Man in hat holding saxophone.

Photo by Monette Berthommier

Archie Shepp

Saxophonist, Composer, Educator

Bio

"I accept this award with profound humility; that my 'petite chanson' could make a slight breadth of a sound on a shimmering wave. My song is a paean, which seeks to recreate the mournful utterance of the first man or woman enslaved. I am the 'motherless child' who wails the blues while others smile."

Archie Shepp is a jazz saxophonist best known for his Afrocentric music of the late 1960s, a unique style of free-form avant-garde jazz blended with African rhythms, and for his collaborations with John Coltrane, Horace Parlan, Cecil Taylor, and the New York Contemporary Five ensemble. His long career as an educator has focused on ethnomusicology, looking at the history of African-American music from its origins in Africa to today.

Shepp was born in Florida but grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, studying piano, clarinet, and alto saxophone before switching to the tenor. He studied drama at Goddard College from 1955 to 1959, but chose music as his main profession. Shepp's first recording under his own name Archie Shepp - Bill Dixon Quartet was released in 1962. Four for Trane, an album featuring four John Coltrane compositions (and one of his own) followed in 1964, taking Coltrane's compositions into a more avant-garde direction that Coltrane himself would follow. Shepp’s bands in the mid-1960s featured musicians including Roswell Rudd, Bobby Hutcherson, Beaver Harris, and Grachan Moncur III. In 1965, Shepp was a sideman on John Coltrane's Ascension recording and was featured—along with John Coltrane—on New Thing at Newport, a live album with two sets from the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival. At this time, Shepp began looking to African cultural and music traditions for inspiration, as shown on such recordings as The Magic of Ju-Ju (1967), a recording featuring an African percussion ensemble. Before the end of the decade, he added teaching to his activities, first at the University at Buffalo, New York, and in 1971 at the University of Massachusetts, where he spent the next 30 years as a professor in the Afro-American Studies department.

Shepp’s musical explorations included spoken word and poetry components to his albums; occasionally stepping forth as a vocalist; and ballads, blues, rhythm and blues, spirituals, and tributes to other jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker and Sidney Bechet. His 1972 albums show distinct political messages: Attica Blues was a response to the Attica Prison riots, while The Cry of My People addressed civil rights. Shepp began touring extensively in Europe and started a continuing tradition of recording with European musicians, while at the same time pursuing his musical interest in African music, such as his concert with the Moroccan group Dar Gnawa in Paris in 2003.

In 2004, Shepp co-founded the French record label ArchieBall to release his albums. The 2013 release by the label, I Hear the Sound by the Archie Shepp Attica Blues Orchestra, was nominated for a Grammy Award. The artist is featured in the 1981 documentary film Imagine the Sound, produced by Ron Mann, and in Archie Shepp: je suis jazz c'est ma vie, a 2007 documentary by Frank Cassenti.

Selected Discography

Fire Music, Impulse!, 1965
The Way Ahead, Impulse!, 1968-69
Archie Shepp & Horace Parlan, Goin’ Home, Steeplechase, 1977
Live in New York, Verve, 2000
I Hear the Sound, ArchieBall, 2012-13

Podcasts

Archie Shepp

Music Credits:

 Excerpt of “Begin the Beguine” composed by Cole Porter and performed by Artie Shaw, used by permission of Warner Chappell Music, Inc., from the album, The Essential Artie Shaw, used courtesy of Sony Masterworks. 

Excerpt of “Mogie” composed and performed by Lee Morgan, from the album, Here’s Lee Morgan, used by permission of Concord Music Group and by permission of Conrad Music. 

Excerpt of “Déjà Vu” and “Attica Blues” written and performed by Archie Shepp from the album,  I Hear The Sound, used courtesy of Archie Ball Recordingd.

Excerpt of “Trane’s Blues” written by John Coltrane and performed by the Miles Davis Quintet, from the album,  Bluing, Miles Davis Plays the Blues, used courtesy of Fantasy Records.

Excerpt of “Steam” written and performed by Archie Shepp, from the album, Steam, courtesy of Enja recordings.

Excerpt of “Mama Rose” written and performed by Archie Shepp, from the album, courtesy of Steeplechase recordings.

Excerpt of 3 Phasis, written and performed by Cecil Taylor, used courtesy of New World Records.

Jo Reed: That is 2016 NEA Jazz Master, Archie Shepp, in an excerpt of his composition, “Attica Blues.”  And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Archie Shepp is a jazz saxophonist – one of the best. He’s also a composer, pianist, singer,   poet, and playwright. There is little that Archie Shepp does not do and do very well.    

Archie Shepp came on the jazz scene in the 1960s and became known for a unique style of free-form, avant-garde jazz blended with African rhythms. He’s collaborated with some of the giants of jazz: Cecil Taylor, the New York Contemporary Five ensemble, Sonny Rawlins and John Coltrane.  In fact, he was one of the musicians Coltrane chose to play on his watershed album, Ascension, which is now considered one of the turning points in Avant-Garde music.

