Archie Shepp

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Archie Shepp stands now as a totemic figure from an era in jazz history notable for its spirit of rebellion, its allegiances with the black power of the 1960s and a belief that music is part of a bigger social and political struggle. The saxophonist, in his first major interview for Jazzwise, talks to Kevin Le Gendre about the era in which he grew up, the issues he cares most for, and how he feels "the more that we’re oppressed, the more we feel the need to assert ourselves."  In the 1950s, Philadelphia was gang-ridden. Some slums were extremely dangerous and bloody street battles were commonplace. The Mincer family, inhabiting a tough ghetto of the ironically named "city of brotherly love," was caught up in that culture of brutality.
Johnny, the eldest of several children, had a fearsome reputation. His younger brother Robert was known to be a more gentle soul. The cousin of Archie Shepp, he bore the nickname Steam.

And that moniker became the title of one of the saxophonist’s most poignant compositions, a sober waltz telling the story of the untimely death of his relative. Steam was 15 years old when gang violence claimed his life.

" That night they all went outside into the street and started fighting," Shepp says softly. "Steam was in the middle of this. Someone had stabbed him and he bled to death right in the gutter on the street. It was a shock to me… he was just a boy, a young man."
Shepp recorded ‘Steam’ over 30 years ago. But when he performed the piece at last year’s London Jazz Festival it struck a hauntingly topical note. The point seemed to be that senseless tragedy is still prevalent in many avenues of modern life, be it riots in the suburbs of Paris or murders in the parks of Liverpool.

" You can find a number of parallels," Shepp expands. "The Crips today; what’s happening in France; there are many examples that lend relevance to a song like that... that make it a propos, meaningful to our time.

Shepp pauses very briefly to reflect. "I think we can draw other parallels… the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, this senseless loss of particularly young life in causes that I think are vague and lead nowhere.

" I’m not just talking about Muslims, I’m talking about young Christian Americans going to war thinking they’re doing the right thing when in fact the results are at best questionable."
Of course Archie Shepp has not held back his views on socio-political issues since his early sessions as a leader. His 1965 set Fire Music contained ‘Malcolm, Malcolm Semper Malcolm’, a vivid tribute to civil rights icon Malcolm X that stood as nothing less than a cry of resistance to iniquity in American society.