It was July 1969, a few weeks before Woodstock. Men had just landed on the moon. After 132 years of French colonialism, Algeria was independent, and 1 million settlers had left the country. It was a time of revolutionary optimism, and the music of Archie Shepp fit the mood.
The Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algiers drew artists, musicians and intellectuals from dozens of countries in Africa to Algeria. Nina Simone, Oscar Peterson, Miriam Makeba, Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver were there, too.
“I remember we all kissed the ground,” Shepp told me last fall at his home in the Parisian banlieue of Ivry-sur-Seine, where his wife and manager, Monette, served me tea. “Even though it was North Africa, for us it was Africa.”
“Everyone was out in the streets, even the veiled women,” says Elaine Mokhtefi, who helped organize the festival. “We would never have thought it would be so brilliant. Algiers has never seen anything like it since.”
But Shepp stood out. His performance, which unfolded at the festival’s climactic conclusion, merged his lyrical, squawking free jazz inventions alongside traditional Saharan sounds of indigenous Touareg musicians. The collaboration, which was Shepp’s idea, left quite a mark on the Algerian people, says Mokhtefi, who helped invite him to the festival. Contrary to other Americans at the festival, Shepp was very much at ease.
“Just look at him!” says Mokhtefi, 90, who now lives in Manhattan. We are seated before a desktop computer in her kitchen, watching clips from the festival on YouTube. Shepp paces back across the stage in a caftan, wild and emotional, his saxophone and his presence soaring.
Mokhtefi hasn’t seen Shepp since her days in Algeria, but she’ll travel to Washington to catch him once more on Sunday, when the legendary tenor saxophonist headlines a tribute to his former mentor John Coltrane at the Kennedy Center. (Shepp appeared on Coltrane’s “Ascension” and recorded on sessions for “A Love Supreme,” two of Coltrane’s late-career masterpieces.) There, he will share the stage with Kennedy Center Jazz Artistic Director Jason Moran, who first discovered Shepp’s album “Fire Music” while still in college. Although, at first, Moran didn’t know what to make of an album that contained such a wide range of pieces, he came to appreciate the breadth of Shepp’s career and vision as a model for his own.
“Archie has spent his life examining the tight relationship between America and the sounds it produces. He has followed the music around the world, continually looking for the intersections of struggle that informs his music,” Moran wrote in an email. “He finds meeting places in the music, which breeds profound conversations from the musicians he performs with.”
Shepp has maintained a residence in Paris for years, though he distances himself from the term expatriate. “I am a proud American — I never left,” he said.
At 81, he is one of a small number of jazz musicians over the age of 80 still gigging — a group that includes Benny Golson, Ron Carter, Roy Haynes and Ahmad Jamal, among others. Shepp splits his time between Paris and Massachusetts (he taught at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for 30 years). In Europe, he is treated as a living legend, performing sold-out shows and getting stopped in the streets, said Stephen McCraven, who has played drums in Archie’s quartet for more than three decades. That’s not the case back home. “I know I’m not that famous,” Shepp said.
His influence is unquestioned, though. He’s almost certainly best known as a Coltrane protege, someone on the vanguard of free jazz who was part of Cecil Taylor’s group and helped found the New York Contemporary Five and the Jazz Composer’s Guild. Shepp is also the architect of some of the most potent musical political statements of the 20th-century (Monette later emailed me the file the FBI kept on him), perhaps most crucially on the album “Attica Blues,” which memorialized the Attica prison riots.
He also rightly belongs in any discussion of rap’s godfathers; along with the Last Poets and his former neighbor LeRoi Jones, he was involved in the earliest efforts to set spoken word to drums and bass with songs such as “Malcolm, Malcolm, Semper Malcolm,” all the way back in 1965. He did a project with Chuck D. He has authored tracks of epic, anomalous beauty such as “Mama Rose,” a stirring, free spoken-word track recorded over minimal deep synth, live in concert in West Germany in 1982.
His speech may have slowed with age, but his passion for politics hasn’t waned in the slightest. “It’s as if we became too relaxed with the freedoms we had fought so hard for,” said Shepp, who also denounced voter suppression in Georgia, the treatment of minorities and the poor, and the state of public education in the United States. “We went to prison, some died. And now with the current president, it is astounding we have lost so much ground. It is as if we’ve gone back further. I know I am not that well known, but I can use the little clout I have to change people’s minds.”
His revolutionary music lives on in Algerian culture, in the cinema of the country’s most prominent filmmaker, Tariq Teguia (whose film “Rome Rather Than You” draws upon Shepp’s “Live at the Pan-African Festival” album for its soundtrack) and the work of Franco-Algerian rapper Rocé, who made an album with Shepp in 2006.
Over the phone from France, Rocé told me that he decided to work with Shepp because of his philosophical engagement with questions of identity, questions that were strikingly relevant to present-day France. "In France, the government wanted to tell us that we couldn't choose our identity. You are either French or you are Algerian. Our record said that identities are multiple," said Rocé, whose father is Russian and mother Algerian. "Archie had already had these discussions." To Rocé, Archie's manner of musical engagement, "to listen and to watch the world, and then to improvise and adapt yourself to meet it," is a thoroughly political mode of being.
Shepp sees things in a much more straightforward way. “I just think of it as music,” he said of his collaborations with French rappers.
Besides his global influence, Shepp has also made his mark at the local level, particularly at U-Mass. Amherst, where he taught ethnomusicology and African American history for 30 years. There, Shepp was known as far more than just a music instructor — he was an ardent explicator and a torchbearer of African traditions.
“He put me on a river that put me right into the ocean of life,” said former student Sulaiman Hakim, who met Shepp at age 21. Hakim, who grew up in Watts, passionately recalled how Shepp’s illustrations of the boundless expanse of African music helped “turn a kid from the ghetto of South Central Los Angeles into a globe-trotter.” It was Shepp’s example that inspired Hakim, now 65, to move to Paris, where he still lives. “Certain artists have had a planetary effect. He’s part of the puzzle that has fed the planet,” Hakim said.
Steve McCraven first met Shepp when he was a student at U-Mass. Amherst in the early 1970s. Now, he knows Archie’s routines by heart. “I’ve been with him so long, I’ve seen it. The first thing he does after his feet hit the floor in the afternoon is grab his horn and play long tones” McCraven said. The drummer says that age has made Archie slower and more subdued, but he still plays his heart out. “He plays like a god; he is relentless,” McCraven said over the phone from Paris. “I have 100 percent respect for Mr. Shepp, especially with the pain he’s in.”
The legacy of Archie’s influence is evident in Steve’s son, Makaya McCraven, the transnational drummer-producer who thought of Archie as an uncle growing up. “Archie was always collaborating with different people — rappers, gnawan musicians, younger players, people of every genre,” the 35-year-old musician said. “So much of what I do and what I want to do is because I grew up around that. It was never like the jazz police, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ ”
Makaya recalls how, at age 22, Archie let him sit in on drums at a huge concert in France. Later, as Makaya prepared to move to Chicago, Shepp made sure Makaya knew the deep history of the city’s jazz scene and told him which musicians to look up. “He is a singer on his instrument. The way he would squawk or screech is like a blues singer. His melodic, lyrical approach feels more oral than scales and arpeggios,” he said. To McCraven, Shepp’s playing reinforces an understanding of jazz as an oral tradition, and not as an academic practice.
Into his ninth decade, Shepp still practices two to five hours a day. He may move slower these days, but his commitment to his music remains as strong as ever.
Our interview ended as he retreated to the basement of his house in Paris. He was going to practice.