Shepp’s musical explorations have included spoken word and poetry incorporated into his albums. Sometimes he puts down the alto sax and steps up as a vocalist.  Although he’s been at the head of the free jazz movement, Shepp’s musicality casts a wide net. He performs ballads, blues, rhythm and blues, spirituals, and as well as tributes to other jazz masters such as Charlie Parker and Sidney Bechet.

And Shepp has never shied away from commenting on social issues through his music. “Attica Blues,” for example, was a response to the Attica Prison riots, while “The Cry of My People”addressed civil rights.

Archie Shepp has had a long career as an educator teaching at University of Massachusetts, Amherst for some 30 years as an ethnomusicologist.

Archie Shepp was born in Florida in 1937, but he was raised in Philadelphia in a home filled with music.

Archie Shepp: My father played the banjo. So he was really a blues man. He had a Catholic taste as far as jazz music is concerned. And I suppose I started music with the banjo. That was my very first instrument. I harassed him to show me some chords on the banjo. So by the time I was seven or eight years old, I could make the first few chords of James P. Johnson's composition, "The Charleston." So, I was always into music. I started taking piano lessons at the age of about 12. I was really totally taken with the music that my father played for me on the radio.

[Music Excerpt]

He liked Duke Ellington and Count Basie. He listened to Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. He listened to everybody. So, by the age of 13, I knew I wanted to play this music, but I suppose I was more into boogie-woogie than anything.

Jo Reed: Archie also started to play the clarinet and he thought he had found his instrument –until he heard a saxophone.

Archie Shepp: About the age of 15, I happened to hear a young man, Norman Satchel. He was one of my classmates. And he was playing tenor. I wanted to play the clarinet until I heard him play the tenor saxophone. And I was really impressed. I went home and told my mother, "Mama, I want to change from clarinet to saxophone." So, about the age of 15, I started taking saxophone lessons from a colleague of Coltrane's; a guy who was not very well-known, but a very fine saxophone player named Tony Mitchell. It was Tony who got me started playing and I got into this music by way of him.

Jo Reed: But even while he took up the saxophone, Archie never stopped studying and playing piano. And it has served him well.

Archie Shepp: Piano was always very basic to my evolution on the saxophone. It was through the piano that I actually learned to play chord changes and so on. Eventually, I met a guy who became very important for me. We were both about the same age – he was a little younger than I was – Edward Lee Morgan, a trumpet player.

[Music Excerpt]

Archie Shepp: In a way, he was a musical genius. He was only 15, and at that age, he was playing with people like Coltrane and some of the best musicians in Philadelphia. For me, he was really quite an important influence.

Lee seemed to like the way I played the blues.  So whenever he had gigs that didn't involve too many chord changes – blues gigs – he would frequently call me. That’s how I really got into this music.

Jo Reed:  African- Americans faced many challenges in mid-20th century America and Philadelphia was no exception.

Archie Shepp: There was a lot of racism and prejudice in Philadelphia.  And there was many social problems – black schools were inferior. Not only was there poverty, but there was a great deal of crime and violence. But a lot of music, a lot of blues and some good times. I suppose that's what jazz is all about: suffering and good times, and somehow making the best of all of that.

Music has always been a balm to the soul. I think with the African American people, going back to slavery, where we're singing songs to work, the work songs, spirituals, blues, and the eventual evolution of instrumental music in New Orleans and the piano stride music on the East Coast. All these were the original creation of African American people. I think it was the way we had of surviving and somehow seeing another side of life other than suffering and poverty.

Jo Reed: And Archie could see the joy music brought to his own home.

Archie Shepp: My father was a great inspiration, because he loved to play the banjo. I can remember every Wednesday after he got paid, he would buy a little wine and then he'd play all the old, "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone", and all the songs from that epic. Sometimes, I'd join in with a saxophone.

Jo Reed: With all its challenges, Philadelphia was a great place for a young eager musician

Archie Shepp: Music was all over Philadelphia. You could go down to North Philadelphia and hear young John Coltrane or Johnny Coles, Jimmy Oliver, Jimmy Heath. There were a lot of very fine musicians playing in Philadelphia at the time. And jazz was really the thing. It wasn't until I met Lee Morgan that I really began to get into modern jazz music: music of Parker, Gillespie, and people like that. The guys who lived downtown were a bit more sophisticated musically than the guys who lived in my neighborhood. Mostly I knew about blues before I actually met Lee Morgan and some of those guys from North Philadelphia. That's where the music was played primarily, in North Philly. I lived in Germantown. And we were more blues-based and not quite so hip.

