“I’m Constantly Striving”: Archie Shepp in Conversation

In a long and wide-ranging interview, the jazz giant thinks about his rapid ascent in the avant-garde, his shift toward the tradition, his new duo set with Jason Moran, his unearthed contributions to A Love Supreme and much more.

Archie Shepp in Paris in 2021. Credit: Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images.

When he looks back on his fast rise in the frenzied realm of avant-garde jazz in the middle 1960s, the saxophonist Archie Shepp doesn’t name drop. But he could. He was, after all, a young participant in the sessions for John Coltrane’s epic A Love Supreme, and a part of pianist Cecil Taylor’s groundbreaking 1960 band documented on The World of Cecil Taylor. Shepp’s own early records, on the influential Impulse! label, featured some of the masters of progressive jazz, including bassist Reggie Workman, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and drummer Ed Blackwell.

Few in jazz have gone from zero to sixty as rapidly: By the time he was 25, Shepp was an established name, revered for the hurricane-force intensity of his saxophone playing and regarded as a rising star of the “New Thing.” Today, we’d call him a “thought leader”; as the scene exploded, he became a participant in the evolving conversation between musicians and leaders of the civil-rights movement.

Still, a question about that much-mythologized cauldron sends Shepp into a recollection, still fresh in his mind, of the moment he knew that the blistering 20-minute solos of the New Thing would not define his music forever.

It was a comment from his mother. “She asked me, ‘Are you still playing those little tunes that don’t have any melody?,’” Shepp, 83, recalled recently in a WhatsApp conversation from his home in Paris. Like many jazz elders, he’s happy to talk expansively and share recollections about virtually any point on his long path. But unlike many in his peer group, he has new music to talk about as well: Let My People Go, a live duo outing with pianist Jason Moran, has won acclaim for its pointed, high-energy romps through spirituals and gospel standards.

According to Shepp, we ultimately have his mom to thank for that record and many others like it. “She loved music and was a good listener,” he explains. “I think it was already in my mind. I was becoming more aware about the audiences we were playing for. And she just said it out loud, so I couldn’t ignore it. I began to feel that my earlier presentations weren’t reaching the people I wanted to reach, particularly the African-American community. It was clear that free music was listened to primarily by a white audience, an academically oriented clientele. After making some records and playing under my own name for a few years, I had to admit that I wanted to get to the nitty-gritty and reach the audiences that Freddie Hubbard, Horace Silver and people like that were getting to. I grew up listening to a lot of blues, and fairly shortly after that conversation I began to recognize that what I was doing was far away from that.”

It was the early ’70s, years after Shepp’s squalling, brio-filled Fire Music album. The entire conversation around jazz was changing; Miles Davis had gone electric, jazz fusion was ascendant. The numbers didn’t lie: The urgency of free jazz had dimmed, evolving from a broad cultural movement into something followed by a small, devoted subset of the audience. Not long after his mother’s nudge, Shepp says, he undertook a deliberate career redirection, steering away from the fierce conviction of free jazz into more disciplined, tonal, familiar musical atmospheres.

All these years later, this transformation remains exceedingly unusual in jazz history. Most musicians start by developing skills on consonant, “inside” songs — standards, blues, that sort of thing. Then, after years of experience building and refining a vocabulary, they begin to push against the rules, selectively dismantling elements of conventional harmony, experimenting with unusual rhythm until they’ve landed on an original voice.

Shepp went in the other direction. He disrupted the narrative, already coalesced at that time, about what “progress” means for a jazz musician. Having made a successful entrance in the free space, he kept what he liked and reverse-engineered what he didn’t, transforming familiar forms like blues, ballads and spirituals with the beseeching fury of his saxophone. His first step on this path, 1972’s Attica Blues, remains an essential document. It’s a rare juxtaposition of old and new ideas, with deep James Brown backbeats against Charlie Parker bebop, and big-band horns accompanying calls to higher consciousness and social-justice messages.

Also around that time, Shepp began teaching at the college level; he would go on to teach for 30 years at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, lecturing on jazz, theater (Shepp is also a playwright) and, more broadly, improvisation. I asked him if he’d thought much about the example of his career transformation and what message it sent to the young musicians he was teaching.

During the Impulse! era, Shepp performs at the Newport Jazz Festival. Credit: David Redfern/Redferns.

