I recently found a handwritten transcript of my unpublished interview with saxophonist, composer and educator Archie Shepp. The first part of the conversation was taped on Feb. 8, 1982 in a College Park motel room the morning after Shepp’s concert at the University of Maryland. The conclusion was recorded immediately after in my car on the way to National Airport. Shepp, at the time an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, began by discussing the flaws in our educational system.
Larry Appelbaum and Archie Shepp (2016) photo by Monette Berthomier
…I don’t think much of degrees anyway. I think the educational system is pretty shoddy. There’s a great deal of hypocrisy. It’s inefficient, irrelevant. It’s outmoded.
So what do you advise your students when they come talk to you?
To completely rehaul and overhaul the educational system when they get out of school. Sure, because I’m part of the system doesn’t mean that I subscribe to every aspect of it. Just like being an American or being a Russian or anything else; you can love your country without having to accept everything that people do as absolutely correct. I feel that way about the educational system. It has a lot of flaws. It’s racist and it’s a system that unfortunately perpetuates racism at the school where I teach. I think they’ve done very little to encourage certainly the participation of other, shall we say, musical cultures in their program. In fact, they seem to feel that the only “classical” music per se is Western classical music, which is a total lie and an oversight. After all, there are many, many people who have musical cultures that are much older that those we find in Europe and the U.S. The Chinese and the Africans and the Indians, for example. Go ahead, man; what did you want to ask me?
In the early 1960s, you were a member of Cecil Taylor’s group, the New York Contemporary Five and the Jazz Composer’s Guild. Looking back, what do you think was the significance of each group?
In retrospect, I wouldn’t isolate those experiences. I see them as all related. I think I came to New York at a time when you might say the music was becoming more formalized. Opportunities were more restricted for newer players. People have a lot of myths about New York and the kind of music I play, in general. When I arrived, things were quite different, let’s say, from the 30s and 40s and the so-called bebop era. In fact, there were only a few groups that were working professionally: Max, Horace Silver, Art Blakey. You name them. They’re pretty much the same groups that are known today. There weren’t many opportunities for younger players to break into the scene. There were a few very fine players when I got there: John Handy, George Coleman, Junior Cook, Freddie Hubbard, Rocky Boyd, Richard Williams. All these guys you could meet any night at a jam session at Brankers or Basie’s or down at the Blue Coronet or wherever the sessions were going on. And, of course they were quickly snatched up by the prominent groups working at that time. So the fact that George, Junior and Freddie were playing so well, it made it difficult for guys like Archie and Albert and the rest of us, I suppose. We had to look in the more marginal areas for work, even self-employment when we could create jobs for ourselves or put groups together. So I was fortunate in that I met Cecil and I was able to work with him and I stayed with his group for a couple of years. It was a great musical opportunity for me. As I say, at that time had it not been for a person like Taylor, there would have been no place for a guy like me. The other players I suppose had more together. I was still in college working for my degree in theater. I majored in playwriting.
This was at Goddard College?
That’s right. While these other people I mentioned were pretty much doing their university time on the streets at that point. Even if they had been in school earlier, most of them were now out of school and spending full time at music. So it was difficult for young people like me. When I arrived in New York I had to make my own opportunities. That’s why groups like the Jazz Composers Guild and other independent organizations were formed. They were designed to help young musicians and composers in a very difficult time. The New York scene, quite unlike it had been previously in the 30s and 40s when the Chu Berry’s and all those people could come to New York and find sessions on every corner and so on, all those opportunities were being closed off very quickly and the well known groups could only afford to hire one sax player at a time or one trumpet at a time, which made it more difficult for experimental players. So the so-called avant-garde movement followed very close on the heels of this formalization of some of the earlier music, the so-called bebop music in particular.
Was the lack of employment opportunities due to the polarization that had set in?
When you say polarization you mean…
I mean people got very heavy into assigning labels. And if you weren’t playing bebop or playing on changes…
No, no there were no labels. There was no such thing as an avant- garde. I mean, LeRoi Jones coined that term He wrote about some of the music that was being played at that time and gave it the label “loft jazz.” He had a column in Downbeat called Apple Cores and it was through this column that he first introduced the players of my generation. But I wouldn’t say it was because we were labeled that we didn’t have opportunities. The market itself didn’t permit so many players to participate at one time. It’s always been like that. Thus, the, particularly the Negro musician finds himself in a perennial quandary when it comes to employment. And this field of African-American music has been a kind of a nemesis to the black musician. From an artistic point-of-view, the Negro has led to create a profound and a new music, but from a commercial standpoint, the Black has been traditionally exploited and, I would say, robbed. His music has been appropriated and often the innovators have misrepresented as white when they were truly black. So the Negro has not really gotten much from his music, I don’t think. In fact, as I see this music going on, I think Blacks are going to get less and less out of it.
So you’re not encouraged?
Not at all. I think the Negro in jazz is just about finished. His music, he’s just about lost his, his music’s been stolen, in fact. I mean these few opportunities that I have to play in the U.S. don’t fool me at all. I expect that there will be fewer and fewer.
