Musicians often talk about players who are "the real deal." For half a century, saxophonist Archie Shepp has been the real deal. This legendary figure -- also a blues singer, a playwright, a poet -- was a leader of the "new breed" that instigated the '60s black jazz avant-garde, the "fire music" from which one of Shepp's classic albums takes its name.
A protégé and friend of the late John Coltrane, he can also play a ballad with tender beauty, almost excruciating to hear. His "Attica Blues" album, from 1972, was to jazz what "What's Going On" was to soul music. But why even differentiate? Shepp is a soul man, a jazz man, a blues man. And he's coming to Yoshi's in Oakland for two nights this month, his first Bay Area club dates in about 20 years.
Shepp, 75, now divides his time between Paris and Hadley, Mass., where he got on the phone to talk about his life in music.
QArchie, I watched a new video of you rehearsing your band and -- just like 40 years ago -- you were dressed in the sharpest suit and brimmed hat.
AI grew up in a tradition where musicians were generally -- they were sharp, they were well-dressed. I'm thinking of Ellington and Earl Hines, people who were models for me: Miles Davis, Roy Haynes, Max Roach. These were the people who were generally impeccably attired; it's part of the ambience of the music. Apart from the fact that they were playing beautifully, aesthetically they looked good.
QTell me about your first meeting with Coltrane.
AI showed up at his home on Columbus Avenue. His horn was lying on his sofa, and he picked it up and he started to play immediately -- something like "Giant Steps," for about 10 minutes, just uninterrupted saxophone. He put his horn down and said, "You want to play something for me?"
We talked all day. We just talked about music and his philosophy, what he was trying to do, how he was trying to find a way of resolving chords, five or six chords within one scale. So a lot of my information came to me theoretically from John.
QThere's always been a political aspect to your music; some might say a militancy.
AWell it's the way I grew up. My father, my people were always engaged politically, if only to say that they read the op-ed page in the newspaper and they frequently discussed politics. Even when I was in the third grade, I remember my teacher asked us to write a paper. She expected something simple; I wrote a paper about racism. She said, "Where did you come up with this?"
I said, "By listening to my father and the man upstairs."
That became a part of me, and why not? I'm from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. In 1935, two years before I was born, a man named Rubin Stacy was lynched right outside of Fort Lauderdale. And it was an infamous lynching; you can see it online. And the people who lynched him have almost a festive ambience, while this man is hanging from the tree.
QYou have a tune called "Momma Rose." Who is she?
AMy grandmother, my father's mother. She's the one who bought me my tenor sax. She's the one who used to take me to church, where I first heard the spirituals and the gospel music and the jubilees.
QJazz was such a strong black cultural expression when you came up. Is it still?
ANo, not at all. The ambience has changed. For example, it seems to have moved from Harlem to Lincoln Center, that is from uptown to midtown. It's taken on another meaning. It also is attracting an entirely different audience. It used to be this music -- African-American music -- was in the African-American community. You'd find it in Chicago in the South Side, in North and South Philadelphia, in Harlem. But all those clubs are gone now; they've disappeared.
It's only to be expected, because it's become more and more a middle-class music and less and less a music that comes from the working classes. It seems people in the ghetto would rather spend their money on Prince or Michael Jackson than Coltrane. To some degree, it's the fault of the jazz musicians; their music has become more intellectual or academic. The people in the community have held onto their blues invention. It's a question of musicians going to colleges and universities and becoming more and more like Stravinsky and less and less like Charley Patton.
QYou're such a collaborator. You've worked in recent years with Chuck D, with dancers, with Afro-Cuban bands.
AI did something with a younger guy named Vincent Joseph, who's from Trinidad, very fine young man. He's a rapper. I couldn't help but feel -- when I heard his music, somehow I had a sense of déjà vu -- that maybe somehow I already did some of this earlier, in the '60s. Of course he's doing his own thing; I don't mean to take that away from him. But in some ways, I feel that I've already been there and that maybe I'm a kind of godfather to that way of doing things.
You mention Chuck D; I started rapping on recordings in 1965, when I did something called "Malcolm, Malcolm -- Semper, Malcolm." Today they call that "slam." Back then, it didn't have a name; it was just jazz and poetry. I must admit, I was influenced by people like Langston Hughes and maybe Melvin Van Peebles. I wasn't the first, but I wasn't the last.