Shepp: I thought about that a lot, from the perspective of both a player and an educator. I probably wasn’t able to articulate it well at the time, but I felt that there can’t be one road everyone has to follow. … [The decision] to contour my music to reach people like my mother, who were not academicians and just appreciated good music, was about what I thought was right for me. It wasn’t a statement about the music in general.

Is it accurate to say that in terms of your discography, this began with Attica Blues?

I would say so. … The change probably started with that record, which expressed some strong social-justice statements, but in a blues context. And then after that I became a more traditional player.

Did you worry about how that would be received in the community of musicians?

I never saw [music] as a teams or tribes thing. That you had to declare allegiance to one side or the other, that just runs counter to the idea of growth. I just kept trying to learn, and at a certain point I guess I stopped caring where people put me on the musical spectrum.

I wonder how much of that is related to growing up in Philadelphia. You were amongst some highly original players who left a mark on history; John Coltrane was there then, and he and the saxophonist Odean Pope played and studied together. The list is long: Reggie Workman, McCoy Tyner, Lee Morgan, the Heath Brothers, so many strong personalities.

You have to believe people when they talk about something different in the air in Philly at that time. It wasn’t just the people you mentioned — so many great players at the same time. The Grimes brothers, Leon and Henry. Leon was the tenor player, and I was very impressed by what he was doing. For someone like me, it was school. I was primarily learning, listening, participating in more of a secondary role in the jam sessions. But I was taking mental notes all night — going home and trying to recreate some of the things I heard.

But at the same time, you have to understand, it wasn’t a good idea to copy someone or sound like someone else; originality was expected. So I was trying to create from my own standpoint, trying to develop a certain originality. It was a high-water mark among musicians in Philly to sound original — that was the most important thing. That was why we were in awe of [the pianist Hasaan Ibn Ali] and Odean. So I strived for that, along with learning the basics of the music. There was very little imitation. It was a very diverse environment; most musicians did come with a certain perspective that was their own. I was inspired by that environment. I think lots of young musicians felt this too. I felt encouraged to look for my own voice, to try to improve as much as possible.

There’s quite a lot of current interest in the music of Hasaan. His second album for Atlantic, which was thought lost in a vault fire, is about to be released [as Metaphysics: The Lost Atlantic Album, out April 23 on Omnivore]. What do you remember about him?

He was an imposing figure. You couldn’t help watching him. He was very much a part of the music scene at that time. I didn’t have much access to Hasaan except when I saw him on jam sessions or his own performances. He and Odean had a very special relationship; frequently when they played, only the most expert musicians played with them. Odean spent a lot of time playing Hasaan’s music, which was very complex. You kinda had to know it, so they were out front. The people who were learning, they hung back. At that time I was just getting my thing together. I guess I was a little intimidated.

On the subject of intimidation, what do you remember about the A Love Supreme sessions? You were there at Coltrane’s behest and participated, but those tracks were not part of the original album; they came out in 2015. I think they open up a new perspective on what Trane was going for and the ways the other musicians contributed to that vision.

I listened to it. Even before I did, though, for a long time I often wished that I had played perhaps more in accordance with what I could have played. There was I guess you’d say a certain reluctance on my part, some hesitation. Because I was really in awe of John Coltrane and his work, and I didn’t quite know what he expected of me. I didn’t do what I could have done, if I’d felt free to play according to things I knew to play — particularly to accommodate the chord structure to the song.

Had I not been so in awe of what he was creating, I think it would have been different, my part would have been. I hope my contribution was meaningful. I might have been a little more aggressive except that I was so intimidated. Because I had such respect for John, and I didn’t want to get in the way, and I didn’t want to go in a direction he didn’t want me to. Listening brought all those emotions back, the things I was feeling after the session. It was hard to listen to after all that time.

That was 1964. By then you’d been in New York for a while, and had played and recorded with the innovative pianist Cecil Taylor. Which seems like another trial by fire.

It was dramatically different from what I had been doing in Philly. Cecil Taylor was such an impetus. He was a force. He made you question things. He got me away from mainstream jazz thinking and introduced me to another way of playing … and I dove into it. Some musicians got what Cecil was doing, but some who were in the jazz mainstream just didn’t, and I think I liked being part of something like that. Even though I wasn’t ready to function in that environment at first.

I had been training myself to finally perform, which meant learning the music and studying. [Cecil] took me away from that previous training, and I had to learn to play another way. I’ve described it as a period of forgetting a lot of the mantras that had been introduced to me as a younger player, and paying attention to how he created new rules by which to play.