And yet when you go to Europe, to Scandinavia and Japan…
The acceptance is generally overwhelming.
How do you account for that?
Well, I think Americans are very uptight. Most Americans don’t really know who they are. Just ask any American what he is, he’ll tell you he’s Polish or he’s Black or he’s Irish or German. He’s never an American. But if you go to Europe and you see that same American on a train bound for Italy or Ireland or somewhere and you ask what are you, they say right away “I’m an American, are you an American too?” He only knows he’s an American outside of America. So, the possibility of minority cultures, Puerto Rican, Black, Negro, becomes very threatening to people like that who have no real identity anyway.
Getting back to your earlier years; when you decided to make the move to New York, you were intent on pursuing your play writing. At what point did you decide on music?
Well, I guess Cecil Taylor had a great deal to do with that. I continued to play music after college but there were few opportunities to play professionally. Cecil offered me my first professional gig. So in a sense he pulled me away from theater because I didn’t have many chances to expose my play writing talents either. There is another field that’s relatively closed when you look at it from a racial standpoint. I remember auditioning for several theater productions when I got out of college where I’d be maybe one out of 100 Negros applying for the same part. Didn’t matter if the part called for an old man or a young man. People were so desperate for work they would apply anyway. So I found out that the theater was as chauvinistic and exclusive as so-called jazz music, perhaps more so. That’s why I got out of playwriting because I think it’s one of the most racist media of all the arts. If you note, you see very few plays written by Negros on Broadway. In fact, the last important one was written by Richard Wright in the 40s.
Let me ask you about one of your plays. Thumbing through the Black Drama Anthology, we find your jazz allegory Junebug Graduates Tonight…
Incidentally, I never called that a jazz allegory. That was the idea of the people who produced the play. In fact, the play was originally titled The Communist. We did it under the auspices of a Rockefeller grant and they thought that for cosmetic purposes we ought to push more the jazz angle and change the title of the play to Junebug Graduates Tonight. That wasn’t really my idea. In fact, I never liked the term jazz allegory. That was one of the things the critics used against us because they said the play didn’t have enough jazz in it. It was never my intention to make it a jazz play. I don’t even like the word.
The script indicates music and song…
Yes music, but not so-called jazz music. I don’t like this because right away when you say jazz people expect screaming trumpets and drums playing four-to-the-bar, and like that. See, I didn’t want to be stereotyped because that’s not my notion of so-called jazz either. That’s how other people see it.
I’d like to talk with you further about your notion of jazz, but first let me straighten this out. Since I’ve never seen this play staged, I have no idea what the music sounded like. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about that?
At that time, to tell you the truth, I was rather influenced by the work of Weill and Brecht. In fact the play itself, from a dramaturgical point-of-view, has elements of Brecht in terms of its political implications and the way the characters are used allegorically. Subsequently, I was very interested in the way Kurt Weill used music for The Three-Penny Opera and I attempted to do, from my own Black perspective, what they had been able to do from a European perspective.
So, stylistically, where would these “songs” lie?
Stylistically they would probably, I wouldn’t call myself influenced by German lieder, but stylistically I would say the songs had political import, meaning beyond a beat or the attempt to merely communicate a nice aesthetic feeling.
And of course it’s more than just a plot device.
It’s often said that Archie Shepp’s sound on the tenor is reminiscent of the late Ben Webster. Did you ever meet Ben?
Yeah, I met Ben in 1967.
What were your impressions?
Great man. Oh, yeah. In fact, I’m very glad that somehow I intuitively discovered this man. I suppose it had a lot to do with the fact that my father was a banjo player who liked very much the music of Duke Ellington. See, people used to compare me to Ben but I never knew who Ben was until a few years after I got to New York. I hadn’t identified him as a particular saxophone player. In fact, I was probably more influenced directly by Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, just from the point-of-view of sound, though Eddie’s sound owes a lot to Ben Webster too. But I probably first heard Ben on some of these early records of my father’s. Also, I later heard Lester Young with Basie because he liked a lot of those records too. So one of the first solos I learned was a clarinet solo on “Mood Indigo.” Ben worked with those early bands of Duke’s and I no doubt heard a lot of them but I didn’t identify him specifically as a man whose tenor sound was most attractive to me. For years I tried to imitate Coltrane’s sound because I really loved the way John played, but I could never play like him. I mean I could never get that pretty sound in the upper register. Even now I try and I can’t do it. So I had to finally just accept my said limitations. This is how I sound, and the more I’ve adjusted to that, the more I’ve really learned how great a player Ben Webster is. I think I try more and more now to play like him than I ever did. I try to get closer to his sound. I’m less interested in playing a lot of notes now and playing fast tempos, though I still like to do that. I’m really now into a period where I’m concentrating on sound, interpretation. From that standpoint, I think that’s why a guy like Scott Hamilton is so successful today. It’s not simply that he’s imitating to the note Webster and Lester and those people, but because people are ready now to get down and listen to sound and pure melodies and so on. It’s just a tragedy that those people are gone because they should be here now to really give those people what they want. But most of them are dead.
