Archie Shepp - Biography

“I play music out of an overwhelming need to play...” wrote the revolutionary saxophonist Archie Shepp in 1966. Responding to that inner drive, Shepp has created an immense body of work that bristles with passionate invention, dramatic self-expression, and a palpable feeling of black pride and accomplishment. Still active today, Shepp is particularly remembered for his contributions to the avant-garde “New Thing” of the Sixties and the outspoken articulation of his rage and fury over the racial situation in America.


Archie Shepp was born on May 24, 1937, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, though most of his childhood was spent in Philadelphia. His earliest musical influences were right at home; his father played banjo, his mother sang, and there was plenty of jazz to listen to, including the music of Duke Ellington, Oscar Pettiford, Ben Webster, and Illinois Jacquet. In high school, Shepp studied piano, clarinet, and alto saxophone before settling on the tenor.


Shepp attended Goddard College in Vermont from 1955 to 1959, where he studied drama and writing. He moved to New York after graduation and worked briefly as a teacher. While struggling to break into theatre, Shepp would occasionally play Latin and R & B gigs on tenor saxophone. In 1957 he heard John Coltrane with Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot and awoke to the creative possibilities of jazz. Shepp was playing in a coffeehouse in 1960 when bassist Buell Neidlinger heard him and introduced himself. Soon afterwards, Neidlinger brought Shepp together with the iconoclastic pianist and composer Cecil Taylor. “When I met Cecil Taylor it was a complete transformation of musical identities,” Shepp told Scott Cashman in an interview for SPIT: A Journal of the Arts. “All the tenets that I had grown up with were thrown out the window.”


Shepp entered a recording studio for the first time in October of 1960 for The World of Cecil Taylor (1960 Candid Records), issued on the short-lived Candid label Candid. Taylor and Neidlinger continued to use Shepp for sessions in January of 1961 that eventually resulted in two more Candid releases, Jumpin’ Punkins (1961 Candid Records) and New York City R&B (1961 Candid Records). Shepp also appears on the Taylor half of Into the Hot (1961 Impulse), an album sponsored by Gil Evans.


In the spring of 1962, Shepp began to co-lead a band with trumpeter and composer Bill Dixon. Dixon arranged the group’s material, which included original compositions by himself and Shepp along with tunes by Bud Powell and George Russell. The band, with varying bass players and drummers, took whatever gigs it could find, including many rallies, public events, and benefits for various causes. In July 1962, Dixon and Shepp traveled to Helsinki, Finland to play at a youth festival. Shepp moved on to Russia for a brief visit while Dixon played in Sweden before returning to New York. Shepp got back to the States late in the year. He resumed playing with Dixon and took a job in a federally-funded anti-poverty program.


The Dixon-Shepp quartet recorded several tunes for Savoy in two October sessions. The pair continued to work together through the spring of 1963. Unfortunately, Dixon had developed an embouchure problem around this time. He had to stop playing temporarily, but was able to stay productive, concentrating on writing and arranging. By then, Shepp had begun working with Danish saxophonist John Tchicai and they formed the New York Contemporary Five with cornetist Don Cherry, bassist Don Moore, and drummer J.C. Moses in the summer of 1963. The band, with arrangements mostly by Dixon, recorded two albums for the Fontana label in New York before taking up residence in Copenhagen at the Jazzhus Montmartre from September to November of 1963. Several radio broadcasts were made during this stay, and the group’s final night was recorded for Sonet Records as Archie Shepp & The New York Contemporary Five (1963 Sonet).


Back in New York in February of 1964, Shepp and the New York Contemporary Five made their final recordings — three songs for Savoy issued on one side of an album with Bill Dixon leading a septet on the other. As Dixon discographer Ben Young puts it, “Once Archie Shepp’s path diverged from Bill Dixon’s, it merged with that of John Coltrane, under whose sponsorship he made his greatest artistic achievement six months later in his first solo date.” Shepp had known Coltrane for years, and now started to be more and more influenced by him. For his part, Coltrane encouraged his record label, Impulse, to sign Shepp to a contract. The first release was Four for Trane (1964 Impulse), which featured Shepp leading a sextet including Tchicai and trombonist Roswell Rudd, an associate from the Taylor group. The album included four of Coltrane’s songs plus Shepp’s own “Rufus (Swung His Face at Last to the Wind, Then His Neck Snapped).” In December 1964, Shepp participated in sessions for Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (1965 Impulse) album, but the tracks he played on didn’t see the light of day until a 2002 reissue.


Shepp’s second Impulse album, Fire Music (1965 Impulse), presented three original compositions plus versions of “The Girl from Ipanema” and Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss.” Most of the record featured a sextet that included trumpeter Ted Curson and alto saxophonist Marion Brown. Shepp’s “Malcolm, Malcolm, Semper Malcolm” features the artist reading his poem to the slain Black Muslim leader. The self-described “sentimentalist” also noted that "In terms of my own social-political being, I've tried for example to include poetry as an adjunct to the music because I feel that at some point we have to be more specific in addressing ourselves to a racist society."


