Let’s get the background out of the way first. Archie Shepp is a jazz legend. Maybe not one of the big names of jazz, but a browse of the mans discography shows this guy could, and did, mix it with the very best. Born in 1937, his early collaborations included work with Don Cherry, legendary avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor, and Ornette Coleman. His greatest champion though, was John Coltrane, first encouraging Impulse! to sign him to their roster, and then playing on two of Trane’s greatest records, A Love Supreme (none of Shepp’s cuts made it to the final record, although are included on the cd reissue) and Ascension. From there, Coltrane gave Archie Shepp his greatest gift, a split record, one artist on each side, titled New Thing at Newport. He played with the great and the good of jazz, from appearing with the Sun Ra Arkestra to working with Yusef Lateef, to inviting himself onstage with the Miles Davis quartet, much to the bandleaders annoyance.
Still working all these years later, he resides between the USA and France, and his body of work shows he was just as adept at working within the realms of bop, free-jazz and afro-centric styles. But, when I was given the opportunity to speak to the man on the phone to his European base, it was his 1971 social commentary Attica Blues, which is this year celebrating its 40th anniversary that we spoke about.
The Attica prison riot, which inspired the album, also took place in 1971. Following the shooting dead of a black prisoner, George Jackson the (black majority) inmates rioted, took the prison and made demands for better conditions and an amnesty in relation to the taking of the prison. This was refused and the state police took back control of the prison. By the time order had been resumed, 39 people were dead. Many black commentators, Shepp included were suspicious of the amount of black deaths in the siezing back of control, with an uneasy feeling that there was an element of state sponsored murder about it.
Given all this, I was basically a nervous wreck when I spend a good 40 minutes in his company, over the phone to his base (he spends part of the year there) in Paris. So nervous in fact, that despite me talking to him towards the end of May, I made the recording virtually undecipherable and have spent the last three months trying to sort out what we’d actually been talking about. But (eventually) I managed it. I began by asking him about a recent (successful) Kickstarter campaign, that has raised money for Shepp to remake his Attica Blues album, rescored, replayed. From there on, we spoke more generally.
Backseat Mafia: So the big band you’re working with now, apart from the kickstarter campaign, what plans do you have for it?
Archie Shepp: We have done several concerts here in France but we plan to do more in the next couple of months.
Do you find there’s a difference in audiences in France, opposed to the US?
Well, the audiences are not so very different, its just that (laughs) what I do is not so popular in the US! But there is an audience for jazz everywhere, of all different sorts of jazz. But, I like it here (in Paris) and I stay here some of the year so it makes sense to play here.
BM: The live record you are planning to do – have you anything in mind for that or is it just what you get together at the time?
AS: It’s pretty much what we have been doing (live) Basically it’s redoing what we did in the 1970’s. We couldn’t sell a lot of records over the years
BM: Because of the nature of it?
AS: Yeah, so there were only a few records I’ve made since I was a young man that have made any money. Attica Blues never sold well, so we’re trying to put it out there again with this new band.
Watching some of the videos on YouTube of the big band – It’s a really tight band. Do you rehearse it for a long time before you take it out on the road, or do you just dive straight in?
AS: We all come togeher down in the south of France. I suppose we rehearse with the band for a couple of weeks, and then we go straight into it. Out and play, you know.
BM: And you’ve some good people playing in the band – I saw Jimmy Owen was on the list this time?
AS: Yes, we had Jimmy, but we have a lot of players from all over the globe really. A lot of the players are based here in France, especially with the band playing across here, but we have people from the US, and, you know, other places as well. But we have others as well, with Reggie Washington on Bass, you know, Tom McClung on Piano. I’ve found some good musicians over the years, worked with some good musicians over the years.
BM: And the big band itself, as a medium. Is that something you like working in still?
AS: Ah, yes I am. I’m very happy now with what I’m doing. But you know, the last band we had was a great band, when we did the (original Attica Blues) recording. It’s extraordinary and when we decided to do the whole Attica Blues thing I had to go back and listen to the album to put the material together. And it’s……..amazing it didn’t get the recognition and attention.
BM: It’s a great album. When you made the original – what were those sessions like? Can you remember?
AS: Great, you know. Well, we had a lot of good…extraordinary musicians. Roy Burrows, and Charles McGee, err Dave Burrell on piano, Cornell Dupree on guitar, billy higgins,err and you know the bass player (struggles to remember his name) Jimmy Garrison, but it was a stellar arrangement of musicians
BM: And the title track was overtly political – was that important to you?