When you met Ben Webster in 1967, was he a bitter man?
He was more or less forced by economic circumstances to move to Europe.
But Ben didn’t have a bitter attitude. I mean, he was a Black man and I think he was always conscious of what it is to be Black in America. He was always conscious of the exploitation inherent in the Negro experience here. But as far as walking around carping about they kicked me out of the country, man, and blah, blah, blah, No. You wouldn’t find that. He was more of a man than that. I think his rebellion would have taken other courses than mere rhetoric. We hear that in his music. Ben is a poet, you see. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a warrior side.
Most people think of him as a Romantic. He gets that warm sound.
No doubt, but being a Romantic and being a warrior are not mutually exclusive because Romantic periods have produced warriors as well as poets. There’s a little warrior in Ben but perhaps we get more of that in a player like Don Byas. Ben and Don are like two sides of a coin, in a way. Don expresses perhaps in a certain kind of kinetic energy and strength what Ben expresses the other way in poetry and beautiful images; both very important saxophonists.
You’ve worked with a number of different record producers over the years, including Bob Thiele, Michael Cuscuna and Joachim Berendt. What qualities do you look for in a producer?
Aw, they’re all the same.
Do they contribute anything worthwhile?
I don’t know. I don’t look for them to contribute anything. I mean, it’s like a farmer, man. He don’t need nobody to sell his vegetables. But then he’s got to go to a farmer’s market and sell them to a middleman. The middleman deals them off to a producer, to Del Monte or whoever. Actually, the farmer could do it himself if there weren’t these middlemen in the way. But there’s always a middleman. That’s the nature of capitalism.
Why don’t you produce your own records?
Ha ha. Why don’t I produce my own saxophone? That’s where I should start at. Slavery, man. We’re too far behind. We ain’t got no metal. Africa’s been stolen. That period in our history is over with. Hopefully we can get out of this thing with our identity. And I doubt that!
You were talking about Don Byas and Ben Webster, heroes for your generation…
For all time!
Do you realize that you are a hero for some of the students you played with last night?
Well, perhaps so, but I think that’s all cumulative and uh…relative. And as far as being a hero this generation, I don’t think it would be possible. First of all, the music experience that was created by Blacks from the period after the Civil War up to, shall we say, John Coltrane, I consider over with. I think it died with Coltrane. I think we’re in a period of rock & roll.
I remember seeing a photograph Valerie Wilmer took of you in your New York City apartment in 1971. There was a giant poster of Jimi Hendrix there. Did you embrace the whole rock thing?
No, but my sisters did and my kids do. You know, you can’t stop progress, man. It’s another generation. They killed Lady, they killed Coltrane, they killed Bird. So what’s gonna happen after that? Nothin! You got to have rock & roll.
You performed last night as the featured soloist with the George Ross goup and the University of Maryland Jazz Ensemble. In the ensemble are a number of young Whites who’ve come out of the rock generation. They’re tired and bored with that looking for something that has meaning for them. Some are actually trying to sound like you in some respects. Do you get any positive feelings from that?
Oh, definitely. But what I’m saying is, and don’t get me wrong, when I say Black music is dead I mean it’s dead at the source. In other words, Black music has always emanated from the Negro community, which created it. There’s no question about that. It was originally called “race music” when they first started to commercialize it. They called my music avant-garde. When they do that it’s officially labeled. What I mean to say is Negros, Black people, no longer play jazz.
Can we say that of someone like David Murray or Arthur Blythe?
Jazz music, so-called, and I don’t use that term officially but for the purpose of this conversation, because I think it’s an integrative term and a misnomer, unscientific and it does not define the entire Afro-American experience, but so-called jazz music has always at its source been a combination of Ragtime and Blues form. It has relied most especially on the blues to distinguish certainly its melodic content as different from any music in the world. That’s why we still hear it in Stevie Wonder. Stevie is still like Ray Charles, he’s like Bukka White, he’s like Joe Williams, Lightnin’. There’s a direct connection between The Temptations and Robert Johnson. But the question is can you find a direct connection between the people you just mentioned and shall we say Coleman Hawkins, or more importantly Robert Johnson? Arthur’s not young. Arthur’s about my age. He’s a contemporary of mine. David is a younger player. Braxton is a younger player. When you talk about younger players, I think it’s important to discover or to ask whether or not these essential blues roots we find in Parker—now I’m not talking about the notes Parker played, or whatever—are the essential blues motives living? There was a concept called swing. A concept, I ain’t talking about a label. It’s rooted in an older concept that we find in West African drumming. It’s called “hot playing.” Hot. That’s the feeling, the beat. It isn’t just the stereotyped beat. It can be overlaid, cross rhythms, man, but it swings. That’s the basis. That’s something that the Negro community created. It created great players who were capable of doing that. Not only that, but it supported those players. It supported a very sophisticated music that culminated in the language that was called bebop, perhaps the most complex music that’s been created on America’s shores, Copeland and Ives notwithstanding. The most complicated Negro popular music has never been assessed, I don’t feel, unequivocally, that is aside from race. Were it to be done so it could be seen that Negro popular music is as sophisticated as Western so-called classical music. Certainly from a rhythmic point of view, Stravinsky does nothing in the way of call and response or rhythm that Parker and those people did. Henderson or Ellington made them look like children. And that’s Negro popular music. But it’s always been called jazz. Why? Because no one ever wants to see that music as a threat to the music created by White people in Europe in the 17th Century. I consider that a fundamental kind of racism. It’s at the basis of the reason why I’m searched at every border in Europe. It’s at the basis of the reason why people think so-called jazz musicians are children. It’s at the basis of the whole exploitation of this kind of music because Negro popular music is sophisticated on a level which Negros themselves don’t even understand. Were they to understand that, they wouldn’t simply call it popular music, nor allow it to be commercially exploited by other races the way it consistently and perennially is.
