Archie Shepp's story intersects with so many fascinating areas of musical and social history that it was a joy researching and writing these liner notes. Fifty years after this historic concert, and his music has none of its power and relevance.
Archie Shepp is one of the most celebrated figures of the early free jazz movement. His reputation centres on the series of albums he made for Impulse during the mid-to-late Sixties – most notably ‘Fire Music,’ ‘Mama Too Tight’ and ‘The Magic Of Ju Ju.’ A powerful advocate of Black Nationalism, he articulated many of the political frustrations that black people felt in America on those records. In doing so he invested jazz with razor-sharp relevance, whilst constantly pushing at its boundaries. He was by turns angry, committed, soulful and intellectual – indeed, he’ll later become a professor at a leading state university. As an African descendant, he was determined to reclaim his cultural legacy from the shackles of colonialism, and increasingly turned to it for strength and inspiration throughout the Sixties.
In the summer of 1970, he was invited to perform at the Juan Les Pins Jazz Festival in Antibes – a resort town on the French Riviera that was famous for its cultural affiliations, as well as its natural beauty. The town’s annual event was already an established highlight of the international jazz calendar by the time Archie Sheep arrived. Charles Mingus had once recorded a celebrated live album there and the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane – playing ‘A Love Supreme’ – Duke Ellington and Miles Davis had all followed his example. This may explain the sense of history in the making as the festival organisers prepared to tape Shepp’s performances. ‘Live in Antibes Volumes 1 & 2’ will consist of two lengthy tracks – ‘The Early Bird Parts 1 & 2,’ recorded on July 18th, and ‘Huru Parts 1 & 2,’ recorded two days later. “Huru” means “free” or “liberated” in Swahili, and so it will prove. All four tracks are over twenty minutes long, which allows the magic to unfold, and individual musicians ample room to shine. Dressed in a dashiki and African headwear, his eyes hidden by sunglasses, Shepp cut an imposing figure as he strode onto the stage. His attire, bearing and above all else, his music – denoted a man who’d thoroughly immersed themselves in his African roots and was determined to wring every ounce of strength and beauty from the experience. A recent trip to Algiers and protracted stay in Paris had clearly energised him, giving rise to music that’s revolutionary in both form and intent, and that’s impossible to listen to without acknowledging the underlying philosophies that inspired it.
Unlike on previous European concert and studio dates, Shepp’s own musicians hadn’t accompanied him this time, since most had returned home to the US. There was no Sonny Murray on drums or Alan Silva, stood hovering over his upright bass; and no Grachan Moncur III or cornet player Clifford Thornton, who’d also played with Pharoah Sanders and Sun Ra, and been involved with Leroi Jones’ Black Arts Repertory Theatre School in Harlem. The only link to Shepp’s incendiary musical past was trumpeter Alan Shorter, who’d played on Archie’s classic ‘Four For Trane’ six years earlier. He’ll take up the flugelhorn for these Antibes’ performances. The rest of the band members were borrowed from Claude Delcloo’s Full Moon Ensemble, and included some of the leading free jazz players in France at that time.
Delcloo was based in Paris, and heavily involved with the French avant-garde. Apart from playing drums with the Full Moon Ensemble, he edited Actuel magazine and carried out A & R duties for various record labels. He and Shepp knew each other well after working together on a series of recordings for BYG. Delcloo, more than anyone, knew that Shepp’s creativity was currently in overdrive, and inspiration poured from his horn every time he held it to his lips. They’re joined here by guitarist and Carlos Santana look-a-like Joseph Dejean, bassist Beb Guerin and Claude Thornton, who plays trumpet and piano on ‘The Early Bird Parts 1 & 2,’ and then alternates between valve trombone, piano and the shenai (an Indian wind instrument similar to an oboe) on the second date, which is slightly more rhythmic in places. Archie himself is imperious throughout, whether playing tenor sax and piano, or providing declamatory spoken word passages.
We’re reminded of an extract from the liner notes of ‘Mama Too Tight’ in which he declared, “I play music out of an overwhelming need to play; to make the rains come; to abolish wars...” His untamed, emotive style of playing conjures up similar visions to those that haunted Picasso when he visited Antibes, more than two decades previously. The painter’s six-month stay at the Chateau Grimaldi had yielded a rich and fertile panoply of fauns, nymphs and goddesses, celebrating an end to the horrors of war. Commanding a stage less than twenty miles away, Archie Shepp’s creative explorations and promptings will prove no less fascinating. He’s now gone beyond Coltrane’s restless spirituality and tapped into something that’s at once elemental and timeless. No wonder he’s always preferred the phrase “Great Black Music” to “jazz,” and disowned every category critics have tried to foist upon him. His last European festival appearance – in the Belgian town of Amougie – had been shared with an array of rock, folk, blues and avant-garde jazz musicians, as well as poets and other creative individuals. Frank Zappa had presided as Master of Ceremonies and over fifteen thousand people had been in attendance as Shepp wove his musical spells. It was an era where limitations of all kinds were fast being swept away. Personal and artistic freedoms were no longer viewed as intellectual concepts, but could be seized and put to immediate use by those brave enough to step outside what they already knew, and search for the truths within.
