Archie Shepp: The great champion of transmission

Archie Shepp and Jason Moran

Let My People Go: a truly symbolic title… It is the refrain from the most famous Negro spiritual, ‘Go Down Moses’, dating from the days of slavery, and in 1853 it was the first one to be edited as sheet music, ten years before Abolition in the United States. Massively evangelized in the 19th century, the African slaves quickly identified with the Hebrews who, according to the biblical legends they were taught, had rebelled thanks to their faith and had fled from Egypt where they had been enslaved. Other ancient spirituals are more like laments, such as ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’ (another song on the album), but in a condition of servitude a lament is not far from a revolt. These two songs became world-famous in the 1920’s, thanks to the great singer/actor Paul Robeson, a champion of the civil rights struggle, and then later to the phenomenal success of the magnificent 1958 album by Louis Armstrong, ‘Louis and The Good Book.’ I was six years old, it was a Christmas present, my very first ‘jazz’ album… When Shepp sings these spirituals so sorrowfully with his rusty old baritone voice, he seems to be assuming the role of the ideal successor to Robeson and Armstrong. But it is obviously not so simple… My first encounter with Mister Shepp was unforgettable. It was in the fall of 1975 at the Fnac-Châtelet (a large record store in Paris), where I was a sales clerk in the jazz section. I didn’t immediately recognize, from behind, this tall, imposing, elegant and somewhat stiff man who was busily searching through the bins. Photos taken at the Pan-African Festival in Algiers in 1969, where he had been the unofficial music embassador of the Black Panthers, companion of Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael, showed him in magazines wearing a djellaba and an embroidered bonnet… And here he was in Paris dressed in traditional hat-suit-tie attire (and which he continues to wear to this day). Archie was looking – for the record library of the University of Massachussetts where he was teaching – for an extraordinary document on the prehistory of jazz: the hilarious interview of Jelly Roll Morton by Alan Lomax. The pioneering genius from New Orleans, sitting at his piano, explains for nine hours how he ‘invented jass’. Impossible to find in the USA, I had a rare English edition of the LP box set in stock… I was quite proud to offer it to Archie. And so our first encounter was made through our shared passion for the sources of ‘jazz’. To thank me, Archie gave me an invitation to his concert at the Massy Jazz Festival. And this is how I saw Shepp on stage for the first time. What a shock! We were all stunned, the way our parents had been when they had witnessed Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band in concert. …”
Pan-African-Music (Video)
“I’m Constantly Striving”: Archie Shepp in Conversation
Music for a Revolution: A Word with Jazz Great Archie Shepp
Best Archie Shepp Tracks: 20 Essentials From The Jazz Firebrand (Video)
W – Archie Shepp, W – Archie Shepp discography

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