Born Archie Vernon Shepp on May 24, 1937, in Fort Lauderdale, FL; married, 1959. Education: Bachelor's degree in drama from Goddard College, Plainfield, VT, 1959; further studies at Hunter College and New School for Social Research, New York City. Addresses: Office--W.E.B. DuBois Department of African-American Studies, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Amherst, MA 01003. Website--Archie Shepp Official Website:

Although his style is wildly diverse, saxophonist Archie Shepp is best known as a pioneer of free jazz, a branch of the musical form originating in the late 1950s that centered around such concepts as collective improvisation, dissonance, layered sound, fragmented melody, and unorthodox rhythms. Shepp, who is also a playwright, critic, composer, and teacher, is equally known for his outspoken political views, especially with regard to race, which came to the fore both in interviews and on such albums as Poem for Malcolm, Attica Blues, and Cry of My People. While always highly regarded by critics, Shepp has never gained popular success and has attributed his lack of mainstream appeal to both his political candor and his refusal to bow to the demands of the music industry or funding bodies which, for example, often required that written scores accompany grant proposals.

Shepp was born on May 24, 1937, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but spent most of his youth in Philadelphia, where he attended Germantown High School. He credits his parents as his earliest musical influences--his father played banjo and his mother sang, exposing him to the music of jazz masters like Duke Ellington, Oscar Pettiford, Ben Webster, and Illinois Jacquet. The Shepps also enrolled their son in music lessons, where he learned to play both piano and clarinet. While still a teenager, his aunt and grandmother bought him an alto saxophone; he has been playing the instrument ever since.

Although Shepp played with various dance bands while still in high school, he eventually majored in drama at Vermont's Goddard College, to which he received a scholarship. He was introduced to New York City's jazz scene while spending a semester with an aunt in Harlem. He returned to New York after graduating from Goddard in 1959, and he married his wife, a Goddard classmate, that same year. He worked briefly as a teacher in the public schools, then wrote plays and collected welfare. His June Bug Graduates Tonight was performed at the Chelsea Theater. (Originally titled The Communist, it was renamed to avoid alienating potential audiences.) Three of his one-act plays were performed at the prestigious Public Theatre.

When his wife became pregnant, Shepp began playing gigs to supplement his small income. Influenced by John Coltrane, he switched to the tenor saxophone. Through a musician he met during jam sessions at jazz club Café Wha?, Shepp met avant-garde jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, who became one of his greatest influences. "When I met Cecil Taylor it was a complete transformation of musical identities," he told Scott Cashman in an interview for SPIT: A Journal of the Arts, published on Shepp's official website. "All the tenets that I had grown up with were thrown out the window." Taylor's teachings were not limited to music. "I was impressed by the enormity of his intellect," Shepp told Cashman. "His complete sense of freedom, unfettered in the sense that there were no set parameters or boundaries. I was right on the frontier, on the cutting edge of music with him."

Called John Coltrane a "Mentor"

Equally profound was Coltrane's influence, which Shepp credits with bringing up a generation of jazz artists. "Trane is the guy that created us, in a way. He believed in us. He was our mentor," he told Cashman. The influence was enduring. "John has always been a great experience for me," he said in a 1982 issue of Down Beat. "Now, I listen to his music constantly, and study it as one would the works of Beethoven or Bach."

Shepp played in Taylor's quartet from 1960 until 1962, when he released Archie Shepp-Bill Dixon Quartet with trumpeter Bill Dixon on Savoy Records. The following year Shepp formed the short-lived New York Contemporary Five with cornetist Don Cherry, alto saxophonist John Tchicai, bassist Don Moore, and drummer J.C. Moses. The group released a critically acclaimed self-titled debut. Shepp began to draw greater notice after the quintet dissolved and he struck out on his own, releasing 1964's Archie Shepp and Four for Trane, 1965's Fire Music, Further Fire Music, and On This Night. He also played on Coltrane's 1965 release Ascension.

Fire Music offered a taste of Shepp's growing concern with politics and race, featuring the poetry-infused track "Malcolm, Malcolm--Semper Malcolm," a tribute to the slain Malcolm X, which Gary Giddings in The Black Composer Speaks called "almost certainly the best poetry-and-jazz side ever made." Shepp elaborated, explaining, "In terms of my own social-political being, I've tried for example to include poetry as an adjunct to the music because I feel that at some point we have to be more specific in addressing ourselves to a racist society."

