Saxophonist Archie Shepp gained notoriety through his association with the "New Thing" in the 1960s and a string of blustery albums for the Impulse label. Since then he has mellowed down and developed an affinity for playing duos with pianists (Horace Parlan, Siegfried Kessler). The last time he was in Chicago was more than ten years ago for a performance with trumpeter Mark Isham at the Steppenwolf Theater and a recording session with Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio that produced Conversations (Delmark). Archie Shepp's only previous appearance at the Chicago Jazz Festival was in 1981. This time he will perform with pianist Willie Pickens, bassist Avery Sharpe, and drummer Ronnie Burrage.
JazzGram: Your set is supposed to be a tribute to Ben Webster, isn't it?
Archie Shepp: Yes, I hope to play some of the things that Ben Webster played over the years because he was one of my favorite saxophone players. Ben played with Duke Ellington and I really loved the way he played some of the great ballads Ellington wrote like "Chelsea Bridge."
JG: You are famous for the role you played in the 60s as a contributor to the "New Thing." Are you still proud of these recordings even if you are not playing that way any more?
AS: The best indicator is the fact that Impulse Records rereleased all those recordings. This means that they think there is some value to the music I played. My opinion is that I was serious. Everything I played I believed in. I presented my music very honestly.
JG: However, as your most recent recordings show, you're still outspoken about social and political issues and have embraced rap despite the generational gap.
AS: Je suis un parrain du rap [I am a godfather of rap]. I did the first rap recording on my album Mama Rose in 1966. And even before that, in 1964, when I wrote a poem to Malcolm X. Rap can be defined in different ways. Today, it is text that rhymes put to music that you can dance to. That's not the only kind of rap. The term rap when it is used in African-American parlance, and it's been around for a long time, it simply means to talk. When I say "I was rapping with that cat" it doesn't mean that I was doing a rap, it means that I was talking to someone. It's African-American patois. In fact, it has evolved in some kind of poetry set to music and I was one of the first, at least out of my own generation, to actually commit poems to music. So, I don't feel that I'm joining their generation, I feel that they're joining me.
JG: But are you interested in what current rappers are doing?
AS: Usually, when I listen to it, it's on the radio when I'm going somewhere. I don't have any rap records as a matter of fact except for the ones I did with Napoleon Maddox (Phat Jam in Milano) and Chuck D. (Gemini). In fact, sometimes I'm not engaged by the lyrics especially with what is called gangsta rap, which to me carries a message that is very powerful and also very tragic. Much of this rap coming from those kids in the streets really tells their story. Many of them have been to jail, have criminal records, and as far as their aspirations for the future they don't seem to be too bright. Much of their lyrics accord with the tragic lives of many especially black kids and hispanic youth are living today.
JG: You're going to perform in the city that produced the first African-American US President. Do you have any feelings about this?
AS: I'm hopeful for my country and the newly elected president. That he's a black man is important to me because it resolves some very deep historical problems that Americans have had to confront. And it brings us closer together as a people. But just because Barack Obama is a black man does not mean that I agree with everything he does. I voted for him but I didn't think he was going to be elected. In fact, I'm part of the generation of Jessie Jackson. I have had some problems with Barack, especially his foreign policy which I feel is somewhat misguided. What they're doing in the Swat Valley is a terrible and dangerous mistake. But he's doing the right thing as far as he sees. For that I appreciate and respect him very profoundly.
JG: Musicians such as Albert Ayler or Ornette Coleman have claimed that music is the healing force of the universe. Do you agree?
AS: Il ne faut pas exagérer [I wouldn't go that far] [laughs]. Music does help bring people together. We black people have a saying: Even though we cannot all talk together we can all sing together. Music fulfills that promise and makes it possible for us to find common grounds and common agreement even if it is esthetic. But, that esthetic process opens a door for verbal and ideological communication.
JG: For a few years you have had your own label. But at the difference from some musicians, you are not releasing a huge batch of records. Are you being more selective?
AS: That's rather a diplomatic way of putting it because the reason is that I don't have any money [laughs]. If I were in a better shape financially I would certainly like to produce a variety of different kinds of music and artists that I appreciate, not only so-called jazz musicians, but musicians who come from a diverse area of the music.
JG: Are you hoping to reach out an audience outside jazz circles through recordings like the one with Chuck D. or Napoleon Maddox?
AS: Apparently, because the so-called jazz audience is becoming more and more limited, partly because of the technology. The Internet is really replacing the record companies as a format for introducing songs and original music. At this point, I feel very much that recordings may not be the answer. Live performance is the answer. Madonna or the Rolling Stones nowadays are making their money more through performances and selling their CDs at gigs than they are at record stores.
JG: What keeps you going after such a long career?
AS: Need [laughs]. The fact that I have children and responsibilities. At this point, frankly, I would like to do less traveling. Recently, I've written music for films in France and I would like to do more of that kind of thing - an area of music which is less demanding and involves more compositions and recording. Traveling and performing is demanding and as you get older it is more and more demanding.