As survival gigs go, I have been able to make my way into places where I cross paths with total street people all the way up to cultural icons. At Sam Ash, I worked behind a counter that was not unlike a bar that served up reeds instead of drinks. The bar would enable me to get into conversations about my favorite topic, and what I may have to change the title of this blog to be-deeper reality. Sometimes I suddenly and unexpectedly meet true masters and have to come up with a topic on the fly that might reveal a vital truth of some kind. In this way, I received a sanction for the alto clarinet to exist when Paquito D’Rivera told me without reservation that it was a beautiful instrument. I was able to have a real exchange with Hugh Masekela who told me what he really thinks of mutes, not suitable for prime time presentation here at No Sound Left Behind-see me in person for his unique perspective. James Carter came in on the regular which led to all kinds of exchange, notably when I tracked down a record of Ben Webster on clarinet. I received a sanction of my bass clarinet work when David Murray heard me playing. He had let me sit in with him on trumpet in the early 90’s at a private party in Nanuet NY, and offered to have me come over to his spot so we could read a complete transcription of Paul Gonsalves great solo at Newport. It was my love for Paul Gonsalves that led to meeting Art Baron and him even joining the 12 Houses! Paul Gonsalves came up once again at my new gig at Michiko studios where we have a virtual shrine to sax players in photographs at the top of the stairs. Just the other day I was shocked to see the great Archie Shepp climbing the stairs. My friend Tim Price had just seen him, and Archie told him he had one of Paul Gonsalves mouthpieces. After telling him what an honor it was to meet him, I brought up Paul as one of my favorites and Archie concurred saying he too was down with Paul big time. If only Paul could have known how much love we would have for him in 2017.
Meeting Archie Shepp was one of the heaviest encounters I have ever experienced in my life. It was not unlike looking at Ornette talking to you, but while Ornette is challenging your mind, your relationship with yourself and the world, Archie Shepp talks right past your ego and right into your soul. I’m someone who usually engages in eye contact only when I’m making a point; I can’t sustain it. Archie Shepp looks right at you and maintains eye contact. There’s no wandering off into other personal realities; he lets you know that this is going down. His way of conversing seems directly linked to the way he plays music-direct and personal expression on the horns. For me, master Shepp is the quintessential example of truly having your own sound and making music in response to your reality. His music opened the door for me to not only be myself but is a window into the highest level of the art. Meeting him in person drove home the point to me that your humanity is the most important thing in your music. How you feel is paramount above all else, and the biggest fear in playing a horn in jazz might be just that, fear of yourself. Archie Shepp crushes fear of self throughout his ongoing legacy.
Part of the troubling time we’re in today is that Trump has already staked a claim to American history. Anybody looking back to 2017 will recall that this was the time when Trump was running down his pathetic game on the world. Artists today must respond. Many of us are. We can’t be afraid to double-down on ourselves.
That’s what Archie Shepp did,
what he still does,
and what we must continue to do.