And that sound, less rooted in diatonic harmony, was the way you were introduced to many people in the jazz world. Outside of Philly and to a lesser degree New York, people didn’t know you as a mainstream jazz tenor player. You arrived as part of the New Thing — the association with Taylor, then signing to Impulse! and recording Four for Trane in 1964. What was that like?

I don’t think I was ready for it at first. Certainly I wasn’t ready to play in Cecil’s band, not at first. But at that time, to musicians it wasn’t this huge divide the way it’s discussed in history books — the people playing standards on one side and the free players on the other, looking at each other with suspicion or contempt [laughs]. It became that way later on. And as that happened, the audience changed.

What was it like to discuss improvisation in a classroom in the early ’70s? Did you tell stories? Did you talk about your transition from free to more diatonic music?  

Teaching was a reverse experience. It’s a cliché I think now, but for me it was true: I learned the music all over again when I started to teach. I became more aware of the academic basis of African-American music, and historically was introduced to the way this music had actually evolved, going back to the beginning. And at the same time, the teaching experience required me to be honest. I imparted what I could of myself to others, but there were questions I couldn’t answer because I hadn’t really thought about those things. And of course I was influenced by other academicians. At UMass that was Dr. Roland Wiggins, who was from Philly and an informant to McCoy and John. Excellent theoretician. Sometimes I employed him to take over my classes so I could sit in on the things he was teaching. I learned a lot.

This was the early ’70s, right?

Yes. And at that time there were not a lot of resources. When Black Studies began there was really no roadmap. We didn’t have a list of books to choose from; Eileen Southern’s The Music of Black Americans was among the few, and probably the best. It was initially a bible for me. At that time, few historical works were written about Black music. Later on, really within the ’70s, that changed and a number of good resources became extant. Plus, as I went along I began to develop my own original ideas, so my syllabus kept getting bigger. I was adding to it all the time.

I’m thinking UMass was a bit of a culture clash at that time. Can you give a sense of what the atmosphere was like in the classroom?

My early classes dwelt on sociopolitical ideas and information more than academic references to music. And of course those things were in the air — a lot of the students were into the civil-rights movement. Somehow that became intertwined with music expression, and as we know, not just on college campuses. That actually helped me get through some of those classes in my first year or so, because I didn’t have a lot of information about music history. I was coming to it from the perspective of a player.

I’ve read some interviews where you talk about jazz as a dead language, having reached “maturity.” I’m wondering about holding that view and teaching, because certainly some of the students were not thinking of jazz as having peaked or anything like that. Basically you considered it repertory music before the whole Jazz at Lincoln Center thing ever got going.

I’ve said that jazz is a bit like Latin, and what I mean is that it has rules and a structure and all that, and to my ears, since John Coltrane and Albert Ayler and people like that, the pace of innovation has slowed down. There hasn’t been much created that’s startlingly new. We don’t hear people regularly subverting those rules in new ways, like Coltrane did.

Probably the introduction of rap has done more to change the musical landscape than anything. We’re into an area where so-called jazz is being amalgamated into other things. It’s become a facet of other musical forms and idioms, which draw a certain interest from rhythm and thematic elements that are not jazz, that come from African music or South America.

For me, nothing is as spiritually moving as Coltrane’s work during the ’60s. That was an expression. There’s a kind of ultimate fulfillment with John Coltrane. To go beyond that point, from the point of view of improvisation, is very difficult. Unless you find someone who’s equally spiritually inspired. And that impetus, what you’d perhaps call that drive, is not so much in existence today. John was moved by a universal religious idea, and he expressed those themes in this music. He worked in a very deliberate way to search for those things. His whole being was in it. That’s difficult to find in a younger player right now. We hear them play the notes, and lots of notes, but the sense of conviction is not evident — not to those depths.

How does that ever change? How do we return to growth and evolution?

I think it’s difficult for several reasons. In terms of the history, people don’t even realize what it was. It’s difficult to talk about or champion that kind of work, that search for another level of expression day after day and chorus after chorus, when so much of music is so instant now.

Originality seems a faraway place. Is that what you’re saying?

I was born in a time when it was important for Blacks to assert their identity. As a musician you had to be able to command attention, and you wanted to communicate a certain innate feeling — to play in a way that said something about you that could reach people. That alone motivated our expression. Today, from the point of view of virtuosity, many younger players are up to the task, absolutely. But that they’re motivated by a deep conviction — that’s harder to see.