Were you at all surprised to see an almost all-white audience at the concert last night?
Certainly not. Negros have no knowledge of the value of their classical music. Our people are ignorant in the main. That’s why we find them in jail and on welfare. They are systematically kept ignorant. So I don’t expect that they should appreciate perhaps the most sophisticated and cumulative aspects, which would require that they know their own history. Of course as we see they know less and less of their own history. Why should they know about so-called jazz music? It would mean that you must have read a book. Jazz is a sophisticated music. It’s an artistic music today. You must come to it a little like you come to a Western symphony or an opera. You must know the libretto. You must know something about Hawkins and Bechet, the history. I asked my class, I teach Black Studies at the University of Massachusetts, who is Sidney Bechet? Of course 90% of my class is white anyway. The few Negros there they don’t know. How could they know? They’re all into rock and roll. They’re being determined by television. It’s easy to figure them out. They’re being put into the ghetto and the key is being locked. Everybody sees it, but they don’t see it. They don’t read. They don’t know their history. It’s tragic, man.
If you told your students that Bechet is a major influence on John Coltrane…
Not only that but that there is a street named after him in France. Every schoolchild knows his name. So if you ask am I surprised whites come to hear my music, not at all. Europe has taken the Negro’s culture. First Europe took Africa. Then Europe took the African. Then Europe takes the African’s culture. That’s the final solution to the Negro question. Turn the Black man White.
Do you think you’re making progress in this or any other area by teaching Black Studies at a predominantly White university?
Progress today is survival. I’m not talking about a movement. I’m talking about my family. That’s the most revolutionary act that I can carry out is to raise a family, man, and to tell my kids carry it on, baby, cause you see what it is. Somebody else’s kids? I can’t necessarily be responsible for that. Cost too much money! Cost me nine thousand dollars for one boy, one year in school. He’s at Princeton. I got four kids. I got a boy at U Mass, a girl in private school and another one who’s in public school looking forward to going to private school [chuckles]. Those are my concerns.
To change gears, what do you think is the purpose of a critic? What role do they play in all this? And is it the same for the theater as it is in music?
I think so. There again I make the analogy of the farmer selling his vegetables. There’s always a middleman type process involved in the exchange in the appropriation of these materials because that’s the nature of the system. I think musicians are perfectly capable of talking about their own music if it comes to that, especially in a music tradition that comes out of an oral tradition. A music tradition that stems from an oral tradition requires particularly knowledgeable people in terms of its critical components. For example, most American critics, particularly the white ones, would be very reluctant to see the relationships between traditional African music and what I call African-American music. In fact, they’ve never even made those kinds of connections, I think out of very selfish motives, out of a need to appropriate African-American forms. That’s why the term jazz is created, so that it can look like Negros and Whites did it together when they know damn well that most of the melodic, rhythmic, even potentially harmonic content of this music comes directly from Africa. And it can be proven if you just read the right books.
What books are on the required reading list for you classes?
Dr. John LaVell’s “Black Song: The Forge and the Flame.”
Is that it?
I have about 50 books on my list. I’ll have to send you my syllabus.
You’ve been involved in education for a number of years; first in the New York City Public Schools, then in Buffalo, and now at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Tell me about the programs you’re working on in Black Studies.
Well, I was teaching three courses. One of my improv courses was dropped this semester, so I’m basically teaching two courses. One is called Revolutionary Concepts in African-American Music, which is a lecture course that meets 3 times a week. I teach another course called Black Musicians in the Theater, which meets on Thursday nights. Prior to that I had an improv course/workshop, an introduction to harmony and theory course and it was taught not by me but by my assistant Artie Matthews. In fact, Artie Matthews is the son of the old-time ragtime pianist Artie Matthews Sr. and a very fine pianist. So I have what amounts to a lecture course 3 days a week and a sort of workshop course one night a week in which we teach musicians in the theater. Originally, I designed that course to teach Black musicians because I’m in Black Studies, you see. It’s designed to teach black musicians to write music for theater, film, etc., but because of a lack of facilities, Black Studies has no real music facility at this point, so I was not able to carry it out. What we do, essentially, is we play songs from the literature; Dameron, Monk, Bird, all those things from the Jamey Aebersold book.
