Over the course of six decades, Archie Shepp has blazed new trails. Along with his contemporaries, including John Coltrane, Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor, the saxophonist has rooted himself in an array of traditional African and African diasporic music while expanding the frameworks of jazz. A master synthesist, he seeds new forms across his diverse catalog that carry the weight of music far older. On 1968’s The Magic of Ju-Ju, we hear him playing with complex Yoruban polyrhythms; on 1969’s Blasé, he offers a lyrical meditation on the spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead,” and on 1972’s Attica Blues he leads a full band, including Aretha Franklin’s guitarist, Cornell Dupree, to share vital political consciousness. His latest is called Let My People Go, a collaboration with pianist Jason Moran, collecting live duo sets from 2017 and 2018. It finds the elder Shepp engaging deeply with his personal history. Shepp was interviewed for Aquarium Drunkard by guitarist and musical theorist Sarah Louise. Her forthcoming album is Earth Bow, available April 30th.
Aquarium Drunkard: I thought it would be nice to start out somewhat chronologically, starting in Florida where your father played banjo and introduced you to all kinds of music. What were some of your first impressions of music down there before you moved up to Philadelphia?
Archie Shepp: I was really thrilled by the sound of music. I was brought into that sound by my father’s playing. He originally showed me some chords on the banjo, the first few bars of “The Charleston,” James P. Johnson’s original. From then on, I was hooked. We moved to Philadelphia and my parents provided me with piano lessons, then clarinet lessons. Finally, I took up the saxophone at about the age of 15.
AD: When I think of some of the Duke Ellington pieces that you have covered in different ways throughout your career—including on your new album Let My People Go—I love how you have been a leader in innovation with free jazz, but how there is also this lyrical, melodic core to what you do. Could you speak a little about the push and pull between being an innovator and the importance of carrying on lineage, being someone who is honoring your elders in that way as well?
Archie Shepp: Innovation, it came to me naturally. I was helped a lot by my time with Cecil Taylor, who was a very original pianist and I was reminded of the tradition constantly by the people who I grew up with. My mother asked me once, “Are you still playing the little songs that don’t have any tune?” [Laughs] So I began to think that perhaps I was out of touch with the people that I wanted to reach the most. I began to go back to standards and ballads, and even to change my style of composition so that it would be more relevant to people who had more traditional musical taste.
AD: Music has a power that’s really unlike any other medium in the way it gathers people together in a group, in communion. In how it touches the body, the mind, the heart and the spirit as well. When you speak of wanting to reach people, what message was in your heart to offer as you were transitioning back to looking at those older melodies?
Archie Shepp: I suppose I wanted to claim more blues, more accessible melodies, things that really touched me. That’s the most important thing, to play the songs that are relevant to your own experience.
AD: You’ve spent decades as an ethnomusicologist, studying African-American music and African music and collaborating with Gnawa musicians and Yoruba drummers. How has your role as a scholar and academic shaped your playing and collaborations?
Archie Shepp: I started teaching around 1969 at the University of Buffalo. At that time, there were very few references or materials that I could use to expand my lectures. I had to, originally, improvise my discussions with the class. I drew from a lot of my own personal experiences in music. It was the time of the civil rights movement and I was able to combine that with my own social activism and political point of view, which has always colored my music. But later, there were a number of works that developed on the subject of African-American music, like Eileen Southern’s The Music of Black Americans. I’ve been away from academia for a while, but there have been numerous texts that have been published since then that have elaborated on the development and the evolution of African American music. I learned a lot from teaching. It enabled me to develop some ideas along the lines of African folklore and its influence on African art and African-derived art. I profited immensely from my studies.
AD: I can only imagine how looking deeply into all of that would inform your work, and why you would need to bring your own personal experience to it as well, to provide a foundation for your classes when there wasn’t very much information out there.
Archie Shepp: [Through] my study of Yoruban culture and religion, [I came to the conclusion] that modern African American music is a kind of syncretism—it combines traditional African beliefs with the Western ideas that were amalgamated with the tradition, which Africans brought from the old country. This so-called jazz music is a combination of African and Western techniques.
AD: I feel like that’s expressed in so many different ways on your albums. On The Magic of Ju-Ju, you had talking drummers perform with you and you’ve worked with old spirituals, like “There’s a Balm in Gilead” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” Let My People Go is such a deep record in that it beautifully displays that diversity and history, knit together in your own voices. Jason Moran [who plays with you on the new record] strikes me as someone who also has a great reverence for what has come before, and also an openness to how African American music has evolved throughout the decades. Could you tell me about your relationship with him?
