A Fireside Chat with Archie Shepp
AAJ: The adjective that has been most closely associated with your music has been avant-garde. Does the term have merit?
AS: Well, I have never accepted that term. I have always seen it as divisive, commercial. It is like jazz, funk, disco. There are so many ways to describe a black man and the black people's music. When we talk about the white folk's music, we think romantic, baroque, classical. Those names mean something. We think music. But with the negro, we think bebop, blues, blah-blah-blah, blah-blah-blah. I wonder if people like Whitney and these people have ever thought about giving their own music a name themselves. Something that white people didn't give to it. Like what Monk said. Monk said, back there in the Fifties, someone asked him why create bebop and he said, "Well, we were trying to make a new music that the white boys couldn't cop."
AAJ: So name your own music.
AS: Music. Why not? What is so hard about the word music? People know what it means. You say jazz and nobody knows what that means. What does jazz mean?
AAJ: I don't have a dictionary in front of me.
AS: I know. It is the music that was created in 1917, a music for brass and woodwind instruments meant to imitate the blues and the spirituals that have previously been sung and played on banjos and guitars. So jazz is an instrumental music. For example, Ella Fitzgerald is a jazz singer, but why? Because she sings like an instrument. Billie Holiday is a jazz singer. But she is often compared with Lester Young. The thing about jazz is that it was the time of negros. Before that there was slavery and black people couldn't afford trombones and saxophones and clarinets and those instruments. After 1917, some people say that about the end of the Spanish American War, 1890s or something like that, the United States Marine Band began to put huge number of instruments on pawn in pawn shops around the country, especially around the mid-Southwest, where a lot of these early negro brass bands developed, Tennessee, St. Louis, Louisiana, those areas. So that is jazz. There is nothing mysterious about it. It was when negros began to play brass and woodwinds and the reed instruments.
AAJ: I am first and foremost a fan.
AS: Well, thank you very much, Fred. I'm trying to do better.
AAJ: It has always been a source of angst for me that you have not documented your music more prolifically in recent years.
AS: I made a lot of records, Fred. It is just that you haven't heard them. It is just that the establishment isn't really so anxious to expose what I have done. There are some things I have done that I think were creditable and some things that were quite good. So I can't say that my work has been so even over the years, but I certainly have been recording. The thing I did with Kahil ( Conversations on Delmark). I've done some things on Japanese labels and Something to Live For (Timeless). I've done a few things. You can find it. I am also at www.archieshepp.com.
AAJ: I will put out the good word.
AS: Well, you've got to. We are out here fighting the good fight trying to make it better, Fred.