How do you manage to keep that together and still tour?
Well, I have people who work for me. I pay them to take my classes.
Do you take a month or so every year?
There no set time that I take. If I consider something important enough, I plan for that. I’ll put it in my syllabus to let my students know when I’ll be gone and when they can expect me back. It’s like they’re still in school, baby. Believe me.
You’ve stated “Where my own dreams sufficed, I disregarded the Western musical tradition altogether.” Tell me about your dreams today. Are they that mush different than they were 20 years ago?
Not too much. I heard Sidney Bechet relocated to France because it was closer to Africa and he wanted to go there in his last years. DuBois died in Africa and I think Coltrane would have died in Africa if they had given him the chance. So in my heart I’m an African. They stole my land but they’ll never steal my culture or my identity.
Can I assume that you’ve returned?
I never left!
I mean physically, for a visit.
Aw, yeah. I’ve been there but never in the sense that I might say I’ve really seen Africa. And the Africa that I harken to and that I talk about and I dream about no longer exists. It’s the Africa from which I was stolen. The Africa that exists today is an Africa of many, many peoples with many different ideas and many different social and economic systems fighting for a place in the sun. In most instances they don’t recognize me as the prodigal son. So I’m not nostalgic for Africa that way. I hope that my people can get it together wherever they are. It’s an identity factor that that I think exists in all American Negros, in all American Blacks. It was dramatically underscored by the production of the book Roots on television. I think there is an almost passionate need for Negros, like Jews I suppose, to know who they really are. Of course Jews are a bit more fortunate in certainly a contemporary sense than Blacks because we have never known where we come from. There are no historical records that will tell us. My mother didn’t even know till the day she died what year she was born in because they didn’t keep records of Negro’s births in South Carolina, and that’s in modern times. So I can’t even say what year my mother was born.
[End of Part One. We left the hotel and resumed our conversation in my car on the way to National Airport. We discussed, among other things, commercialism in the recording industry.]
Culture is ultimately related to economics. I’m not an anti-capitalist. I can’t say that I don’t have certain collective ideals, shall we say. But I do believe there is a place for people making money. I’m not totally opposed to people making money. I’ve been to places where everybody’s supposed to have the same thing and I wasn’t that happy.
You’ve traveled a lot. Compare the way jazz is presented on the radio in this country as opposed to overseas.
There again it’s part of the larger issue of culture. I think in general in Europe the people are in tune with culture because they don’t face the same identity crisis that Americans face. America is rather a melting pot, you see, and people haven’t resolved their individual differences yet. You go to France and a Frenchman is French. He’s not an Irishman or a Pole. He’s not Black; he’s French. There’s no question who he is. So he can talk about Louis Armstrong circa 1924 and know that he’s talking about another being, another entity on this planet that is somehow different from him but is also worth of recognition on whatever level he chooses to see it, even if he’s as big a racist as the American. On that level, he can see something else other than himself. I submit that Americans are not mature enough yet, particularly White Americans, to deal with the phenomena of the existence of other cultures, other individualities, other identities. That’s why we push so hard for everyone being the same thing in this country because we’ve never been able to accept individual differences. Jews, Catholics and minorities have always posed critical problems in this country, not just the Negro. So you ask me about music programming, I think that’s part of the larger issue of the understanding of the need to present the work and the experience of other cultures. To present different experiences which we’ve never recognized in this country, as far as I can see.
How about yourself? Do you get much airplay?
And in this country…
Well hardly at all in this country. They’re not supposed to be played here. That doesn’t surprise me. I mean a friend of mine told me about a very interesting experience she had. A Norwegian girl, she called Martin Williams at the Smithsonian Institute. At that time she was working in Washington teaching dance and Martin was putting on these Smithsonian concerts, you see. She said, “I’m a fan of Archie Shepp and why don’t you produce Archie Shepp at the Smithsonian some time? And Martin said, “Archie Shepp is a communist.” That’s what she told me.
So you’re a communist?
But I’m not! You see, that’s the first thing. But even if I were, what the hell does that have to do with it? And then it told me something about why I’ve never played at the Smithsonian, or perhaps why I haven’t done a few things I thought I should have.
Well, you know that Martin has more or less been squeezed out at the Smithsonian.
Maybe I’ll get a chance to play there now.
I’d like to ask you more about your music. Do you still work to enlarge your musical vocabulary?
Definitely, man. But my musical vocabulary today is sound. That’s the extent of it. If I had a good sound, that’s 90% of whatever you do. Don’t matter what notes you play, man. You can pick any note and play it as long as the note has conviction. You know, sound and timbre.
Have you done much solo, unaccompanied playing in public?
Too much. That’s what it sounds like with a bad microphone. That’s why my lip has got a scar inside it now from playing too many solos.