Jo Reed: Perhaps surprisingly, Archie Shepp studied drama at Goddard College. But there was no doubt that music was first love and would be his profession. It’s what brought him to New York and a world of musical possibilities.

Archie Shepp: After college not only did I meet a variety of artists, but I got to play with some really great musicians around New York.

[Music Excerpt]

Archie Shepp: New York opened up an entirely different world to me because I began to meet people who, musically, were very sophisticated and advanced – who were on the cutting edge of the music like Coltrane and Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. They actually were changing the way this music would be played eventually, if we look at all the young people playing today.

Jo Reed: Soon after arriving in New York, Shepp met, in close order, Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane. Both of whom would profoundly impact Archie’s career.

Archie Shepp: My background was very traditional and conventional until I met Cecil Taylor in the early 1960s and he gave me the chance to record with him. Cecil was quite a bit an influence on me, intellectually and musically. He's a brilliant man. Part of my evolution as an African American, as a musician, is due to my conversations I had with him and the influence he had on my later development. Taylor's music was totally different from anything anybody else was doing at the time.

[Music Excerpt]

Archie Shepp: And because its piano music, was more dense and complicated, at least sounded so, than the music, say, of Ornette Coleman – who also became quite a hero to me when he came to New York – I think what Cecil did was he opened up an entirely new set of options for me, as far as playing music without chords, playing music, changing tempo; devices which he used quite successfully and which later influenced my own composition and the way I approached music.

I can remember he was talking about his concept of playing the piano. For example, he said to me, "When I play the piano, I feel like my fingers are dancers on the keys." And I thought, "What an image. It takes you right there, of course. My fingers are dancers on the keys of the saxophone." Of course, he had studied dance and that was a natural reference for him to make. I learned from him that jazz music, if you will, has a number of possibilities.

John Coltrane was really a hero to me. Trane's from the decade just before mine.  He was already a legend. And so I sort of made it my ambition to hear this man, but I never heard him while I was in Philadelphia. It was only after I started college. I came back home to visit. And by chance, I found out that Coltrane was playing in a club called The Red Rooster in West Philadelphia. I went to hear him. The thing about it, was when I first heard him, I wasn't that impressed because he didn't play much. I only remember that what he played was something so different. I never quite heard chords played the way he did. He had a way of ripping the chords off. The next time I heard him, I was in college. It was his first recording with Miles Davis. I think it was called "Green Haze." I bought the record. I told all my schoolmates, "You got to listen to this guy. He's the next guy, he's the guy."

[Music Excerpt]

Jo Reed: Archie made it his business to meet and learn from John Coltrane – which he did in 1963.

Archie Shepp: Later, I lived just around the corner from the Five Spot. I used to be there every night to hear him. One night, I got up enough nerve to ask him if he could show me some things on the saxophone. He very graciously accepted. I was at his home the next day at 10 o'clock in the morning. He was at bed because I had met him about 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning at the club, just as it was closing. And then the story is he usually practiced even after he went home. So when I came the next day at 10: 00, his wife then, Anita, said, "He's asleep, but he's expecting you." And so, I sat there until about one o'clock. And John got up and went straight to his horn, which was on the sofa. And he began to play.

He just started playing like he was eating breakfast, really. And It was something rather like "Giant Steps" because he played for about 15 minutes unaccompanied. Then he asked me to play for him. And I was playing alto sax at the time. He told me, "Your fingers are coming way up off the keys." He said, "If you want to play fast, you got to keep your fingers close to the keys on the horn." And it was something I started to work on immediately, keeping my fingers close to the keys. He talked to me for the rest of the day about Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. In fact, my meetings with John were frequently not exchanges on the horn, but we would just talk all day about people he appreciated and liked. He was like a big brother to me; a brother I never had.

Jo Reed: Meanwhile, Archie Shepp was developing his own approach to making music and his own performance style

[Music Excerpt]

Archie Shepp: I very early saw the connection between theater and music. I majored in theater in college. So for me, even today, my performances always have an aspect of theater. For example, I remember that when I was a young man, I was performing at the Five Spot. And a friend of mine said, "You know, people come not only to hear music, but to see music." He said, "When you were fixing your reed on the band stand a few minutes ago, half the audience was not listening to the music but watching you fix your reed." So sometimes, I do that. I'd do things on stage which I know would generate a visual contact, connection, and seems to make the music somewhat stronger and more integral to the entire presentation.

Jo Reed: Over the course of his career, Archie Shepp must have recorded upwards of 40 of his own albums, beginning in 1962.

Archie Shepp: My first recording was one that I put together with Bill Dixon. And we later released that on Savoy Records. We sold the tape. I did my first recording for an important company, Candid Records, when I joined Cecil Taylor's group. Later, John Coltrane was very instrumental in helping me to get recording date with Impulse. I eventually signed a contract. I was with them for about seven or eight years, during which time, I didn't make a lot of money but I was more than I had ever made before. Bob Thiele, who was the A and R man, gave me complete reign of my recording dates. I could choose any one I wanted. For example, when we did “Attica Blues,” I used Aretha Franklin's guitarist. I recorded with Roy Haynes, with Ron Carter, with Walter Davis, Jr. ; many of the most important musicians in New York.

