Archie Shepp was a close friend and intensively supported companion of the style-defining saxophonist John Coltrane and is now considered an icon of free jazz.
In a celebrated world premiere, he put together an all-star tribute ensemble in honor of his mentor for the Enjoy Jazz Festival 2016, which featured another Coltrane band member, Reggie Workman, who will soon be 80 years old. It wasn’t just this evening that impressively demonstrated: Hardly anyone is better suited to keep Coltrane’s legacy alive on stage with such credibility than Archie Shepp.
Because Shepp was not only involved in the recording of the two most important Coltrane records, “A Love Supreme” and “Ascension”. His solo debut Four For Trane, now a classic in its own right, contains four outstanding arrangements of Coltrane compositions. Shepp is also, alongside Yusef Lateef, who died in 2013, one of the outstanding intellectuals of the Black community of the past 50 years. As an activist, musician and long-time professor of African-American studies, he has had a significant influence on generations of jazz musicians, particularly black ones. The impressive breadth of his horizons is reflected not only in his music, but also in a no less inspiring conversation in which he effortlessly ranges from major world politics to John Coltrane’s socks.
We had the conversation with Archie Shepp at Enjoy Jazz 2016, shortly after Donald Trump was elected president.
If I may say this: you seem to me to be more and more relaxed in recent years, even though the social situation in your home country, the USA, seems to be getting worse for the black community and you don’t see many frustrating battles being fought, especially when it comes to civil rights have.
ASH: – The explanation is very simple: because my grandmother and my parents gave me respect for people. But also the sensitivity to a particularly racially motivated disrespect, to poverty, to ignorance. Only; If you can change anything for the better at all, then the path certainly leads through a confrontation that is based on a fundamental respect for people and what is human. But I admit that I still often find it very difficult to contain my anger and disappointment. My sense of justice is sometimes just stronger.
As a musician, but also as a professor of African-American studies, you have dealt intensively with the conditions of human coexistence. You repeatedly came across the general topic of education. With this in mind, have you found a solution for how we could protect Western societies in particular from drifting apart or even breaking up?
ASH: – This is a difficult topic. Just take the presidential election in the United States. The switch to Obama was a huge step back then. In particular, the white working class, but also parts of the white middle class, never accepted it. He also didn’t manage to retain these people later. One would even have to say that the racial gap within society has actually widened during Obama’s term in office. Put simply, hopes of investing money into new jobs for these disadvantaged people were dashed. In fact, the Obama administration put it primarily into maintaining the banking system. In the end, nothing appealed to those who were already skeptical of him. In addition, of course, he always had to govern against the Republican majority in Congress, which extremely limited his scope. Even obviously important innovations like Obama Care met with bitter resistance, especially on the right-wing political fringe. But Obama failed primarily because of his job and education policies. Even under Obama, a disastrous spiral continued. In short: the poor became poorer, the rich became richer.
USA more afraid of their own women than black men.
On the occasion of John Coltrane’s 90th birthday, they played a brilliant AII star tribute concert in Germany, at the Enjoy Jazz Festival. They knew Coltrane very well. In contrast to him, the intelligent do-gooder, you are more of a socio-political activist. Or did his spirituality also have a significantly political aspect?
ASH: – But of course she did. Absolutely. You can’t separate them from each other at all. He came from a very religious background and so turning to spirituality as an attitude was a logical consequence for him. But as someone who came from the deepest American South, he also experienced racism, rejection and hostility firsthand. Both experiences were always present for him, the social and political, but also the religious, being at home in a community, the divisibility of its values. Both have become almost condensed in their special kind of spirituality, also musically. In a way, it set him free. He also trusted that churches could be a good place to initiate political and social change. And the church was really a driving force in the civil rights movement.
Among other things, you were part of the session band during the “A Love Supreme” recordings, even if the tracks with you were not included on the original album but were added later.
ASH: – It was a challenge for any musician to play with Trane. Because he was incredibly disciplined. His music didn’t come out of nowhere. His inspiration had a story. He practiced incredibly intensively for this. He really fought to liberate his sound, to wrest it from his life. He had enormous respect for people like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. He appreciated the freedom that lay in their music. And especially with Albert there was always an enormous spirituality in the music. This really impressed John and certainly gave him an idea that it was possible for him to create music that truly represents him as a person and musician, in his pursuit of humanity and freedom. Especially as a comparatively young musician, it was very important for him to see the means others use to expand their sound in order to express themselves in their music.
Coltrane basically got you your first record deal with Impulse. The first album “Four For Trane” was immediately very successful.
ASH: – Did you know that before John recommended me to Bob Thiele [music producer and leader of Impulse], I had already played for him? Unfortunately, it turned out that Thiele didn’t particularly like my music! She was too free for him. After John stood up for me, Thiele asked if I could record an album of Coltrane compositions for him. I think he was very surprised that I said yes. Because back then everyone actually only wanted to record their own material. Cover versions were rather unpopular among musicians these days. But I had just arranged some of John’s pieces for my band anyway. That’s why it was a wonderful fit. And then, right at the beginning of the Coltrane recordings, Thiele changed his mind about my music. Suddenly he thought everything was great and was completely thrilled. He then called Trane at home in Long Island straight from the studio in New Jersey and raved that the recordings were great and that he had to listen to them. It was already nighttime and John, who was a very generous and helpful person throughout his life, immediately set off and came to the studio. He was in such a hurry that he didn’t even put on his socks. The producer then came up with the idea of calling the recordings “Four For Trane” because of the five songs, four were by John. The fifth is mine. By the way, Thiele didn’t particularly like him. But John, who had since arrived, said he really liked the number and that was enough to get it on the record in the end! We then took the photo for the cover, which shows John and me. And if you’ve ever wondered why Trane is wearing shoes but not socks, now you know.