AS: Well absolutely. It was a political time and very much part of the record. The social dynamic was different in those times, and there were things like the civil rights movement happening, and of course the Attica Prison riot heralded the changing times. There was a lot of shit happening in that place, in that jail with the guards and everything. With the track I get a lot of meaning outside of just a strike.
BM: I was going to ask you if the incident itself had really affected you?
AS: It affected a lot of people. There were a lot of people who were frustrated, you by the guards, african american people. It happened at a time people were really beginning to pay attention to repressive regimes in the prisons, but also poverty and the lack of social opportunity. So when it happened, a lot of people were enraged. It was important, and people felt it should be addressed.
BM: There was quite a lot of artistic reaction to the riot. Didn ‘t John Lennon (attica State) do a song about it?
Well, the difference was we put this together straight after the uprising itself. A lot of other people did things related to the incident but no others were as quick, they weren’t or didn’t feel as involved as we were, or felt.
BM : It was just a couple of months after the incident – is that right?
AS: That is correct. BM: And do you think that it was because of it’s political nature that it didn’t do so well commercially? AS: Yes, absolutely. Works that political implication throughout history have always struggled to find an audience, a sizeable one, it applied to me and it would apply to George Genet – Max Roach : there are a lot of people that put out releases but you know,, in their art. I never expected I would have gotten a big return from that or a big audience because most people are not that concerned about political issues – particularly about people who are in prison. You see, I think it’s a scandal that we just ignore people who are poor, in prison. We use people as toilets. We were quick to forget what we put them in (prison) and quick to forget we have them.
On the track Attica Blues, Of course people felt strongly but the prisons themselves since then have improved. I remember wathcing local TV shows from the prison on NBC and seeing how the prisons are fixed up, and have quads and prisoners are allowed to play cards and things. But you know, Things go on in these places. Gangs rule in those places and any new prisoners are immediately raped – it’s incredible what is allowed to go on. It’s as bad as what’s going on Syria, In Syria its the same as what’s going on in the prison of the United States.
BM: Can I ask, moving on a little – you taught for a long time, but you’re retired now?
AS: I retired about 10 years ago, I taught for 22 years
BM: You must have influenced a lot of people, a lot of students in your career and in your life.
AS: Well sometimes I get letters from students who lives seem to have been changed by our meeting, our relationship.
BM WHo were the big influences on your career, on your life?
AS: Well, I remember my mother, my community obviously the enormity of my tradition and the people in it from Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, to Coltrane and Lucky Thompson, Jerry Hodges, it would be difficult to single out all the rich and important influences that I have had on my life, culturally, aesthetically, socially.
BM: I don’t want to appear rude but you’re 75 now, 76 next week?
AS: That’s not just me – there are a lot of people who are 75! Some who wish they made 75. Billie Holliday, Lester Young. Some of those would be almost 100 today. Actually I miss those people when I hear their music. To me, it’s very much alive – as Beethoven, Bach is to other people.
BM: And you still enjoy playing?
AS: I think at any age you can enjoy playing. I enjoyed it when I was a little boy playing for my father and grandfather and it just the same now…. although some physical things I wish I could do better, but I love music. It’s the staff of life in a way, like breathing itself.
BM: Do you listen to a lot of music?
AS: I listen to Jazz, but I think it’s a moot thing because its like listening to people who fall into a certain category, I listen to Lightning Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Don Gray, I listen to all sorts of music, from modern day to traditional African music. I think my music is much broader than it has been defined. That’s why I don’t use the term Jazz. I listen to African American music which is a very broad Category and entails a lot of different music from South America. North America is not the only place, although some people forget that. We have more continents, a lot of the influence comes from Africa.
BM: That African influence shows itself in a lot of your records, doesn’t it?
AS: A lot of other people have said that. African, Caribbean – listen to music today that we call rock and roll; The Beatles, Mick Jagger and David Bowie – they have all been influenced by African music. They don’t talk about it, because they like it to be original. Originality would not have been possible were it not for people from the past air clapping, foot stomping. dancing, even the animals, Elephants – all of it influencing the music which come originally from Africa.
And so we chatted, about the fact I named my son after him, after seeing one of his records while we were having the discussion, and his label troubles, where several less reputable labels have put out his music, without his permission and he hasn’t seen a penny from. And then we said our goodbye’s, and I shook my head for a good ten minutes, after my close encounter of the legendary kind.