Shepp, Brown and others joined Coltrane for his epochal Ascension (1965 Impulse) in June of 1965. In July, a Shepp ensemble featuring vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and the Coltrane quartet each appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival. The split album New Thing at Newport (1965 Impulse) presents excerpts from both performances.  The CD reissue in 2000 restored the complete sets in their original running order. Shepp continued to mix avant-garde jazz with political concerns and a growing Afrocentrism on his own studio albums like On This Night (1965 Impulse), Mama Too Tight (1966 Impulse), and The Magic of Ju-Ju (1967 Impulse), all on Impulse. He also recorded two live albums for Impulse, made during a West Coast appearance in February 1966. Live in San Francisco (1966 Impulse) and Three for a Quarter, One for a Dime (1969 Impulse) feature his working band of the period, including Rudd, bassists Lewis Worrell and Donald Rafael Garrett, and drummer Beaver Harris.


In late 1967, Shepp went on tour in Europe with Rudd, Harris, Grachan Moncur III on trombone, and Jimmy Garrison on bass. They recorded a live album in Germany called Live at the Donaueschingen Music Festival (1967 MPS). Shepp’s next studio album, 1968’s The Way Ahead (Impulse), was his first to include the pianist Walter Davis, Jr. The effect was to shift the “whole weight of the music to a more conventional center of gravity,” as Michael Cuscuna writes in the liner notes of the 1998 reissue. The follow-up, For Losers (1969 Impulse), included contributions from pop musicians like drummer Bernard Purdie and electric bassist Wilton Felder, in addition to mainstays like Moncur and Harris.


With Moncur and cornetist Clifford Thornton, Shepp performed at the Pan-African Festival in Algiers in July of 1969, where they recorded Live at the Pan-African Festival (1969 Affinity). Shepp made his way to Paris that August and embarked on a concentrated period of recording and performing, both with his own circle of musicians and with a new crop of American improvisers who were then living in France like Joseph Jarman, Lester Bowie, Anthony Braxton, and Leroy Jenkins. He appears both as a leader and as a sideman on records led by pianist Dave Burrell, bassist Alan Silva, drummer Sunny Murray, and others. After these European sessions, Shepp returned to the States.


Shepp’s academic career began in 1969, when he took a position as a professor at the State University of New York in Buffalo. He joined the African-American Studies department at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in 1974. The politically-oriented big band records Things Have Got to Change (1971 Impulse) and Attica Blues (1972 Impulse) were the final releases for Impulse.


Shepp has recorded in a wide range of contexts for a variety of labels around the world since the Seventies. His 1977 duet album, Goin’ Home (SteepleChase), a collection of spirituals with pianist Horace Parlan for the Danish SteepleChase label was very well-received, and the blues-influenced follow-up Trouble In Mind (1980 SteepleChase) was named Record of the Year in Down Beat's annual international critics poll in 1980. Also in 1977, he initiated a decades-long collaboration with pianist Siegfried Kessler. Shepp recorded Lady Bird (1978 Denon), a tribute to Charlie Parker, with the illustrious quartet of pianist Jaki Byard, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Roy Haynes. Among his other projects were duets with master drummer Max Roach on the double albums Force: Sweet Mao-Suid Afrika '76 (1976 Uniteledis) and The Long March (1979 hatHut), and concert recordings made on stages from Paris to Tokyo.


Shepp discusses and performs his music and poetry in Ron Mann’s 1981 documentary film Imagine the Sound. His album I Know About the Life (1981 — Sackville), featuring Kenny Werner on piano, was recorded at the same time. In 1983, Shepp toured throughout Europe as a member of the Sun Ra All Stars. He has continued to expand his musical horizons, playing piano and singing in addition to his saxophone work, and recording with artists as varied as vocalist Annette Lowman on Lover Man (1988 Timeless), percussionist Kahil El’Zabar on Conversations (1999 Delmark), electric guitarist Jean Paul Bourelly on Boom Bop (1999 Jazz Magnet), and the Dar Gnawa group from Morocco on Kindred Spirits (1999 Archieball). Shepp’s highest profile American release in decades came in 2000, when he reunited with trombonists Rudd and Moncur to record Live in New York (2001 Verve).


Shepp, who received the New England Foundation for the Arts Achievement in Music Award in 1995, has returned to the theatre at various points in his career. His produced plays include The Communist (1965) and Lady Day: A Musical Tragedy (1972). He still follows his own music paths wherever they lead, working with collaborators as disparate Hungarian saxophonist Mihály Dresch, pianist Mal Waldron, and the group Bateau Lavoir. He continues to release new music on his own Archieball imprint.

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