One constant running through Shepp’s long career is the particular sound he makes on the saxophone. Rich with old-world overtones and modern at the same time, it celebrates aspects of being alive while chasing ways to be more alive. It’s a thick, brawny beast of sound, and on some of his most riveting recordings it almost seems he hasn’t fully tamed it — and, possibly, likes it that way. Where his most influential teacher, John Coltrane, was endlessly disciplined, Shepp is more generous with his emotions, shrieking when necessary, leaping into the dance of discovery like a kid on a diving board. Remarkably, he travels this wide range whether he’s playing sedate ballads or engaging in open-ended journeys with musicians from Africa.

I want to ask you about the collaboration with Dar Gnawa. This was just a transcendent sound — your quartet with musicians and singers from Morocco. I’ve heard other similar collaborations — pianist Randy Weston used a much larger Gnawa ensemble — but something about this really caught the energy and the seeking aspect of that music.

The very first time we played together, I was completely into what the Gnawa were doing but not so sure about what I was doing. I didn’t feel that I’d connected with the rhythm and what they were doing till we played again. In the interim, I spent a lot of time trying to get into their music, studying the cadences and the way the musicians worked them, looking for a way into it. By the next performance in France, it was much more satisfying.

The Gnawa people come from a history similar to Black Americans, having been ransomed into slavery by Arab culture. They were taken from a traditional setting, and there they evolved a syncretic culture which combines Arab and African rhythms. I immediately found a certain spirituality in that music that connected it to my own Black cultural experience and also elevated it to a plane that is supra-music — beyond music.

It doesn’t seem easy to solo on.

That first time, I really struggled to find my way. Really just on the level of making an entrance, starting a solo. One night listening to the records, I concluded that their music is a little like old South American rhythms and Latin music. A lot of their rhythms are 6/8, and at first I was trying to superimpose too many other rhythms onto that — the way we would in jazz. After thinking about it as more of a Latin rhythm, I was able to relax. I began to see that my part in the music, overall, was to be the “American” connection. I had to hear it as a multiplicity of rhythm, and that the quartet could play a role. If the rhythm section played more Afro-Cuban-style 6/8, I could get into it.

By that time, though, you’d done a number of projects with African musicians and African themes.

Yes, going back to The Magic of Ju-Ju.

What brought that about?

I think it was John, John Coltrane. When he performed with [Babatunde] Olatunji and Ravi Shankar, that began to open the door to that kind of collaboration. I was inspired by what he was doing and excited to see what would happen — how it would work for me to play saxophone in the company of African percussion. West African, so log drums, talking drums, Yoruba rhythms. It was an experience for everyone. There were a few of those kinds of endeavors going on around that time. Unfortunately these were not continued by musicians who followed. But there’s certainly a lot that could be done. I’ve tried to take every opportunity to engage with African musicians. In Algeria a few years ago, I had the chance to perform with the Tuareg. Music is central to their culture and spirituality. The music is not as rhythmic as the West or Central African countries. But we found a basis for communication fairly quickly … that opened a lot of doors I’d like to go back into.

Let’s talk generally about your recording career, and how you’ve managed to document so much music for such a long time. By now you’ve probably got 100 records under your name.

I think it’s 114 titles now [laughs]. It’s been important to me to record, from the beginning. Because that way I maintain a relationship with my audience. I’ve tried to make a statement that was new each time, bring an aspect that’s different. I don’t believe in making the same recording over and over again. You know what? In that, I think I’ve succeeded. Each one is a statement, hopefully capturing how I felt at the time.

“Jason [Moran] is very adaptive,” says Shepp. “He’s alert when he plays, and very spontaneous. He receives new information very well.” Credit: Accra Shepp.

Like many great improvising artists, Shepp has recorded in many configurations — from big bands to large African drum ensembles to intimate trios and duos. Of those, he’s particularly persuasive when playing duo, either with pianists or bassists. He’s released a bunch of sparkling duo works, including dates with such legends as bassist Richard Davis and pianist Mal Waldron; among the most celebrated is 1977’s Goin’ Home, which features Shepp and pianist Horace Parlan stepping gingerly through spirituals and gospel standards. It’s music of multiple resonances and reverences, with stately, enduring melodies followed by lyrical stretches and elaborations. It’s been said that Shepp phrases like a singer, and that may be because he is a singer. He’s recorded vocals on several of his recent albums, including his latest, Let My People Go with Jason Moran.