Created Single Style from Many Influences

Shepp's vast influences and singular style drew widespread critical notice. "Quite a few people hear 'a new-wave Ben Webster,'" wrote LeRoi Jones in a 1965 issue of Down Beat. "Others hear a strong Sonny Rollins influence; still others hear Coltrane's presence in the Shepp approach to the tenor saxophone. But it seems certain that what these listeners really hear is a musician whose emotional registrations are so broad that he is able to make reference to anybody's 'style,' even though finally all the ideas and images that make up his playing are completely his own.... In listening to Shepp, the only real influence one can discern is 'everything.'"

Shepp began to reveal what would become a long-standing interest in African sounds as early as 1966's Mama Too Tight and 1967's Magic of Ju-Ju, with a title track that is "one of Shepp's most chaotic yet rhythmically hypnotic pieces," according to All Music Guide's Al Campbell. With 1968's Way Ahead, avant-garde stylings began to give way to more traditional sounds of black America--gospel, spirituals, and deep blues. By the 1970s, Shepp was mixing such sounds, backed by large ensembles including vocalists, with overt political statements, a combination presented most enduringly on 1972's Attica Blues. All Music Guide's Steve Huey called this album, the title of which refers to an uprising at New York's Attica Prison in which 43 inmates and hostages were killed, "one of Archie Shepp's most significant post-'60s statements." Shepp continued his "trans-African" approach on Cry of My People, also released in 1972.

In 1977 at the request of his producer at Steeple Chase Records, Shepp recorded an album of spirituals with pianist Horace Parlan called Goin' Home. The experience was an emotional one. "This was the first chance I'd had to really record spirituals, to make any kind of serious statement about them. And when I started to play, at first I filled up with so much crying. And I was afraid for a moment I wouldn't be able to make the recording, because I felt so full, so full of tears," he told Down Beat in 1982. "I felt I represented everybody who'd ever sang those songs, and to make the meaning of those songs clear was up to me at that point."

A second Steeple Chase project with Parlan, the blues-influenced Trouble in Mind, was voted 1980 Record of the Year in Down Beat's annual international critics poll. Shepp continued to move toward the more straight-ahead fare foreshadowed by albums like Attica during the 1980s and 1990s in an attempt to bridge what he saw as a growing gap between him and the music-listening public. As early as 1982, he had remarked in Down Beat, "I felt a need in myself to develop a musical approach that could at least prepare some meeting ground between people who make music and people who listen to music because the music we were playing in the 1960s had run its course in terms of its audience." Shepp was even more candid about his style change in his inteview with SPIT's Cashman: "Today when I play what they call 'outside,' that is, in the avant-garde style, I get a real feeling from that. I play less and less that way because it's not commercially viable."

Continuing Political Outspokenness

Shepp has long been equally outspoken about the marginalization of avant-garde and African American artists. In the 1970s, with several other musicians, he staged a "play-in" at the Guggenheim Foundation after being denied a grant; the following year, the foundation added legendary African American avant-garde saxophonist Ornette Coleman to its board. Shepp has said he believes his widely publicized views have affected on his career. "By a musician being too outspoken, he can get himself blacklisted (no pun intended)," he said in The Black Composer Speaks. "It's a fact that some of the things I've said in print have already been used against me.... It's a slave society, and anyone who has been outspoken will certainly find that he can't find a job."

Since the 1970s Shepp has supplemented his musician's income with academic positions, first at the State University of New York, Buffalo, and then at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Still recording and performing into the 2000s, his style is still evolving, as evidenced by albums like 2002's Hungarian Bebop, an Eastern European-influenced collaboration with Hungarian saxophonist Milhaly Dresch.

As for his avant-garde roots, Shepp has said that the music, however controversial, maintained the power to move audiences, one way or another. "As much as they may criticize us for what we did back in the '60s, you can't say the music was dull (laughs)," he told Cashman. "You know, people would comment, 'That guy's crazy, my two-year-old kid could play that.' But they were moved passionately either for or against it."

by Kristin Palm

Archie Shepp's Career

Member of Cecil Taylor's quartet, 1960-62; coleader, Archie Shepp-Bill Dixon Quartet, 1962-63; member of New York Contemporary Five, 1963-64; released first album as a bandleader, Archie Shepp, 1964; various full-length and short-plays, including Junebug Graduates Tonight, performed by the Chelsea Theater, 1965; Lady Day: A Musical Tragedy written with trumpeter/composer Cal Massey, 1972; professor, State University of New York, Buffalo, 1969-74; professor, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1974-.

Archie Shepp's Awards

New England Foundation for the Arts Achievement in Music Award, 1995.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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