Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Saxophonist Archie Shepp’s bracing, ambitious solos cement his reputation as a leading light of the jazz avant-garde. He is a complex artist who broke new ground for jazz in the theater and the university, and has worked with everyone from John Coltrane to Chuck D.
Shepp was born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on May 24, 1937. He plays tenor and soprano saxophones, piano, sings, and is a composer, educator, and playwright.
Shepp lived in Fort Lauderdale until he was about seven years old, at which time his family moved to the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. There, he started to learn the clarinet, and took up the tenor saxophone at fifteen years of age. Shepp’s father played the banjo, and had played in a group in Florida led by fellow banjoist Hartley Toots.
While at Germantown High School, Shepp frequented a place called the Jazz Workshop, where he found himself in the company of musicians like Henry Grimes, Bobby Timmons, Ted Curson and Lee Morgan. Shepp’s influences during this period included Stan Getz and Dave Brubeck.
The Workshop hosted gigs by artists including Chet Baker and Russ Freeman, and Shepp saw Charlie Parker perform around this time. Shepp also played in an R&B band with Morgan at this time, called Carl Rogers and His Jolly Stompers.
Shepp attended Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont from 1955 to 1959, on a full scholarship. He majored in dramatic literature and focused less on music than he had in high school.
After graduating from Goddard, Shepp moved to Manhattan, still unsure if he would focus his energies on music or the theater. He met saxophonist John Coltrane at The Five Spot café, and after a brief stint as a rock and roll musician in Florida, he returned to New York City, where he met bassist Buell Neidlinger at the Café Wha? Neidlinger in turn introduced Shepp to pianist Cecil Taylor.
In 1960, Shepp made his recording debut on Taylor’s The World of Cecil Taylor album, and played well on “Lazy Afternoon.”
Shepp also performed the music for a play, Jack Gelber’s The Connection, with Taylor and gigged as part of the pianist’s group at the Five Spot. Shepp was let go after a week as, by his own admission, he was not ready to play Taylor’s music.
Shepp co-led his first date in 1962 with trumpeter Bill Dixon, and in 1963 he formed the New York Contemporary Five with alto saxophonist John Tchicai, trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Don Moore and drummer J. C. Moses. This group disbanded in 1965.
In 1964, on Coltrane’s recommendation, Shepp was invited to record as a leader for Bob Thiele’s Impulse! label. With 1964’s Four for Trane, a five-song LP that included four compositions by his mentor (“Syeeda’s Song Flute,” “Mr. Syms,” “Cousin Mary” and “Naima”), Shepp began an eight-year association with the label that resulted in twelve albums as a leader, including 1965’s Fire Music, featuring tunes like “Hambone,” and the 1966 album Mama Too Tight,which features a strong title track.
In December of 1966, alto saxophonist Marion Brown recorded Three For Shepp as a leader for Impulse!, with three compositions by Shepp: “Spooks,” “West India,” and “Delicado.”
Shepp was present at the recording sessions for Coltrane’s A Love Supreme in 1964, and can be heard on two takes of “Acknowledgement,” neither of which made it to the album’s final release. These takes can be heard on the two-CD A Love Supreme: Deluxe Edition, released in 2002.
In 1965, Shepp took part in Coltrane’s Ascension sessions. He can be heard on both takes of the tune, featuring Coltrane’s regular quartet plus an additional seven musicians, including Brown and Tchicai.
Also in 1965, Impulse! released an LP entitled New Thing at Newport, featuring portions from both Shepp’s and Coltrane’s sets at the Newport festival that year. At the festival, Shepp’s group included drummer Joe Chambers, Barre Phillips on bass and Bobby Hutcherson on vibes. They were introduced by Dr. Billy Taylor.
In October of that year, New York’s Chelsea Theater Center presented one of Shepp’s plays, Junebug Graduates Tonight! The production, billed as “a jazz allegory with music and lyrics,” ran for two weeks and was directed by Robert Kalfin, with live accompaniment by pianist Stanley Cowell, bassist Teddy Smith and drummer Sunny Murray. The play ran again from February 20 to March 3, 1967, at the same theater.
In April, 1969, Shepp brought a group featuring bassist Henry Grimes to the Both/And Club in San Francisco, the same club where Shepp recorded his Live in San Francisco album in 1966. This was one of Grimes’ last appearances before he retired from the public eye for more than thirty years.
From 1969 to 1971, Shepp served on the faculty at the State University of New York in Buffalo. His titles there included Musical Coordinator, lecturer, and Black Studies Director. In 1971, Shepp was hired by Fred Tillis to teach, along with drummer Max Roach, at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Shepp taught two courses each year at UMass until he retired from the university in 2001.
Shepp’s first course, “Revolutionary Concepts in African-American Music,” explored the history of jazz, which he prefers to call “African-American instrumental music,” since the music was created by African-Americans.
His second course, “Black Musician in the Theater,” focused on music performance: students learned to play tunes like Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time” and Thelonious Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser.” Marion Brown sometimes subbed for Shepp when he was unable to make his classes.
Reggie Workman and Shepp co-led a student improvisation workshop during the bassist’s two years at the university, from 1972 to 1974.
Shepp gigged less while at UMass, but at no time did he scale back his recording. Between 1971 and 2001, Shepp recorded nearly 50 albums as a leader or co-leader, for labels including Soul Note, SteepleChase, Arista and Black Saint.
Notable discs from this period include 1975’s There’s A Trumpet In My Soul and Steam, recorded in 1976. Also during this time, Shepp made a number of duo recordings, with Max Roach, Dollar Brand and Horace Parlan, and released a quartet date recorded live in Tokyo. He also appeared as a sideman during this period with Johnny Copeland, Material, Art Matthews, drummer Stephen McCraven and the Siegfried Kessler Trio.
Shepp still lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, but spends much of his time performing abroad. In 2001, he released Live in New York with trombonist Roswell Rudd, on Verve Records. In 2007, he released Gemini with pianist Amina Claudine Myers and rapper Chuck D on his own Archie Ball label.
1964 – Four For Trane – Impulse!
1965 – Fire Music – Impulse!
1965 – New Thing At Newport – Impulse!
1966 – Mama Too Tight – Impulse!
1972 – Attica Blues – Impulse!
1975 – There’s A Trumpet In My Soul – Freedom
1976 – Steam – Enja
2001 – Live In New York – Verve
2007 – Gemini – Archie Ball
Artist Contact Information:
Monette Berthomier, Director of Archie Ball Records
Contributor: Brad Farberman