How did the project with Jason Moran come about?

Shepp: I think the first time we played live was in Germany, and it was a duo concert. Germany or France. … I knew of him, of course, and I think both of us were prepared for the other [laughs]. We’re fortunate it came out fairly well, fairly spontaneous.

Who picked the tunes?

I suggested most of the tunes, and I think I was fortunate that Jason knew them well. He was receptive to my suggestions. But he also surprised me a little with the way he approached some of the old spirituals. They’re not really part of the jazz book, are they?

Is it important to you that a collaborator in an intimate setting like that knows your work, knows the records? Goin’ Home, the duo record with Horace Parlan, includes some of the same songs.

I don’t know if he’d listened that much to what I’ve done before. [pause] And I don’t think it matters. I didn’t particularly make any reference about my albums to him. He knew enough about me. It’s more important, by far, to be ready to engage, and I think both of us were. Jason is very adaptive; he’s like Horace in that way. He’s alert when he plays, and very spontaneous. He receives new information very well. It felt like we were able to have a fairly open conversation.

Is that how you think about playing in the duo setting — like tennis, volleying ideas back and forth?

The first thing with duo playing for me is, is there some willingness to hear where the other person may go? You have to follow sometimes and lead sometimes. I don’t think of it like tennis, but it’s an apt analogy. I don’t think like that. For me, the listening aspects of conversation are very important. You have to be open to what the person is doing, and following it so that you respond in a way that takes the idea further. And then you also want to lead the idea, to suggest other directions through your playing. It’s a state of give and take, ideally. No one is following the whole time, and no one is leading the whole time.

The records you made with Parlan are great examples of that. I feel like Goin’ Home hovers over this record a bit. Did playing with Moran make you think of it?

I treat each accompanist differently, according to what they bring, and I didn’t particularly think of what I had done with Horace — although the success of that album gave me more confidence to do that kind of performance more in the future. Obviously the things I’ve done previously provide a kind of background, but every situation is different and I’ve learned to not bring too much expectation into music. I just treat each according to their skills, the direction they want to take it. And see what we can make of that.

I hear that in all the duo records you’ve done. Preparing for this conversation, I found the record you did with the pianist Joachim Kühn. It’s very different from the others. The first track is anchored by a recurring drone-type harmony, and as soon as you enter, it feels combustible, like it’s already three quarters up the mountain.

That’s a powerful composition. It was very inspiring to perform with him on that. I don’t remember if we used the first take or not, but I do remember that the very first time we played it, there was an intense energy about what was happening.

That record and the Moran collaboration came out on your own label, Archieball. How much time do you spend after a session like that putting together the music for release?

My role after the music has been made is to select what compositions are going to be released, [and] listen carefully to what I’ve done to decide, if there are multiple versions, which represents best. I have a problem listening to myself; it’s not always fun to do. But it’s something I’ve learned I have to do.

What are you listening for?

The overall sound. If we’re together — that’s if it’s duo or a quartet or whatever. If I’ve properly interpreted the music. And then you hope to pick up some of what I might call “the extra energy.” That’s very difficult to achieve. Sometimes you’re listening and it’s very good but doesn’t have that thing. I usually know, if, say, it’s a duo recording, when I’m inspired by the combination of the two performances. It does happen, and that is what you’re striving for as a musician. With Jason, I was frequently encouraged to find he had properly interpreted the meaning of the song. He did that and more — he then found some new perspectives on these pieces. He made me think about them differently.

Do you use sheet music when you record?

I don’t like written music in front of me when I’m performing or recording. … I’ve learned that for myself, if I’m looking at some paper, it can be more difficult to create something that feels new and out of the moment. To approach a song, I want to start with it in my ears, with no other reference point. It can get in the way for me, but lots of other musicians rely on reading music, and I respect that.

Do you have any mantras or rituals you do as you get ready to make a record?

[laughs] No. Only to practice. Be prepared to share something of myself, which means to discipline myself as much as possible, so that my expression becomes apparent. Some of that has to do with sound. I’ve worked on sound for years, trying to get a big tone with richness. Sometimes it’s not quite where I want to be. I had some problems with my embouchure a few years ago, and that forced me to try and recreate the way I played before. Eventually I stopped that and concentrated on creating another sound that’s equally compelling. I’m constantly striving. I want to be somewhat happy with the sound for myself. If I’m there, I know that people can listen and walk away with something special.


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