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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