Archie Shepp - "It was a challenge for every musician to play with Trane"

Archie Shepp was a close friend and intensively supported companion of the style-defining saxophonist John Coltrane and is now considered an icon of free jazz himself. In a celebrated world premiere, he put together an all-star tribute ensemble for the Enjoy Jazz Festival 2016 in honor of his mentor, which included another member of Coltrane's band, the almost 80-year-old Reggie Workman. This evening was not the only impressive proof that there is hardly anyone better suited to keeping Coltrane's legacy alive on stage with such credibility than Archie Shepp.

Shepp was not only involved in the recording of the two most important Coltrane records, "A Love Supreme" and "Ascension". His solo debut "Four For Trane", now a classic in its own right, contains four outstanding arrangements of Coltrane compositions. Shepp is also, alongside Yusef Lateef, who died in 2013, one of the outstanding intellectuals of the Black community of the past 50 years. As an activist, musician and long-time professor of African-American studies, he has had a significant influence on generations of black jazz musicians in particular. The impressive breadth of his horizons is not only evident in his music, but also in a no less inspiring conversation in which he effortlessly spans an arc from major world politics to John Coltrane's socks.

We spoke to Archie Shepp at Enjoy Jazz 2016, shortly after Donald Trump's election as president.

If I may say so, you seem to me to have become more and more relaxed in recent years, even though the social situation in your home country, the USA, seems to be getting worse for the Black community and you have fought many frustrating battles, especially in terms of civil rights.

AS: The explanation is quite simple: because my grandmother and my parents gave me respect for people. But also a sensitivity to disrespect, especially racist disrespect, poverty and ignorance. But if you can change anything at all for the better, then the way is definitely through a debate based on a fundamental respect for people and the human condition. But I admit that I still often find it very difficult to hold back my anger and disappointment. My sense of justice is sometimes simply stronger.

As a musician, but also as a professor of African-American studies, you have dealt intensively with the conditions of human coexistence. In doing so, you have repeatedly come across the general topic of education. Against this background, have you found a solution for how we could prevent Western societies in particular from drifting apart or even breaking apart?

AS: This is a difficult issue. Just take the presidential elections in the United States. The switch to Obama was a huge step at the time. The white working class in particular, but also parts of the white middle class, never accepted him. He also failed to win over these people later on. In fact, it has to be said that the racial divide within society widened during Obama's time in office. Put simply, the hopes of putting money into new jobs for these disadvantaged people have been dashed. In fact, the Obama administration has mainly invested it in maintaining the banking system. For those who were already skeptical of him, nothing ultimately came of it. In addition, of course, he always had to govern against the Republican majority in Congress, which extremely limited his room for maneuver. Even such obviously important innovations as Obama Care met with fierce resistance, especially on the right-wing political fringe. However, Obama failed above all because of his jobs and education policy. A disastrous spiral continued under Obama. In short: the poor got poorer, the rich got richer. The

Donald Trump's electoral success is primarily based on the fact that many people, especially the white population, consider the liberal experiment with a black president to have failed and did not want to take another supposed risk, namely electing the first female president. The consequences of this failure are dramatic, namely that our society is more reactionary and conservative than ever before. Against this problematic background, Hillary Clinton would have been better off not being nominated. Because it was already clear that a very important pillar of the electorate, namely white men, would not support her. Her standing in this group is worse than Obama's ever was. The basic problem behind this already reflects our history: black men were given the right to vote in 1865, white women only in 1920. So you could say: historically and politically speaking, white men in the

USA are more afraid of their own women than of black men.

On the occasion of John Coltrane's 90th birthday, they played a brilliant AII star tribute concert at the Enjoy Jazz Festival in Germany. They knew Coltrane very well. In contrast to him, the spiritual do-gooder, you are more of a socio-political activist. Or did his spirituality also have a significant political aspect?

AS: But of course she had. Absolutely. You can't separate the two at all. He came from a very religious background and so turning to spirituality as an attitude was a logical consequence for him. But as someone who came from the deepest American South, he also experienced racism, rejection and hostility on many occasions. Both experiences were always present in his life, the social and political, but also the religious, the feeling of belonging to a community, the shareability of its values. Both were condensed in his special kind of spirituality, also musically. In a way, it set him free. He also trusted that churches could be a good place to initiate political and social change. And the church really was a driving force in the civil rights movement.

They were part of the session band during the "A Love Supreme" recordings, even though the tracks with them were not included on the original album, but were added later. 

AS: It was a challenge for any musician to play with Trane. Because he was incredibly disciplined. His music didn't come out of nowhere. His inspiration had a story. He practiced incredibly hard for it. He really fought for the liberation of his sound, wrested it from his life. He had enormous respect for people like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. He appreciated the freedom that lay in their music. And with Albert in particular, there was always an enormous spirituality in the music. That made a great impression on John and certainly gave him an idea that it was possible for him to create music that truly represented him as a person and musician, that truly represented him in his striving for humanity and freedom. Especially as a comparatively young musician, it was therefore very important for him to see the means by which others expand their sound in order to express themselves in their music.

Coltrane then got you your first record deal with Impulse, so to speak. The first album "Four For Trane" was an immediate success.

AS: Did you know that before John recommended me to Bob Thiele [music producer and director of Impulse], I had already played for him? Unfortunately, it turned out that Thiele didn't like my music very much! It was too free for him. When John had made a strong case for me, Thiele asked if I could record an album of Coltrane compositions for him first. I think he was very surprised that I agreed. Back then, everyone wanted to record their own material. Cover versions were rather unpopular among musicians in those days. But I had just arranged some of John's songs for my band anyway. So it was a perfect fit. And then, right at the beginning of the Coltrane recordings, Thiele changed his mind about my music. Suddenly he thought everything was great, he was totally enthusiastic. He then called Trane at home in Long Island directly from the studio in New Jersey and raved to him that the recordings were terrific and that he absolutely had to listen to them. It was late at night and John, who was a very generous and helpful person all his life, immediately made his way to the studio. He was in such a hurry that he didn't even put his socks on. The producer then came up with the idea of calling the recordings "Four For Trane" because four of the five songs were by John. The fifth one was mine. Thiele didn't like it very much, by the way. But John, who had arrived in the meantime, said he really liked the number and that was enough to get it on the record in the end! We then took the photo for the cover, which shows John and me. And if you've always wondered why Trane is wearing shoes but no socks, now you know.


Photo: Manfred Rinderspacher