On several occasions you’ve recorded songs written by or associated with Duke Ellington, Does he still inspire you?
I like the way Ben and Duke worked together. I’m trying to get, on an individual level, closer to the sound that Ben demonstrates, you know in that period with Ellington. At the same time, I’d like to begin to write and compose music for orchestra. I’d like to do more of that. I’ve done some things with big band recently. In fact two of those charts of Frank Foster’s last night…
Yeah, we recorded “Simone” in Paris with a 32-piece orchestra. It’s a really exciting group. It’s on an album called Attica. It’s a foreign import.
You’ve got over 15 albums still in print on labels like Impulse, Arista Freedom, Steeplechase and Denon. Any idea which albums sell the most? Do you keep track of things like that?
Naw. I don’t make no money if that’s what you mean.
Do you know who your audience is?
Young people, intellectuals, Black and White.
[After giving further directions to our driver, Shepp continues talking about cultural cannibalism]
Take Bernstein writing about West Side Story. That’s the same thing as Bartok writing his Mikrokosmos off of Hungarian folk. On thing is nobody wants to see Negros as the true folk of the U.S., which we are. You see, we’re no longer the Africans we were in some ways. But that’s something we have to come to grips with as a people. Who are we? American Negros don’t know who they are. That haven’t had time to think about it. We’re too afraid, man. Fighting too hard just to survive. That’s why we don’t know we’re probably as Creole as Sidney Bechet and the rest of them. There’s no difference between Buddy Bolden and Sidney Bechet except that Buddy Bolden was an English speaking Creole and Bechet came from French speaking Creole. There are all kinds of silly differences, but they’re all Creoles. They were 2nd generation Americans. They were no longer what Cables describes as Congo Negros. They had lost their Creole identity, their Bantu being; their Bantu self was gone. So young Louis Armstrong was a Creole man in a new world. Young Bechet, he was a Creole, Bolden…
Weren’t we just talking about the lack of identity for all Americans?
Yeah, that it, man. That’s it.
So I guess it comes down to the loss of identity through assimilation.
Yes, acculturation and all those socio-anthropological phenomena that tend to rob a people of their identity. Ultimately, jazz music, so-called, was important to the Negro because it lent him a vestige of his African identity by combining pristine elements of spirituals, blues, cries and hollers. In Trane you hear the field cry, man. You know how far back that goes? That goes all the way back to Africa. He plays spirituals. He called the song, “Spiritual.” No young boys play that kind of music today. They don’t feel that deeply. Coltrane was perhaps the last African man. The noble savage, baby. That’s right.
I hear a cry in your tone, in your sound.
I hope so. I hope I’m carrying on that fire, man, because it’s an important fire to carry on. It’s our own blackness that’s involved. It’s important to carry that on because only then do we have something to draw from. It’s our identity. It may be in a few years Steve Grossman will sound just like Coltrane in ’65, but he’ll never play a note past Coltrane. You see, that’s what I mean. Because the source is gone. And what is the source? It has some elements of Africa in it. That’s what the American Negro must understand; that he is partially an African and that he always will be. Either that or he should forget it and become White, like everything else here. Stop kidding around about jazz and really get down with rock & roll because that will turn him whiter and whiter until after a while I think the white players will be more expert at his music than he is, particularly the blues, which interestingly I think Whites are playing now more than Negros. Negros are in the process of becoming White. Whites are in the process of becoming black.
And McLuhan says we’re all turning Chinese.
Yeah, that’s right. He’s right, absolutely right. Duke says it on that record My People. He quotes McLuhan. We’re all in the process of becoming Oriental.
Do you care to speculate on which direction Coltrane might have headed in if he had lived?
I say to my people, I say Trane is in Africa now. You’ll see him. He’s a man standing by the road with a stick and he’s got a long white beard and he’s playing a flute.
Who are the people you listen to today besides Ellington, Bechet and Coltrane?
I don’t listen to the young cats too much. I don’t get much out of them. I don’t mean that as a put-down. But they don’t inspire me like Trane and them cats do. I remember when I first heard the record “Chasin’ The Trane.” To me, that must have been like what Firebird was for contemporaries of Stravinsky at the turn of the century. I mean, Coltrane completely turned the saxophone inside out on that recording. He had synthesized the elements of all my contemporaries, all his contemporaries. It was as though he wasn’t playing the saxophone at all. And, in fact, he was playing the blues. That’s what the tune is; a 12-bar blues. Chasin’ The Trane is probably one of the most revolutionary saxophone pieces of the 20th Century, if not the, because the player attempts to play other than notes. He was actually playing stops the way bassists play to get overtones. Consciously. So it makes it more difficult to notate the music in a Western sense because he’s playing sounds that are not necessarily notate able. When you read Andrew White’s transcriptions, they say approximately because here is a new area of Western music science. So that’s why I don’t call this music jazz. I prefer to call it music science. To me, people like Coltrane are scientists of the 20th Century on the highest musical level. Were they not Negros, I think they would be seen as such.