Archie Shepp: Well, we had an immediate rapport with one another. No matter what song I called, even if it was an original, he managed to get into the mix very quickly.
AD: There’s a John Coltrane quote that goes, “most recently I’ve been listening to folk tunes, and been trying to find some meaning in that. I feel that basically the music should be dedicated to the goodness in people, the good things in life, and folk tunes usually spring from these simple things.” I find his desire to explore the unity of spiritual music from around the world very important. There’s a spiritual foundation to your work as well. What was it like being in community through all these explorations?
Archie Shepp: Well, John initiated what today I would call “world music” in the sense of he was one of the first to collaborate with people like Ravi Shankar and [Babatunde] Olatunji, to create music on another sphere. When you bring music from the United States and you mix it with traditional music, you have the swing that comes from the drum [blended with] the cultural embellishments and thematic elements that arrive from another culture. I was just interested in imitating the sounds that I heard John create, but in my own way. I sought to evolve my explorations, particularly with African music, recently in my work with the Gnawa.
AD: Gnawa music uses an instrument called a gimbri that is kind of similar to the banjo. In recent years there’s been a real resurgence and reclamation of the banjo in its string band context with groups like Carolina Chocolate Drops and Rhiannon Giddens who’s done solo projects.
Archie Shepp: The banjo is used in a lot of different contexts—it’s used in Brazilian folk music [as well]. All throughout the Americas you’ll find that an instrument like the banjo was used. It was an instrument that Blacks brought from Africa. Many of the cultures that started out with Africans as slaves, you’ll find that the banjo survived and was used in a number of different contexts. So, in the United States, it was primarily used in the context of ragtime music, and the things that my father played, eventually, I remembered some of those songs, and I installed them in my repertoire, songs like Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo,” popular songs, like “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” There were many songs that he played that today I think of.
AD: Has that been an important way to stay in touch with your father and to honor him?
Archie Shepp: Yeah, it is. It really reinforces my own sense of identity because those songs have taken on a particular meaning to me.
AD: And, when you first started playing piano did you play any stride piano or were you learning more classical?
Archie Shepp: My training was in classical music but I had a problem studying my lessons because I was so engaged in boogie-woogie and forms of that were extant at the time. I didn’t play too many of the songs that my father did because it took me a while to come around to seeing how important he was.
AD: Is there a spiritual dimension to that as well for you?
Archie Shepp: It begins with the spirit of feeling that you’re listening to music that is timeless. That’s an experience that is continual.
AD: I think of music sometimes as a portal. When you play or hear a particular song it opens up, you know, the fabric of the universe, for lack of a better way of saying it. It can take you to a place and connect you with people.
Archie Shepp: Well, my music seeks to engage the audience and set up kind of a call and response. Even when the audience doesn’t respond verbally, they react to what I’m playing. Music is not only heard, but it’s seen. People come to watch a performance and I’m aware of action taking place on both those levels. Through the rhythms of the drums, the motion of the bass, there is a certain dynamic going on that is fundamental to the process. So, ultimately, swing connotes the idea of dance. So-called jazz music evokes that feeling in people, even when you’re not dancing, that there’s movement involved.
AD: It sounds to me like you’re speaking of music’s influence on the body and how important embodied engagement is within music.
Archie Shepp: Yes, exactly. There’s a kind of kinetic relation between notes and musical sound and the physical reaction of people listening to it.
AD: It makes me think of some of the research that Milford Graves did on music and the nervous system. Did you ever play with Milford, or know him very well?
Archie Shepp: I think in the early days, we must have jammed together. I always found him a very impressive percussionist and a very original man.
AD: Do you have thoughts on music healing qualities?
Archie Shepp: Music, as it touches the inner soul, evokes from time to time a rhythmic response, but that’s something that’s natural to music. People react to that, it’s most difficult to say what exactly provokes that feeling. African rhythms are particularly adept at creating that kind of physical response.
AD: Music speaks to the body and provokes a spontaneous response. What a powerful language.
Archie Shepp: Yes, it is, and an original language, which apparently cannot be taught, but it is something that is endemic to the creation of that music, something intrinsic that pervades the culture with the feeling of folktales and folk songs, which lead to the call and response between the storyteller and the audience. Music is a healing force and a connecting tissue. It connects us all and through its creation we can evolve into a more collaborative society, we can look at each other as equals and as equal participants with similar experiences.