panthers, the black Muslims, we were right in tune with all of that. We weren't making any money, but I mean, we played at lofts for five dollars a night. Dennis Charles and Don Cherry and whatever money we made, we split up and would give it to our political organizations.
AAJ: That kind of loyal dedication is so sadly missing these days.
AS: Well, because we were in struggle at that time. We would give money to our political organizations to press leaflets. We would go up to Harlem. We would support whatever was going on at the time, Urban League, the more radical Black Panthers, whatever. I played concerts, gigs, spoke on the streets. I was engaged. You don't find that these days, but why would you? I think the world has been made more comfortable. It is the world of Oprah Winfreys today. She is the model for black women, in the sense that she is a billionaire. I don't think she does much. She is typical. There is nothing against Ms. Winfrey. She is a very talented and a beautiful woman, but I don't think she is very effective even though she is rich. That is typical of our people today with young billionaires and all these musicians and Michael Jordan and Shaq. What is the name of that singer? She is quite beautiful. She has had some problems recently.
AAJ: Whitney Houston.
AS: Whitney, yeah. I think they form a class of people today that for young black people, they are set up by the establishment to be seen as models, but in fact, these are really hollow men and hollow women. They are people without any clue of their own political history or historical knowledge of where they come from, even their understanding of their own culture and what they produce and its meaning to other things that are produced within their own culture and so called jazz music. They don't see any relationships and they don't make any relationships. The people who should really be controlling jazz today should be Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson and these people. They should be putting their money into that kind of production. Of course, jazz doesn't make any money, but they could use it as a tax write off. White folks do. The problem with the Negro is that I think is that basically we still haven't recovered from our slave mentality. Look at all this music made by black people. It is a thirteen billion dollar industry and there is not a single jazz club of any stature owned by a black man or woman in the United States. If you know one, tell me.
AAJ: Damn, and I wanted to be original.
AS: If you did know one, that would be doing pretty good. If you could count them on your fingers, that would be doing all right. Not a single trombone is made by a black man. Not a saxophone is manufactured by a black man. We have no companies to make musical instruments. Why not? Italians are known for eating spaghetti. They also make it.
AAJ: Let's talk about your work with the late John Coltrane. You appear on his seminal Ascension recording.
AS: I can say for me, that he 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 couldn't say enough about the man.
AAJ: Sounds like you miss him.
AS: Of course. I can go to him as a source of resource. He was always there and he is still there. I do.
AAJ: You had a long association with the Impulse! label and in recent years the label has been re-releasing a lot of your titles. Do you get royalties from those reissues?
AS: Well, some things I get paid for, some things I don't. In fact, the longer I stayed with the company. I began to learn how to protect my own work. So I eventually formed my own publishing company. So those things that I recorded as we went on, from Attica Blues, from the time of "Mama Too Tight", at that point, I began to put more things into my own publishing company and so on. So to that degree, I do receive some receipts. I wasn't hip enough at that time to sign artist royalty contracts, which is what makes the difference. It means that when they re-release these things, you get money from the releases as well. Now, I get money from the publishing end or the writer's end, but no artist royalties, which could now really account for something.