The Girl From Ipanema
Malcolm, Malcolm, Semper Malcolm
Le Matin Des Noire
Mama Too Tight
Damn If I Know (The Stroller)
Recording information: 1964 - 1972.
If there was one musician who most symbolized the political awakening of jazz in the mid- to late Sixties — whose music served to cement (and at times suffered from) the link to a rising tide of black nationalism — it was Archie Shepp. Before him, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane had all spoken out through their music. But context can mean so much.
When the Philadelphia-raised saxophonist came on the New York City scene in the early Sixties, Malcolm X was urging black America to consider means of self-defense. By 1965, when Shepp was leading the charge of the avant-garde and speaking out publicly on politics, Black Panthers were openly carrying firearms. Many jazz listeners, like much of America, were trembling.
“That’s always been a problem,” Shepp says today. “My music tends to carry a message with it, usually a quasi-political message, which makes it more difficult for it to flourish in a market where people shun the mixture of politics and art.”
“I think [Shepp’s] Fire Music is one of the really courageous albums of the Sixties. God, I love that record!” says jazz historian and critic Gary Giddins. “You listen to it now and except for the ‘Malcolm’ poem, which I like a lot, it’s full of melody and fun and dance rhythms. What the hell was everybody so frightened of? They were frightened of the verbiage!”
Whatever reaction Shepp evoked, the mere fact that his recordings were heard by so many says much about the reach of Impulse Records at the time, and of label chief Bob Thiele’s willingness to take a chance on the firebrand with the vibrato-rich tone that could bring to mind the great tenor saxophonist Ben Webster’s legendary sound, while bristling with an anarchic, experimental energy. But the producer initially required convincing, as Shepp tells it:
“I had spent months trying to get Bob on the phone and he never answered the phone. Every time I’d call, his secretary, Lillian, whom I got to know very well, but at that point I hated her because she said, ‘Well he’s gone out to lunch,’ or ‘He’s gone home and he’s not coming back.’ So this one night I sat in with Trane at the Half Note. I got up enough courage to ask if he would intercede.
John gave me a look — the first time he really sort of looked at me in a very critical way, very questioning. He said, ‘You know, a lot of people think I’m easy.’ Then he took a very hard look at me. I said, ‘Well, John, you can be sure I’m not trying to take advantage. I need this.’
The next day I called Thiele’s office and lo and behold the secretary says, ‘Well, he’s not in now but he will be back at three o’clock and he’s waiting for your call.’ So when I did talk to him, the first thing he said is, ‘You guys are avant-garde. I know you’re into your own thing. If you do this recording you’re going to have to record all of John’s music.’ I had just been waiting for the chance to do that. I loved Trane’s music and I had my own ideas about how to work with it. That became the Four for Trane date.”
In title and tunes, Four for Trane is a salute to Shepp’s mentor: a reworking of four better-known Coltrane tunes from his years with Atlantic Records. At the session, Thiele himself was smiling by the third tune, content that he had bowed to his star’s urging. Coltrane received a late-night call with the good news, and drove to the studio to hear the results. Thiele recalled a few years later that the Shepp session was only the first of many inspired by suggestions from Coltrane.
Shepp became a primary beneficiary of Impulse’s warming to the avant-garde. “After Four for Trane I was given a lot more leeway to write my own music, and in fact that’s all I did. Practically all the stuff I did was original. The company was very accessible to me when I needed composers, or if I wanted special guest artists like Roy Haynes, Ron Carter, or Woody Shaw.”
Through 1965, Shepp recorded two albums revealing an impassioned awareness of the jazz tradition far beyond his Coltrane-focused debut. Fire Music and the live On This Night featured Shepp’s tenor in a sextet setting, bouncing from R&B-flavored riff tunes to Ellingtonia, angular originals (“Los Olivados”) to bossa nova (“The Girl From Ipanema”). Shepp’s penchant for the literary surfaced with poetic tributes to such figures as W.E.B. DuBois and Malcolm X (“Malcolm, Malcolm — Semper Malcolm”).
Impulse made the most of Shepp’s rising popularity. The label included him on The New Wave in Jazz, a five-track sampler of some of the most adventurous jazz of the day, and paired him with Coltrane on New Thing at Newport, recorded at the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival, which featured further spoken-word forays (“Scag”) and edgy, modernist jams like “Le Matin des Noires.”
By 1966, Impulse had become a mark of avant-garde approval, distinguishing innovators fortunate to have their music on the label. Shepp kept busy that year, recording Live in San Francisco and Mama Too Tight, unafraid to mix his experimental approach with gutbucket blues and soulful R&B influences.
For all the critical fury, the music-making on Shepp’s late-Sixties recordings most often upstages the political stance-taking. The Magic of Ju-Ju sounds a pan-African message, especially on its title track, with five drummers joined together behind Shepp’s free-style solos. Three for a Quarter, One for a Dime was essentially one extended live track from San Francisco in 1966, exposing Shepp’s Coltrane-like endurance. The Way Ahead introduced Walter Davis, Jr. into the band, marking the first time Shepp had used a pianist on one of his Impulse albums, and emphasized his group’s soul-jazz possibilities on tracks like “Damn if I Know (The Stroller).”
Following a regime change at Impulse in 1969, Shepp managed to record music for two more albums, For Losers and Kwanza, before his contract lapsed. Two years later he was re-signed and returned to his politically motivated mix of music and message on Things Have Got to Change and Attica Blues, the latter an outcry against the massacre at the State Correctional Facility in Attica, New York.
Shepp is still struck by the freedom Impulse afforded him to find his own balance of music and message: “It was just the way the company was set up. There were these big open spaces for guys to do what they wanted to, and with deep pockets, they were very generous in allowing certain artists to do things that might never have occurred with smaller record labels like Blue Note or Prestige or Riverside. For me, it’s never been like that since those years with Impulse.”
Ashley Kahn, February 2006