In this third installment of February's blog series on African-American Free Jazz Elders, we offer The Way Ahead, a great piece of music making by the brilliant and outspoken tenor saxophonist and poet, Archie Shepp.
Comedian Bill Cosby was acquainted with Shepp at Philadelphia's German Town High School. I was astonished to read this in my Boy's Life magazine from March of 1967, mainly because Archie Shepp's name was not on too many radar screens outside the realm of jazz. In his article, "High School was a Load of Laughs," Cosby gives us an unusual detail of Shepp's sartorial choice.
"Archie never wore white sweat sox in the gym," wrote Cosby. "He always wore long black stockings to his kneecaps, with garters to hold them up."
Perhaps this is irrelevant to our discussion, but originality and eccentricity often go hand in hand (think Dizzy Gillespie in high school band playing his trumpet to the back wall while standing on his chair), and the bold choices Shepp makes show he is not overly worried with what others think.
Committed to the cause of justice for Black Americans, Shepp also delved into many iterations of Black musical expression, including African, New Orleans jazz, rhythm and blues, and especially the fierce gutteral style that caught the interest of John Coltrane. He supplied the wall-to-wall music for Amiri Baraka's (LeRoi Jones') provocative play, Slave Ship at Brooklyn's Chelsea Theatre, for which director Gilbert Moses won an Obie Award. Even folk blues icon Taj Mahal has pointed to the saxophonist as a major inspiratrion.
The Way Ahead sports a slow blues, an Ellington classic (Sophisticated Lady), and two pieces firmly in the "new thing" of the sixties.
The blues, Damn if I Know (The Stroller) can be heard above. Shepp's innovation to the art is evident in his thoroughly orginal timing; he creates suspense, beginning with just fingering and breath, and disciplined silences, choosing when to punch out a 3-note jab with the skill of a Muhammad Ali. The musical architecture eventually becomes a massive structure before cooling off to an end. Despite a short, raucous start, Shepp's reading of Sophisticated Lady swells with palpable love for the Duke Ellington/Irving Mills ballad. The composition suffers not at all at the hands of an avant garde master. On the contrary, Shepp reveals new depths of beauty to the standard:
Mostly forgotten in America these days, Shepp continues to play in France. His contribution to the mercurial art form known as jazz is not to be underestimated.