Archie Shepp Biography

24 May 1937, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA. Shepp was raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. While studying dramatic literature at college he began playing on various instruments including the alto saxophone. His first professional engagement was on clarinet and he later played tenor saxophone with R&B bands. Settling in New York he tried to find work as an actor but was obliged to make a living in music, playing in Latin bands. He also played jazz with Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon, Don Cherry, John Tchicai and others during the early 60s. With Cherry and Tchicai he was co-leader of the New York Contemporary Five. Shepp’s musically questing nature drew him into the orbit of John Coltrane, with whom he established a fruitful musical relationship. Through Coltrane, Shepp was introduced to Bob Thiele of Impulse! Records and began recording under his own name for the label.

Shepp’s collaborations with Coltrane included an appearance at the 1965 DownBeat Festival in Chicago. That same year he appeared at the Newport Festival and had a play staged in New York. Although closely associated with the free jazz movement of the 60s, Shepp’s music always included elements that were identifiably rooted in earlier forms of jazz and blues and he was very conscious of the importance of the music’s roots. In an article in DownBeat, he wrote of theavant garde, ‘It is not a movement, but a state of mind. It is a thorough denial of technological precision and a reaffirmation of das Volk.’

With his name and reputation established by 1965, Shepp embarked upon a period of successful tours and recordings. He was busily writing music and occasionally stage plays, many of which carried evidence of his political convictions and concern over civil rights issues. At the end of the 60s he played at the Pan African Festival in Algiers, recorded several albums during a brief stop-over in Paris, then returned to the USA, where he became deeply involved in education, teaching music and literature, and was eventually appointed an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts.

Over the next decade Shepp expanded his repertoire, incorporating aspects of jazz far removed from his earlier freeform preferences, amongst them R&B, rock, blues and bop. Some of his recordings from the late 70s and early 80s give an indication of his range: they include improvised duo albums with Max Roach, sets of spirituals and blues with Horace Parlan and tribute albums to Charlie Parker and Sidney Bechet. By the early 00s, Shepp had matured into an all-round jazz player, impossible to pigeonhole but capable of appealing to a wide audience through the heart and the mind.

Although he has added the soprano saxophone to his instrumental arsenal, Shepp still concentrates on tenor, playing with a richly passionate tone and developing commanding solos shot through with vigorous declamatory phrases that emphasize his dramatic approach.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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