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Friday, March 11, 2005

Archie Shepp: The Cries of My People > By Ollie Bivens

Archie Shepp: The Cries of My People

By Ollie Bivens

If Trane is the father, Pharoah: the sun, and Ayler: the holy ghost, Archie Shepp is the uncle that no one mentions. Shepp, an outspoken critic of jazz and an advocate of social revolution, has endured significant industry persecution for his awareness. And while the acerbic edge to his music has muted in recent years, his civic opinions have certainly not.

All About Jazz: What happened to the black audience for jazz?

Archie Shepp: I can understand why African-American audiences are not in tune with so-called jazz music. First of all, up until the '40s and '50s - let's say up until Coltrane - much of this music still had roots in the African-American community. Coleman Hawkins lived in Harlem. Dexter Gordon, all these people, they came from the African-American community. Today more and more of the so-called jazz musicians are fleeing into suburbia like all the other black middle class people. And so how can they expect we can relate to people whom we no longer associate with? There are no longer any references.

I'm not surprised at all that young black kids are listening to rap music. When I was a boy, to buy a saxophone, I could go to the pawn shop and maybe get a saxophone for a hundred dollars. Or as my grandmother did, she helped my buy a saxophone for five hundred. But today a saxophone costs five thousand dollars. What youngster in the ghetto is going to be able to buy a saxophone? Of course, they buy records and turntables and they created new instruments. They're making something out of nothing. I'm all for these young people. In fact, I think we have to come over to their side. We should begin to make connections with their lifestyle, their culture and their music. I would love to have heard Coltrane play with Digable Planets or James Brown. Those things just never happened because our people never saw the connection.

AAJ: What factors have contributed over the years to the low attendance?

AS: As I mentioned, in the '20s and '30s, many of those clubs were located right in the community. Connie's Inn was in Harlem. White people went to the Negro neighborhoods to hear this music. Now blacks have to go to Lincoln Center to hear this music, to hear players like Wynton Marsalis, who have now become the black bourgeoisie. This used to be a people's music. It is no longer.

AAJ: In Los Angeles, black people have to drive to the westside or Hollywood to hear the music.

AS: Absolutely. The music has actually been taken out of our community and awarded to middle class white communities, where now poor blacks are expected to go on buses and trains to hear their own music. And actually the music they're expected to hear is music that they never hear on the radio. The music they hear on the radio is popular music. They're not hearing Coltrane and Ellington on most of the popular stations. You have to tune in to so-called jazz stations for that. And really to listen to this music requires special training.

African American art music is serious music. It's just like classical music. You can't just come on in the middle of Coltrane playing “Impressions” or “Transition” and expect you're going to pat your feet. This is a very special music that has been created. It has evolved over a century or so into a rather complex music - a complex art music. Though Negroes are hard pressed to understand that for some reason.

AAJ: And the evolution of jazz music?

AS: I don't think it's evolved. I think it's become more and more controlled by white producers. There is not a single major nightclub in the United States owned by an African American. African Americans don't make saxophones. We don't produce trombones. We play them. We're not producers. We're basically consumers. We don't own anything and we don't control anything. And so it's no accident that Ella Fitzgerald is being replaced by some young white singer. Coltrane has become a white man.

AAJ: What do you mean?

AS: I mean that the media - don't you see it? At all the big, so-called jazz concerts, there are fewer and fewer African Americans performing - more and more white players who are being put in the place of those African Americans. I just did a documentary film in France. The young man was talking about great saxophone players. And I mentioned George Coleman. Of course, he was talking about Joe Lovano and the fact that Joe is now playing two instruments at once. Joe Lovano used to come to my gigs and sit in at Sweet Basil years ago. Now he's a big superstar. I love Joe. Nice guy. I happened to mention, “Well, haven't you guys ever heard of George Coleman or Gary Bartz?” And you know what they said? “Who are they?”

“I think our millionaires lack imagination. It is they who must come back to start a new entrepreneurism in the Negro community as regards culture.”