[Music Excerpt]

Archie Shepp: To Bob Thiele and to Jon Coltrane, I'm deeply indebted for having had the chance to record with very, very interesting and important musicians. Important, because I also learned a lot myself while performing with these people.

Jo Reed:  One reason why Archie Shepp is a musician and composer of such breadth is his embrace of all musical forms and his collaboration with younger performers from outside the jazz world, like Yasiin Bey formerly known as Mos Def.

Archie Shepp: He's a very good singer, he has a very nice voice, and that he sings very good blues. Yasiin was not the only one. I also recorded with Chuck D, and I did a performance here in Paris with Chuck D and Fab 5. And I found them to be very engaging and very involved. Chuck, is very political. His rap always seems to have some meaning, a social importance that talks about the plight of African Americans. Public Enemy was a very important group at one point because they did have such sociocultural implication.

Archie Shepp: But getting back to Yasiin, I think that today we have young people who are using rap to make a statement about the condition that we find ourselves in. Others are using rap more for entertainment or to express what it's like living in the ghetto. And so, It's a kind of poetry that has evolved. Rap is ultimately poetry set to rhythm. In my own humble way, I’m one of the people who helped evolve the form along with The Last poets, and groups like that. Some of my earliest – my first recordings involved what today people would call slam, or rap. My poem, “Mama Rose.”

[Music Excerpt]

When I started putting words to my recordings, I was very influenced by the sonnet form. Things that I had learned in university, which you don't hear in most rap recordings. Largely because a lot of the rappers don't come out of universities. They come out of the streets and the jails. So their story is equally important. It may be framed in a different context.

Since I've always been interested in theater and poetry, and since I'm one of the people who helped to start this form, it was only natural that I should hook up with guys like Chuck and Yasiin.

Jo Reed: Archie Shepp is also known as a thoughtful educator.  He began teaching at Buffalo University in 1969 and then went on to teach at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. It was the gaps he found in academic resources that led to his work as an ethnomusicologist.

Archie Shepp: When I started to teach at Buffalo University, I was the first acting director of the Black-Studies Program. That was one of the first Black-Studies Programs. Early on, I realized that there weren't many books written about this music and there wasn’t many references that I could go to, to really explore the history of this music, because the connections weren't always made between Black-instrumental music and the music that came out of the oral tradition; the work songs, the spirituals, the jubilees, the blues which preceded so-called jazz music. The longer I taught the more people began to write books about black music, about jazz music.

Eventually, I began to accumulate a library of books, and recordings, and films, which added to my ethnomusicological interests. And which I was able to communicate, hopefully, to my students, so that they would know that the circle of jazz music covers a much wider area than simply people blowing on instruments, but that it evolves from the importation of Africans into the Americas, South America, the West Indies. All these places are very important to the evolution of so-called jazz.

Jo Reed: Archie Shepp has spent his life not just playing remarkable music. He thinks deeply about African-American music, its history, and its possibilities.

Archie Shepp: When blacks were slaves, there were songs that they sang which actually were songs of liberation; sometimes instructional songs. For example, the song, "Follow the Drinking Gourd." It tells an escaped slave how to follow the North Star to Canada. The directions are within the song itself. They say that the song "Steal Away" was written by Nat Turner, who formed one of the first slave rebellions. And In the song, he says this: [sings] "Steal away, steal away" – that's to escape - "Steal away home. I ain't got long to stay here."

Now, that's a spiritual, which perhaps the slave owners would think I'm singing about going to heaven. In fact, it was a song about escaping from this plantation to go to Canada. And there are other kinds of instructional songs. The work songs which frequently told a new worker how to do the work. [Sings] "Put a rail over here. Put a rail over there.”  There were songs that actually told people how or what to do. Sometimes they were politically motivated. Sometimes they were more functional.

Black music – certain musicians within jazz music, always had implications that were related to our liberation. And ultimately, I think African American music has left its stamp on world music. When I look at young kids today, rapping and hip-hop and all those forms, I'm taken back to the spiritual and the blues and how important that music has been in helping music to evolve and helping my people to survive.

Jo Reed: That was 2016 NEA Jazz Master Archie Shepp. 

The 2016 NEA Jazz Masters concert will take place on Monday, April 4 at 8:00 p.m. at the Kennedy Center here in DC. It’s hosted by Jason Moran and free and opened to the public. For information about tickets go to arts.gov. And if you can’t come to DC, don’t worry. We are streaming it live at arts.gov.

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.  To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAarts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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