Is it worthwhile to analyze it?
Certainly, man. That’s why the white folks dig it. They’re right. I don’t blame Grossman for stealing Coltrane’s notes. They’re beautiful notes, man, and if someone doesn’t preserve them who will? Not the black folks. I don’t think so because where we to recognize the need to do so we have no power and in most instances nobody really sees the need to do so. Negro culture is moribund, in a way. I think it’s as I say–it’s been stolen in a sense by Whites and eventually, I don’t know; I hope my people will come to dig it.
I want to ask you about a couple of other bands and musicians, first of all John Gilmore, who’s been with Sun Ra for close to 30 years now. Apparently, Coltrane acknowledged Gilmore’s contributions and influence. Do you hear that influence in Coltrane’s work, and have you ever met John Gilmore?
Yeah, John’s a beautiful player. In fact, he’s really a tremendous man. I guess he not only influenced John Coltrane, he’s influenced me and many others. But let’s not lose perspective on the man we’re talking about. This is Coltrane. It’s like if you were talking about Albert Einstein, of course you would have to include Newton or Newtonian physics as an influence on Einstein’s development. And perhaps several other key scientists of former periods, not to mention economists like Adam Smith or whatever else you want to throw in, like John Locke the philosopher, or Hume. But ultimately you have to say that this man synthesized it. He put it together. See, at that point other names don’t mean nothin’. Not individuals. At that point you just say that was Albert. He did that. That was Coltrane. Some people say, well Albert Ayler; Coltrane utilized elements of Ayler’s sound. But he also used elements of Gene Ammons’ sound. Lot of Gene Ammons in Coltrane. Nobody ever talks about Gene Ammons. I’ve been into Jug’s work real tough.
It’s funny you should mention that. There’s a recent reissue of a Gene Ammons record with Coltrane on alto. You know the one I’m talking about?
I got that. Yeah, “It Might As Well Be Spring.” Mal Waldron on piano. Mal’s another cat. Yeah, Trane on alto–that’s the master, baby. The Chief.
Let me ask you more about your records, including a recent collection of duets on Bird tunes with bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on Steeplechase. Was the project your idea or the label owner Nils Winther?
Nils Winther. Ideas like that are usually the producer’s. Right now my ideas would be in an entirely different direction. People don’t want to spend money on my ideas. I’m the creator of fusion music, in a way. I mean, I did Attica Blues, Money Blues before Miles was cuttin’ that shit. But my songs were too political so nobody wanted to produce it. Then later on Chick and these cats came out with electric pianos and all. I was doin’ that shit back then, man. But they told me it cost too much.
Have you continued to hone your piano chops since the Doodlin’ date in the 60s?
I’ve tried to. If I had really a little more money I’d spend a little time playing the piano. I think I could learn to play. I’ve got some piano chops and I’ve got a good touch on the piano but it takes a while. To be a pianist takes discipline. It’s a study and you’ve to play the piano all the time. So I haven’t been able to get past that point of a saxophone player who plays the piano. I’d like to be able to be a pianist. But that’s another stage of it, you see. It takes time to study for that.
The pianist on the gig last night, Gus Simms said how much he admired your voicings and wishes he could play like you.
Aw, Gus is bad, man. Nice, nice, nice; the cat’s real nice. I really enjoyed working with him.
Tell me about your drummer Harold White.
Harold’s beautiful, man. He swings don’t he, baby?
He’s part of your working group?
Yeah, he’s a Baltimore man, too.
It was kind of a homecoming.
Yeah, I knew he was home. I asked for him. I told them that’s the cat I want on “Giant Steps” ‘cause I know it’ll be right. Harold’s my man. I dig Harold.
Who else is in your working group these days?
Harold, Santi Debriano, and I got a white boy on piano, Kenny Werner. He’s nice. Kenny can play, man. Kenny has done some transcriptions of Duke’s early music like Soda Fountain Rag and those types of things. He’s got a hell of a stride technique.
Where’s he from?
Berklee. He’s just come out of Berklee. Bad young cat, man. You know; first-come, first-served. He’s the baddest cat I heard, man, so that’s what’s happening.
No trombone in your group? That’s unusual.
I haven’t worked with a quintet too much but since I’ve had this scar I’ve been getting a second horn player. I find my lip tiring. So I got a good boy on trumpet with me, Charles McGhee. Charles isn’t that young but he’s a fantastic instrumentalist.
We now riding down North Capitol Street in Washington DC Just ahead of us you can see the dome of the U.S. Capitol.
Yeah, I see that.
Since we’re only minutes away, is there anything in particular you’d like to say to our elected leaders should we get the chance?
[makes a gesture]
Ah, the sound of one finger standing. Tell me about some of your projects in the future. You’ll continue to teach, I assume?
