Fire Music: Jazz and Civil Rights

“… you must listen to me on my own terms. I will not let you misconstrue me. That era is over. If my music doesn’t suffice, I will write you a poem, a play. I will say to you in every instance: ‘Strike the ghetto! Let my people go!'” — Archie Shepp (taken from liner notes to The Magic of Juju, 1967)

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

Archie Shepp has long been a familiar artist in my collection. Before I knew him for his politically-charged poetry, plays and activism I knew him for his stirring brand of music on the Impulse! record label. He came into his own in the early-60s on various recordings on the Savoy and Delmark labels with forward-thinking jazz notables; Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, John Tchicai and Bill Dixon. His record contract at Impulse! in the mid-60s began a new era of self-discovery in support of the burgeoning New Thing movement, a school of jazz based on the inventions of mid-century, avant-garde musicians. His ten-year relationship with Impulse! would prove fruitful for both label and the socio-political climate of a very tumultuous decade.

Fire Music (1965) isn’t Shepp’s first recording for Impulse!, but it’s the first to showcase his unique talent as a composer, performer and poet, independent of John Coltrane. The album, as a whole, can be interpreted as part and parcel to the soundtrack of the Black Power movement of the era.

“There was a poem I did to Medgar Evers and to Malcom. It’s the same poem. I call it ‘To Medgar’… and sometimes I call it ‘To Malcom’, I may change it from Malcolm to somebody else—the next person they murder. It’s to Medgar. It’s to my people. That’s all.” —Archie Shepp (taken from liner notes to Live in San Francisco, 1966)

Shepp’s spoken-word poetry, referenced above, has always been a major draw for his albums and a good reason for repeated listenings. “Malcolm, Malcolm, Semper Malcolm” on <a href="http://Fire Music (1965), “Skag” on New Thing at Newport (1965) and “The Wedding” on Live in San Francisco (1966) are testaments to his writing ability, wit and political insightfulness.

Attica Blues (1972) was a watershed album for Shepp. Large ensembles and complex arrangements are centered around the title piece based on a deadly 1971 confrontation between rioting prisoners and police at Attica Correctional Facility in New York. In an effort to end the standoff, police gunned down 39 inmates and hostages and wounded several others.

To be sure, Archie Shepp was not the only performing artist of the 60s to address civil rights issues—far from it. But, to these ears, he was one jazz musician to consistently deliver an intelligent, entertaining and varied offering in different mediums over a span of several decades. And his message, even though he tackled different aspects of inequality such as drug addiction or violence, was always raw and honest. This approach may be less desirable in today’s homogenized circles, especially with major record labels, but it’s an approach that pushes the envelope and opens peoples’ minds—at times with a push rather than with a nudge.

As for Shepp’s instrumentals, he owed much to John Coltrane’s legacy at the onset of his career. A firebrand, especially to those new to the New Thing sound, Shepp was both volatile and versatile and proved it on just about everything he recorded for Impulse! From hard-edged avant-garde blowing sessions to bluesy funk to big band ensembles reminiscent of Charlie Mingus, it’s safe to say one wouldn’t get bored with his recording output. A couple favorites of mine are The Way Ahead (1969) and Kwanza (1969), both featuring Grachan Moncur III, trombonist, composer and longtime collaborator. Both albums offer infectious post-bop blues, angry blowing and genre-bending arrangements—all the while remaining firmly rooted in Black tradition with nods to both Africa and Ellington.

The Way Ahead (1969) is another eclectic offering from Shepp and company, showcasing avant-garde music bathed in Afrocentric blues, gospel and swing. This album also signals Shepp’s first time use of a piano in his ensemble, creating a more conventional configuration for an unconventional sound.

“It is my opinion that music born of the emotions will always seek to serve the highest level of legitimate ‘popular’ taste; and it is precisely that music which lasts, simply because it communicates something to people.” —Archie Shepp (taken from liner notes to Mama Too Tight, 1966)

With so many critically-acclaimed recordings, including many non-Impulse! sessions and concerts, Archie Shepp has secured his spot in jazz history and Black culture. During these difficult times it’s beneficial to look back at past accomplishments in the name of civil rights—there is a treasure to be unearthed for the uninitiated, full of anger, deservedly so, but also full of hope. And for those who are familiar with these recordings—don’t forget about them and let them languish. Don’t forget about the artists, the open-minded record executives and their supporters, the fans and most importantly the victims. And don’t forget the message and the rage that stoked these fires.

