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Archie Shepp - Jazz as a political statement

Archie Shepp is well-known to everybody as a saxophone-player who can be seen on stage for more than forty years now. From the early 1960s he was closely associated with the avant-garde movement in american jazz-music. Up to now, he always understands his music and life as an expression of black solidarity. He never forgot his roots, the black blues-music, and even today his songs are full of spirituality, energy and - they are a political statement.

Archie Shepp (Foto: K-H. Klüter)

After the last rehearsal, one day before the concert with Jean-Paul Bourelly and his band at the Quasimodo, Carina Prange found out about this man, who can be considered a living legend.

Carina: You are playing tomorrow at the Quasimodo with Jean Paul Bourelly - how did you get in contact with him, and why was it interesting for you to do some kind of project together?

Archie: Well - we did a recording together, and I found it very interesting - an interesting guitar player and an interesting man. He has very great, strong musical convictions - and as I said it earlier, some of his direction reminds me a little bit of the late Jimi Hendrix. I suppose, if I had a chance to play with Jimi, I really would have liked it. So this is as close as I can get again!

Carina: You have been one of the avantgardists in the sixties playing "Free Jazz" - today you are more and more playing blues and these kind of things - are you going "back to the roots" - would you say that?

Archie: Well, I have never left the roots! And, as a matter of fact, I never used the term "Free Jazz" - and in addition to that, when I did play with people called "free", the blues always represented the basic reference for my language.

Carina: You once said to Christian Broecking, that "Jazz is dead" - can you explain that to me? Would you say that today as well?

Archie: Well, I mean, there are no more original players!. Its like the classical music, up to Strawinski, it continued to evolve. Since then, o.k. you got Boulez and Stockhausen, they were strong composers ... - Nobody compares with for example Ray Brown and people like that. It is so rich, that classical tradition.

No trumpetplayer that is playing anymore
than Fats Navarro - and no saxophoneplayer that is playing
anymore than Coltrane.

I feel the same way about African American music. It has a very rich tradition as a ressource, but many of it´s younger players are not taking advantage of all it´s possibilities - even though they are very cogniscent of the historical roots. For example you hear Marsalis: today he´s recreating a lot of Louis Amstrong´s solos and like that. Which is good - but when you get right down to it, you have to think: Louis Amstrong couldn´t even read music!

So really the stress of Louis Amstrongs music was not in the fact that he could read music, but that he had a powerful spirit - which - Jean Paul says it in one of his songs - "never gives up and never gives in". That´s the kind of stuff this music was made of. People who made something from nothing.

And today I find that happening more with rap-music than with so called "Jazz"-music. Even though there are many expert players in that music, there are very few original players. In fact none, that I have heard! I mean, everybody is playing something, I have already heard going for like 30 years! - There is no trumpetplayer that is playing anymore than Fats Navarro - and no saxophoneplayer that is playing anymore than Coltrane. So what can we do with that?.

Carina: You have always been one of the supporters of black solidarity - what has changed within the last 30 or 40 years?

Archie: In the last 30 or 40 years! - That is a complex question! (laughs) - As we know, lots of things have changed. As presumably within the African or American comunity in the United States - at least what is happening to them around the world. I think, probably the same thing that happens to everybody. More and more since the sixties there has been an evolutionary regression to a certain "pacifism" and "individualism". It´s your think-approach.

What´s happening in the black community with the break-up in the families, with the increase of drug addiction and so on, is that socially we have lost our focus. We have very little in the way of leadership and we are desperate for direction. So it is not really a very positive picture I could paint, although - as ever - my people are very hopeful and very strong. So I am hopeful, that something good probably will happen for us. I mean, that we can continue to evolve - out of the things we gained through struggle in the 1960s.

Carina: What do you think, is there a difference between the United States and Europe in the behaviour of white people towards black people?

Archie: Oh, basically none. I think - white people, when they are friendly and sensitive - that´s what they are. And when they are unfriendly and insensitive, that is what they are. So, in fact - I found that all over the world. That is true of any people, really! Japanese people or Chinese people: any people can be intolerant. Unfortunately, I found among white people - a majority of the ones I have met - have either been indifferent, intolerant and insensitive. I hate to say that - but in fact it is probably the way that it is! The reality plays out like that - a few people look at it how it is. What happens here is the case that there are terrible - very violent - racial confrontations.

