Archie Shepp






Early Years

Archie Shepp was born on May 24th, 1937 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He was brought up in Philadelphia where he started playing piano, clarinet and alto saxophone, before settling on tenor as his main instrument - he would return to the piano and also develop skills on the soprano sax later in his career. In 1955 he enrolled at Goddard College in Vermont to study Drama, moving to New York in 1959 after being unable to find acting jobs.

Cecil Taylor & The New York Contemporary Five

Archie Shepp’s career as a professional jazz musician started in 1960 when he joined Cecil Taylor’s group, at the recommendation of Taylor’s bassist, Buell Neidlinger. Listening to the Taylor sessions, a little of what was to emerge from Shepp is already in place. He sounds uncertain of his style at times, but sneaks in the occasional dissonant note or squeal to great effect. Taylor’s playing behind Shepp’s solos is certainly more vital than that behind his other hornmen of the period. It’s as if he’s trying to either push his protégé to ever greater heights, or try to dominate him - punishing the young pretender to his avant-garde throne.

Post Taylor, Shepp found himself with a group of musicians that came to be known as the New York Contemporary Five (NYCF), a short lived but massively influential group documented on several recordings for the Savoy label in 1962-3. It was at this time that he cut his first session as leader, jointly with Bill Dixon and released on Savoy as ‘Archie Shepp-Bill Dixon Quartet’ (Savoy MG-12178). The US jazz establishment of the time had a hard time with the NYCF, and Shepp spent some time in Europe (much as Albert Ayler had done early in his career) where free jazz was warmly received by open-minded, intellectual European audiences.

The NYCF also featured Don Cherry (cornet), John Tchicai (alto) and Sonny Murray (drums), all of whom had significant parts to play in the development of free jazz over the next few years. Ronnie Boykins (bass) was an integral part of Sun Ra’s Arkestra at the time, and would continue with the great avant-garde bandleader until 1966. Sadly, owing to a complete lack of commercial success, the group had to fold after less than a year. Significantly for Shepp, though, the music had caught the ear of the ever open minded John Coltrane, and his patronage brought Shepp a contract with impulse! as well as the first of many recordings as leader, 1964’s ‘Four For Trane’, named in honour of his mentor.

Free jazz

It is interesting to speculate on the complete absence of commercial potential possessed by the NYCF. This sort of musical impressionism is similar in many ways to abstract expressionism in the visual arts, which has been arguably the dominant style for much of the 20th and into the 21st century. When executed well and with a clear, well-communicated concept, visual artists have garnered both critical and popular praise for their efforts. Unfortunately the opposite has been true of music, where it seems that the further away an artist moves from pure entertainment, the greater the derision they attract. This critical double standard threatens to deny many the wonderful experience of hearing an artist like Archie Shepp in full flight.

The Influence Of John Coltrane

There is no doubt who was the predominant tenor in 1964 – John Coltrane, within the setting of his famous quartet, was pushing back the boundaries of jazz music to such an extent that every tenor or soprano sax player to follow has incorporated some of his sound. Coltrane was an explorer, interested in little but music and discovering what lay beyond conventional ideas of rhythm and harmony. He was constantly on the lookout for young players in the same mould as himself, and he found some of this in Archie Shepp. Indeed, around this time he invited Shepp into the studio for the sessions of ‘A Love Supreme’. Shepp’s contribution was not included on the final release, but two takes of ‘Acknowledgement’ featuring the young tenor surfaced on the recent 2-CD ‘Deluxe’ edition of Coltrane’s masterpiece. Here, Shepp's influence adds a darker edge to the piece as well as pushing Coltrane farther out. Perhaps it is a mark of the esteem Coltrane held him in that he allowed himself to be influenced by this upstart.

Coltrane’s patronage brought Shepp a great deal – recognition and ultimately a contract with impulse! records, a partnership that was to continue until 1972 and produce some of the finest avant-garde jazz ever committed to vinyl.

Shepp’s first date for impulse! as leader, 1964’s ‘Four For Trane’ showed his firebrand style to great effect in an enormously inventive run through of four of Coltrane’s classic tunes. Even better, the inclusion of Shepp’s original ‘Rufus’ showed that the spirit of the NYCF lived on, even if it’s members had gone elsewhere. And then 1965’s ‘New Thing At Newport’, split with Coltrane, showcased Shepp’s increasingly furious virtuosity against Coltrane’s much smoother sound. Shepp was starting to move away from his mentor and find his own voice.