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Jazz Collecting: Artists & Labels

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

After suffering the impacts of the pandemic, namely unemployment and quarantine, I, like many others, have afforded myself some time. And time is definitely something one can use more of when collecting jazz. So, with this extra time at home I’ve been able to take stock of my personal collection. To be fair, it’s not one of those vast collections where you need a separate listening room or zip code to appreciate. It’s relatively modest but stocked with artists and labels that I believe merit repeated listening.

Like many other collectors, my entrée into Hard Bop was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers on Blue Note Records. My first jazz album purchase was “At the Cafe Bohemia – Volume One”. I have to confess, not knowing much about the genre at the time and being a designer, I chose it simply for its typographic cover—a decision I never regretted. Thank you, John Hermansader.

As for the actual recordings, I’m one of those collectors who, for the most part, sticks to certain labels for the bulk of his collection. ECM and Blue Note Records are great examples of this approach. Rule of thumb, if you find one or two artists you really enjoy on one label there’s a good chance you’ll find more—appreciation through chance discovery. Although with certain artists, Bill Evans for example, labels matter less. If you follow an artist throughout his or her career you’ll find that oftentimes they skip around—usually pursuing the best contract or more creative freedom.

A true visionary in every sense of the word, Miles Davis trailblazed the far reaches of jazz. His second great quintet, including Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, represents the quintessential modern jazz group in my book—conceptual, explorative and intelligent.

As with Bill Evans, you’ll find a fanbase that rallies around a particular period in the recording career of an artist. Take the distinguished career of Miles Davis, there are diehard fans of Miles’ first great quintet and their associated record label, Prestige. Others may gravitate toward Miles’ second great quintet on Columbia Records or his later electric outings on the same label. John Coltrane is another artist who produced many divided camps. He had a successful early solo career on Prestige and Blue Note, then moved to Atlantic with his first great quartet in the early-60s, and then Impulse! Records in the mid-60s which found him exploring more avant-garde avenues with personnel that would prove to be in flux.

The often imitated Bill Evans has made his way back into my collection for over twenty years. One can easily hear echoes of Evans in the works of many contemporary artists. His years on the Riverside label with his first trio are still one of my favorite periods of his—romantic, subtle and introspective. If you’re not already familiar with Evans, try spinning a couple of his critically-acclaimed albums, “Portrait in Jazz” (1960) and “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” (1961).

If you’re a completist, like myself, you’ll collect from every recording period of a favorite artist—oftentimes picking and choosing particular albums based on year recorded, personnel or audio fidelity. Bill Evans, one of my perennial favorites, definitely falls into the multi-period, multi-label category. His first trio on the Riverside label, featuring Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums, defined the gold standard for jazz trios. A deft and cohesive unit famous for anticipating each others’ actions. After the untimely death of bassist, Scott LaFaro (one of my personal jazz heroes), Bill Evans began to move around with solo and trio stints on Verve, Blue Note, Fantasy and Warner. There are hardcore first trio fans who only swear by the early Riverside recordings as a measure of Bill Evans’ improvisational genius. As for myself, I can appreciate all his outings, be it solo, trio or third stream. If you find an artist who really hits a chord you’ll follow him or her anywhere.

If you’re a completist, like myself, you’ll collect from every recording period of a favorite artist—oftentimes picking and choosing particular albums based on year recorded, personnel or audio fidelity.

Keith Jarrett, a virtuoso pianist with an uncanny ability to improvise lengthy solo concerts, gained his global following on the ECM label. Although he led groundbreaking groups, including his long-lived trio, he became best known for his solo output. His massive “Sun Bear Concerts” 1978 box set, showcasing over six-and-a-half hours of very personal music, is an achievement hard to be matched by any performing artist, past or present.

By following an artist from one label to another one can also experience the creative growth an artist achieves. Some Coltrane fans lament his move to Impulse! Records as it would eventually showcase his interest in spiritualism and the avant-garde which, regrettably, shed some of his followers who were only interested in his modal music. Another artist who would truly come into his own because of his association with a particular label is Keith Jarrett. His early career as sideman to jazz masters Art Blakey, Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis on various labels would eventually jettison him to a famed solo career starting at Atlantic Records in the late-60s. But it wasn’t till his move to ECM in 1971, for an astonishing 49-year partnership, where he would flourish and rise to international fame with unprecedented live solo recordings such as Solo Concerts: Bremen and Lausanne (1973), The Köln Concert (1975), The Sun Bear Concerts (1976/78), and Concerts: Bregenz/München (1982).

So, be it artist-centric or label-centric, starting and maintaining a jazz collection will always prove fruitful, especially if the listener devotes time to enjoy the fruits.

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