Here in Germany - in fact: in some sense this country is regressed socially since the opening up of the wall and the reuniting of the two areas of Germany. That is one of the unfortunate sideeffects - hopefully with prosperity and people beginning to become used to living with other racial groups - other ethnic groups - things will eventually become somewhat more normal.

Jazz in the United States is still - very basically - a racial experience.

What is the difference racially? Really I think in Europe as an Afro-American I can find the "space" here, where people generally relate to what I am doing - seem to like me, and I - I like them. One of my students put it this way - he spent some time in France and he came back, and he said: The difference between Europe and America is - that in Europe - speaking about "Afro-American" music - he used the term "Jazz". He said: "Jazz has really been integrated into the middle classes." And in the United States not! It is still - very basically - a racial experience. Even though people try to pretend that it isn´t - and it is a class affair. I mean - when you are really being "high-browed" - and nobody thinks of Charlie Parker or John Lee Hooker - they think far away.

But by contrast, here in Europe, I have been - for example - shopping in your big department store - KDW - and I have been hearing Ben Webster in the background - it didn´t have to be Mozart or Beethoven! And there - that is interesting, I think, the Europeans are able to really enjoy the benefit from other cultural experiences. And they have the freedom to do so - intellectually, psychologically - a way that Americans don´t. The "Civil War" has still never been resolved in my country. So black and white people are still at war.

Europeans would never understand the degree,
the intensity of misunderstanding and animosity
between Blacks and Whites in the United States.

I wrote a play - which I put on in the 1960s: it´s originally called "The Communist". I had it translated into French - it is a bit in French more. I thought about doing it again. The title was changed, when it was produced. It was never produced under the original title. It was produced under the title "Much more benign". And it came to me, as I read the play in French, that it might not really be good for European audiences. Because they would never understand the degree, the intensity of misunderstanding and animosity between Blacks and Whites in the United States.

Everybody knows about racism and oppression, Blacks being lynched and all that. But they don´t know, how much black people hate white people. That´s - and my play gets into that - something that negroes rarely discuss with Whites. And I´m not talking about direct hatred, because I don´t hate all white people. I´m talking about an elaborate of social animosity which has been ingendered and intensified through racial oppression through over a century.

So, anyway - so there are differences between Europe and America - in that sense as I say. The relationship with whites in America - I´m speaking more from the "Jimmy Urban" perspective - is the "suspect", it is a "level of suspicion". With Europeans it´s quiet clear: some don´t like you and some do - it is as simple as that. - In the United States we have laws against racism and so on. Here there are really not so many laws against racism - because extensively you don´t have the problem. But more and more laws are being in stall as the problem increases.

Carina: Two more questions: In the United States there have been Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. What would you say today, which way of solving problems was the right one?

Archie: Oh, I see no difference between the two! Malcom´s strength was more in the urban areas with the young people - which the marxists called the "lumpin", the "pimps", the "whores". The Black Muslims have always worked with the peoples in the jails, the poorest people in the cities - so in certain big cities the Black Muslims are very strong - Chicago - they have a very strong following in New York.

And among artists and intellectuals as well: Malcom was very, very strong - he had a very strong following - people like Duke Ellington and Count Basey - though they weren´t Black Muslims - really spoke very highly of him. Like myself, I wrote poems about him.

Actually Doctor King was a unifier, he brought all the people together: black, white, all classes of people - poor, rich. He was really a revolutionary, Martin Luther King. I am not saying, that Malcom wasn´t - but if you really wanted the two together - they were same man - but the revolution might have been realized through Doctor King.

Carina: Last question: Have you got a sort of philosophy for life?

Archie: Possibly: Be careful. Love the Lord!

Carina Prange

Photo 1: Karlheinz Klueter -mehr Infos unter: www.jazzphotography.us
Photo 2 und 3: n.n.

aktuelle CD: Archie Shepp: "St. Louis Blues", PAO 10430

© jazzdimensions2000
erschienen: 28.7.2000
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