Of course, because I think the role of the professional musician at the academic level can be important. I say that advisedly because I think we’re the only people capable of experience in a world that is less and less geared to experience. I was reading an interesting critique in the International Herald Tribune coming over—I was in Switzerland the day before yesterday—it’s called “The Blank Stare of Art.” And this guy quoted a book, which is current today. It’s a critique of American society in which people are less and less having experiences, you see. And they suspect the people who do so everything is becoming regimented, you see? I think people like me are part of a breed that is very important because there are not too many of us around. I was talking with Richard Davis the other day. He was talking about the need to travel as a teacher. He’s teaching as well.
Still at the University of Wisconsin?
Yeah. And he says he’s got to work, man. He was doing the Dinah Shore thing and I said yes, it’s important that you do work because that’s the only way you can bring something back to these cats. The difference between you and the academics; they suspect people like me in academia because those people don’t do anything. Their entire lives are geared toward telling other people what to do.
[after clarifying directions for our driver, we resumed with Shepp talking about problems in the third world]
CPT, man. It’s terrible. You got to Mexico, man. You say, here’s a third world country and you want to believe they can compete with the White. They’ll never do it, man. They’ve got an island mentality. They’re too laid-back, Jack. Too much aristocracy. See, Africa was a world of slavery. I think European aristocracy begins with the Africans because the Africans are the oldest people. As the Africans pushed on to the Mediterranean, they influenced Greek democracy and eventually Roman theocracy and all that shit, see. Aquinas was an African.
Saint Thomas Aquinas?
Yeah, he was a Libyan. You see how black some of them cats is? They don’t all look like Qaddafi [chuckles]. But it’s a different man that came of out the West. It’s good that he finally met Black people and Indians and all these people, see. I see it in places like Holland. The White man is softening. Otherwise he would die from his own lack of spirit. See, like it’s good he’s got jazz and this kind of music. These young German cats are writing books about this shit, man, the philosophy of it. They write books about cats like Albert Ayler and the need to absorb his spirit. They’re heavy. It’s another kind of rationalism. Dig it.
Are you suggesting that Europeans have no spirit of their own?
I think it’s a rational spirit vis-à-vis semantic–the gut reaction.
Wasn’t Johann Sebastian Bach writing from his soul, his spirit, his heart?
As much as a white man could. That’s heavy! Look at Beethoven, baby. Put it there. Because Beethoven has the best of the East and the best of the West. Somewhere in Beethoven was a black grandmother. It softens the Bach. So we can get the Fifth: Da da da DAH. Otherwise you’d have just Bach. Can you imagine a world of Bach? That’s what I mean. At some point you’ve got to soften Bach. All that counterpoint and fugue, all them sharp edges, man, got to be cooled a little bit. That’s the Orient. That’s jazz, baby. You know what I mean? It’s the new world shit, man. All I’m saying is just to identify the creators. That’s all. That’s just where it’s at, man. Shit; then we move straight ahead. If you identify the creators you treat ‘em right. Everybody’ll be happy. Don’t mean that other cats can’t play the music. That’s silly. It’s like if you’ve got a gold mine, why you gonna take all the gold and then you’ ain’t got nothin’ left. You take a little bit at a time. I say the black creators are like a gold mine. They should be nourished and kept around. Not destroyed. After a while you won’t have nothing but a bunch of white imitators. And we’ll go back to Bach. That’s beautiful. But can you imagine a world without jazz? Young cats know it’s worth keeping around. That’s why I’m talking about these young German rationalists. They’re the answer to Hegel and all these cats, man. They’re puttin’ curves on all this shit, man. They’re building another world. That’s why I’m saying in every town in this country all these young white cats should have jazz clubs and they should be all related. And they should put in a certain amount of money per year. That way they don’t ask the government for nothin’. Then, when they got enough money they can say we got matching funds, man. Give us $10 million. They’re doing this in Germany, in Holland. In every country it’s state supported at a time when this country is withdrawing state support. It’s no wonder that the U.S. is going bankrupt. It isn’t just the military. It’s apathy. Look at the Democratic Party. Those faggots ought to be kicked in the ass. They stood by and let Reagan walk all over them. He fucked them in the ass, and they fucked the people in the ass, the lousy bastards. The Democratic Party—they’re not worth FDR’s name. They squeak and they cry. They’re nothing. They’ve let the people down. It’s time for a third party, man. We need another Eugene V. Debbs. Young people are not rallying around the right issues. Jazz is one of the issues they should rally around. Smoke? You’ve got a right to that, man. Why should you be turned into a systematic alcoholic? It’s all connected to politics, my man.
I wonder why they don’t legalize and exploit marijuana. They could tax the hell out of it.
Certainly. Economically, it could be beneficial.
You know, we just passed the Pentagon and there are those in this country who are alarmed at the growth of nationalism and militarism these days. Does it scare you?
Apathy. Apathy is the most frightening. Because that allows the people to be disarmed, disengaged, turned around and ultimately dismissed.
[…] work for more than four decades, not only through his body of recordings but from a long interview we did in 1982. When I heard he was coming to Washington to receive his National Endowment for the Arts Jazz […]