And so what I'm saying is that this is black art music. This is not black dance music, so called jazz music. Normally, this is music people listen to and not dance to. So we do have a black art music. We have not bothered to treasure that music. As a university teacher, I frequently spoke to my students and said, “Why don't you hold a national conference of black students to discuss African American music?” You don't have to accept the term “jazz.” Jazz used to mean fucking, pussy. Sidney Bechet and people like that told you that very clearly.

Why are we still supporting names that degrade our music, except for the fact that white people like those names? And they associate it with slavery. So at this point if we have no control over our music, fewer African Americans listening to it doesn't surprise me. Many of the young players today certainly don't come from the roots of the community. They come from Juilliard, conservatories. What relation do they have to the black community?

AAJ: But there aren't many places in the black community where jazz artists can perform.

AS: That's not the point. There aren't any places that are owned by black people. We take it for granted largely because it's called jazz. What does jazz mean? Can you define it? It has no real technical meaning.

AAJ: So you prefer the term “black art music?”

AS: That's what it is. It is a black art music. It's not a dance music. It's not a popular music. Furthermore, jazz was a term applied to this music shortly after the Spanish-American War, when for the first time the Marine band put many instruments on pawn in Louisiana and around the United States. For the first time poor black people, who had previously been playing in juke band on harps and wash tubs, could for the first time buy a contrabass or a trombone. And they bought them at cheap prices because the Army put them on sale at cheap prices. This is the beginning of so-called jazz music around the turn of the century. When blacks began to put their spirituals and blues and their folk melodies on Western instruments. The white man called it jazz. In fact, you didn't call it jazz, you called j-a-s-s. And it referred to the activities that took place in the places where this music was played. Not the music. In the original jass emporiums, the music was played on piano. And it was played behind a screen by people like Jelly Roll Morton and Tony Jackson, while light-skinned black women danced for white men. And when the white men wanted to see these women, they said they were looking for jass. And today we treasure that word jazz as though we created it. It's absurd.

AAJ: Has the music died?

AS: The music isn't dead. We've allowed it to die. When I taught school at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, frequently I would mention the name Sidney Bechet and not a single black student even knew who he was. We've lost our tradition. How can we expect to find it again overnight?

AAJ: Why was it lost?

AS: Maybe twenty percent of our young people are in jails. That's one of the reasons we've lost it. There's been a whole socio-economic decline - the breakup of the black family, the fact that the black middle class has fled in droves, including black musicians, to New Jersey and comfortable places outside the area of the scene of the action. I hear Bill Cosby and these people talking that nonsense about black kids reveling in their oppression, not really taking advantage of going to school, that the opportunities are there. But they never did. The same problems that exist today existed then.

I went to school with Bill. There were curfews frequently in Philadelphia because of gang violence and so on. The fact that we expect more of our children today than we expected before - we should expect more of ourselves, we adults who have arrived at the middle class. What are we giving back to the community?

No wonder they don't listen to that music. They have no reason to respect it. The music they hear is the music created by themselves. And I respect them for that. In fact, the Negro middle class has been aloof of its responsibility and now it comes to criticize the very people who have had to survive on their own. And so they don't listen to so-called jazz music. I don't blame them. I listen more and more to blues and folk music myself today, too. This music is becoming more and more a middle class white phenomena with very special handpicked blacks, usually young musicians under 40 or so who are being used to front this music as though it's still a black phenomenon. But it is no longer. It is a white middle class phenomena.

AAJ: How do we fix it?

AS: Well, ask not for whom the bell tolls, the bell tolls for thee. What can we do? For example, I'm trying to start my own record label. How can we come together? Look at people like Quincy Jones and Oprah Winfrey, all these wealthy Negroes. Why don't they start recording companies? They could make a billion dollars off it. You don't have to just produce jazz. If I had money I would be producing everything from rap to rock n' roll to George Coleman. I think our millionaires lack imagination. It is they who must come back to start a new entrepreneurism in the Negro community as regards culture.

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