Just over a year earlier, Shepp – the self-confessed ju ju man – had performed at the first Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algiers, where he’d encountered North African classical orchestras, traditional choirs and soloists, dance bands, singers, poets and theatrical troupes, and met filmmakers, artists, playwrights and sculptors. Delegates from more than thirty African countries attended, in addition to representatives of various Black Nationalist organisations. Black Panther Chief Of Staff David Hilliard was there and also Eldridge Cleaver, the Panthers’ exiled Minister For Information. Stokely Carmichael had arrived with his wife, South African singer Miriam Makeba, and Nina Simone was among the visiting American performers. This landmark event had been hosted by the Organisation Of African Unity whobelieved that culture, in its widest and most complete sense, gave shape to people’s lives. “It is not freely received but is built up by the people,” their manifesto had claimed. “It is the vision of man and of systems of thought, philosophies, sciences, beliefs, arts and languages.”
Jacques Bisceglia, who was a photographer with Actuel magazine, met with Shepp in Algiers and invited him back to Paris for recording dates with BYG Records. Actuel’s editor was Claude Delcloo, who in addition to playing drums, acted as a talent scout for BYG – a label owned by Jean Luc Young and Jean Georgakarakos. Shepp’s albums for BYG’s Actuel subsidiary will include ‘Yasmina, A Black Woman,’ ‘Poem For Malcolm,’ ‘Blasé’ – recorded with members of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago and singer Jeanna Lee – and ‘Archie Shepp And Philly Joe Jones.’ The latter had also played on ‘Poem For Malcolm,’ and shares drumming credits on the title track and ‘Mama Rose’ with Claude Delcloo.
‘Mama Rose’ was named after Archie’s grandmother. She and an aunt had bought him his first sax at fifteen, although he’d studied piano and clarinet before then. Born in Fort Lauderdale, he’d relocated to Philadelphia when he was seven and grown up in a poor, broken down community called “Brick Yard.” After four years of drama school he moved to New York in 1959. Whilst still torn between music and acting, he joined a Latin band before playing with Cecil Taylor, whose approach had a revolutionary effect on the young sax player. Under Taylor’s direction, Shepp sought to invest his playing with same emotional intensity and feel as the human voice. In 1962 he joined John Tchicai and Don Cherry in the New York Contemporary Five and then made his debut as leader on sessions for Savoy, shared with Bill Dixon. His main influence was Coltrane, who played exactly what he believed in and nothing less. It was Coltrane who recommended Shepp to Impulse, who released ‘Four For Trane’ in 1964. Shepp’s only original composition on that album was ‘Rufus (Swung His Back At Last To The Wind And Then His Neck Snapped.)’ Producer Bob Thiele didn’t approve but Coltrane insisted he include it, even though the title immediately conjured up images of a lynching. Even at that early stage, Archie was making literary analogies in his music. Inspired by James Baldwin’s writing, he discovered that in order to get a message across, sometimes music wasn’t enough. That’s when he’d started using vocal interjections and spoken word passages in his compositions. In this respect he was a forerunner of the Last Poets and Gill Scott Heron, who still hadn’t recorded when these BYG albums were made.
During the mid-Sixties, Shepp played on some of the all-time classics of free jazz, including Coltrane’s ‘Ascension’ and their shared album, ‘New Thing At Newport.’ The latter was released in late 1965, the same year as ‘Fire Music’ – a rage against the establishment that contained ‘Malcolm, Malcolm Semper Malcolm;’ an elegy for Malcolm X, who’d been assassinated in February. Shepp claimed Malcolm had inspired innovations in African-American music that had made jazz an “extension of the black nationalist movement,” and ‘Malcolm, Malcolm Semper Malcolm’ was the proof. Unlike Dr. Martin Luther King, who saw himself as an American and pursued the same rights and privileges afforded to other (white) Americans, Malcolm was driven by visions of black self-determination. It’s an important distinction – one that Shepp would embrace throughout the rest of his career.
After performing at Juan-Les-Pins he’ll record the seminal ‘Attica Blues’ and ‘Cry Of My People’ before diversifying into writing for the theatre, undertaking teaching commitments and exploring musical ideas involving blues, spirituals, tributes to traditional jazz icons and even ballads. At the time of writing his ceaseless creativity is vital as ever, and he continues to tour and record with some regularity. He may not sound as confrontational as he once did on these classic BYG recordings, but we can rest assured that the fire in his music remains unquenchable.