Jazz great discusses music and politics

When Archie Shepp plays the saxophone, he keeps his eyes shut. The legendary musician cherishes every note played and knows very well how to deliver a magical jazz experience. Forty-two years have elapsed since Shepp first performed on stage after notable figures of the era’s politically fueled free-jazz scene singled out the aspiring jazz player, whose musicianship gradually matured as he played alongside jazz greats. The experience also made a huge artistic impact on Shepp, as did the social turbulence of the 1960s. Tinged by the fiery speeches of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Shepp’s compositions reflected the struggle of Afro-Americans for social justice and freedom. Local audiences have the opportunity to catch the jazz great on stage again at the capital’s Half Note Jazz Club (17 Trivonianou, Mets, tel 210.921.3310) a third time for a series of shows that began last Sunday and run through January 8. Despite his years, Shepp remains a prominent figure. Commenting on the artist on the occasion of the musician’s latest visit to Greece, Giorgos Haronitis, editor of the local Jazz & Jazz magazine, noted: «A representative of music and the fighting spirit of the 1960s, Archie Shepp uniquely combined his restless and explorative artistic nature with total respect for tradition. Which explains why he was the only free-jazz musician who faithfully followed the way of his forerunners, and whose saxophone sound drew life from, and highlighted his connection to, the sound of the blues and tradition. Since then until this very day, Shepp’s faith in jazz and Afro-American musical tradition has been his sole artistic goal, while his presence, both as a recording artist and performer, has proven his deep jazz roots – from blues to bebop, and gospel to song.» Interviewed recently by Kathimerini for these shows, Shepp preferred to focus on politics rather than music. «Simply being black is a political action,» which is even more apparent «when you’re a musician,» Shepp remarked with bittersweet humor. One of the few surviving members of that brilliant guild of jazz musicians of the ’60s, Shepp acknowledged the artistic importance of this cohesion, but avoided getting bogged down in nostalgia. «I don’t miss that period, when I could play alongside Coltrane. I’m comforted by the thought that I did meet such tremendous musicians. This is unimaginable wealth for me. I’m still learning from their compositions,» Shepp said. «They’re a reference point for my work. My music’s progressed since then and, thankfully, I’ve matured,» he added. Shepp, born in New York in 1937, expressed an interest in theater early on, and took lessons at Goddard College. While seeking work in the theatrical field, he began playing the saxophone and eventually proved a capable player. He was soon recruited by Cecil Taylor for a place in his combo and began impressing peers and audiences, becoming a fixture on the scene. John Coltrane helped the youngster record his debut album. He focused on free jazz to protest against the racism and social injustice suffered by Afro-Americans. Since 1974, Shepp has taught music as a professor at the University of Massachusetts but has remained an active stage performer. Just as tough Contrary to the widespread belief among jazz musicians, who contend that advanced technology, combined with the aggressive promotional methods of today, has simplified the prospects of success for aspiring artists, Shepp insists that breaking into the scene remains as challenging as ever. «Anybody who thinks that, nowadays, the road is lined with flowers for musicians is making a big mistake,» Shepp said. «Conditions are just as tough as they were when I was a youngster. Things are tougher for Afro-Americans. Some, like the Marsalis brothers, are making lots of money. Others, backed by music as their strength, are making film or television appearances to boost incomes. But most youngsters, as well as some established jazz musicians, are struggling to survive. I wouldn’t want to name names for you to have to believe me. Times are tough nowadays, both socially and economically.» Shepp did draw a line, however, between today’s jazz players and older figures. Contemporary performers, he asserted, are less gifted as composers. «If they were [as gifted], they wouldn’t keep opting to play Duke Ellington and other older figures. The repertoires of today’s younger musicians stretch back 40 years. These young kids definitely know how to play, but not how to write a melody as good as those of the jazz greats. They’re lacking in the generation of fresh ideas that can change music’s direction,» Shepp said. Since the year 1964, when Shepp released his first album, the music industry has changed dramatically. «Those with control in their hands nowadays are not the artists or composers, but the mass media giants and the critics,» Shepp noted. «Take jazz, for example, which was initiated by Afro-Americans. The only one left with power in this field is Quincy Jones. It’s like Spike Lee in film – he’s all alone.»  On politics Shepp admitted feeling disappointed by the contemporary era’s division between music and politics, unlike the turbulent ’60s. «We’re definitely not living in the era of the Black Panthers, or Malcolm X. Much has changed. Back then, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and numerous others wrote songs with political lyrics. The music was a response to social needs,» Shepp said. «Who can forget Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’? The problem is that, today, vision no longer exists to be expressed through music,» he added. Born and raised in New York City, Shepp was shocked by the September 11 attacks but said he felt understanding for the tragedy’s underlying message. Rather than attempt to comprehend the injustice of US foreign policy, Shepp argued, Americans have become more ethnocentric in their refusal to reconsider. «Lots of American Muslims and Arabs voted for Bush but now feel the racism on their skin,» said Shepp. The September 11 attacks have isolated Americans, made them more arrogant and self-centered, a position in which self-appraisal and objective thinking is impossible, Shepp contended during the interview. «They think that they have the right to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries and oust leaders of nations. Bush’s government is composed of born-again Christians, and they’re unbelievably conservative,» Shepp said. «I think that as more time goes by, many people in the USA and Europe are realizing Bush’s intentions and his faith in war and violence. It’s difficult, today, not to lose our trust in man and human moderation.» In spite of his age, Shepp has not lost the zeal of his youth for a world of greater justice. When he refers to Afro-Americans, Shepp calls them «my people.» The musician did not refrain from venting anger and frustration against President Bush’s administration. «Racism has not left us. Simply, instead of being directed against Afro-Americans, it is directed against all underprivileged classes,» declared Shepp. «Nowadays, racism is not just social, but economic. Do you know how many homeless and poor people exist in the USA? Black communities are crippled by drugs, violence, gangs, poverty, and lack of education. Today’s ghettos include not only blacks, but all races. All the poor people are trapped in there,» he added. Casting his mind back to his own days of deprivation, Shepp recalls turning to music for solace. «When I was a youngster, I saw music as a remedy, the only cure, and I followed where it led. Music is a natural thing for blacks. Celebration, song, and dance – it’s in our genes. When you’ve got nothing else left, and it’s all you can do, you celebrate to get through,» Shepp said. On the other hand, being Afro-American, Shepp said, inevitably puts the individual in an inferior social position, which, ultimately, makes ignoring politics impossible. «We can’t afford to be indifferent,» said Shepp. «Our future depends on how politically sensitized we are.»  (This interview was translated from the original Greek text.)

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