Pushing the boundaries, finding a voice, 1966 on

There has always been an element of Shepp’s music that deals with the experience of Black America. The mid to late 1960s were a turbulent time, with such events as the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, the rise of the Black Panthers and the Attica Prison riots pouring fuel onto the flames of anger burning inside many black artists of the era. Shepp took this on, but tempered his anger with a reverence for previous generations of black musicians, from relatively recent jazz artists such as Duke Ellington, back to the drummers of Africa. ‘A Portrait of Robert Thompson (as a young man)’ from 1966’s ‘Mama Too Tight’ stands out as Shepp’s mission statement – the boundary breaking, angry, avant-garde and a deep reverence for the past combined into an enthralling new music. ‘The Magic of Ju-Ju’ from 1967 goes a stage further, dispensing with all of the traditional jazz instruments apart from Shepp’s horn and letting the rest of the band loose on percussion. And then the ultimate gesture – Shepp playing live with a group of African musicians at the Pan-African festival in Algiers in 1969. As the man says on ‘We Have Come Back’ (from the ‘Live At The Pan-African Festival’ LP) – “Jazz is an African power… and we have come back!”.

Everything all the time – ‘fusion’ musics, 1969 on

Shepp’s music from this period on began to change. He was no longer content to concentrate on purely African or American musics, and began to search for a fusion of all black musics. Jazz, blues, gospel and more started to meld together around and take form in clearer and clearer ways, culminating in the classic ‘Attica Blues’ and ‘The Cry Of My People’ from 1972. Before those high points were plenty of free jazz explorations that rank highly.

Shepp was one of a number of US-based avant-garde musicians attracted to Paris in 1969 by the open-minded attitudes of European audiences to his increasingly free excursions. The 1969 Festival Actuel was another draw, featuring many jazz musicians who subsequently stuck around to record for labels like BYG and America. This period produced some real gems, notably the three albums recorded in August 1969 – ‘Yasmina, A Black Woman’, ‘Poem For Malcolm’ and ‘Blasé’. As well as members of Shepp’s regular groups, these recordings featured musicians from the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and some names not usually associated with free jazz like Hank Mobley and Philly Joe Jones. ‘Yasmina’ especially has stood the test of time well. The later ‘Black Gipsy’ is in a similar extended improvisatory vein, but on it’s second side the listener is treated to a multitude of different musics, ending some outstanding bluesy harmonica playing. The blues had always been present, but now you could hear as well as feel them.

The next few years were to see the creative high point of ‘Attica Blues’ and further albums in the side-long improvisatory style first tried out in 1969. ‘Hipnosis’ from 1975’s ‘A Sea Of Faces’ is great example of this.


The coming of the mid 70’s also saw a change in Shepp’s music. The anger of the earlier years seemed to be dissipating, and his reverence for his musical forefathers was becoming increasingly obvious. Also becoming more prominent was his saxophone – where the Paris 1969 recordings were large ensemble affairs, he became increasingly interested in exploring trio and duet formats, often without percussion. 1975’s ‘Bijou’ is a case in point – standards and some Shepp originals in an ‘older’ style acting as blowing vehicles for his tenor, heard alone much of the time, but also accompanied by another tenor, piano or vocal. This music is considerably easier on the ear than some of his late 1960s recordings, but his sax tone and surprising inventiveness survive unscathed. There were still frequent excursions into the avant-garde, particularly in live recordings such as ‘Live At The Totem’. Shepp may have toned down the intensity of his style, but his energy was undiminished as the frenetic pace and length of some of these performances shows.

The 1980s and beyond

Shepp was to continue in this reverential vein for much of the rest of his career. This brought some critical success with albums of spirituals (recorded with pianist Horace Parlan) and several discs of Ellington and Parker tunes. Nevertheless he continued to record new compositions and experiment with new musical formats - see 'Mama Rose', his 1982 collaboration with keyboardist Jasper van't Hof, where his tenor and poetry is pared with electronic textures. Sadly though, his tone declined throughout the 1980s. I’m not familiar with much of his music from this period, but a listen to ‘Body and Soul’, a duet with bass player Richard Davis recorded live in 1989 shows a shaky Shepp still playing inventively and taking risks with standard material, but without the tone to carry it off.

Happily, his tone was said to improve throughout the 1990s, culminating in a well-received set with former bandmate Roswell Rudd, released in 2001.

From the 1970s to the early 2000s Archie Shepp was a professor in the African-American Studies department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he taught both music and music history.