Backstage with...

Archie Shepp

Photo: Julien Weber

Saxist Archie Shepp has long been associated with the jazz avant-garde, due to his ’60s work with figures like John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor. But as his soulful recent performances show, he embraces the entire continuum of African-American music, from blues and bop to funk and hip-hop. On Thursday 16 he begins a weekend run at Iridium with the similarly broad-minded singer-pianist Amina Claudine Myers. TONY reached the 70-year-old Shepp by phone at his Massachusetts home.

You have a long history of playing New York. How has the jazz scene changed since the ’60s?
When I first arrived, people like me were focused in Harlem and the Bronx and Brooklyn, because that’s where the music was. But now all eyes seem to be on Lincoln Center. So I feel that this kind of music is becoming a museum piece more than a vital, kinetic force. It used to be a working people’s music, but it’s been replaced by rap.

Speaking of rap, I know you worked with Public Enemy recently. Was that your first experience playing in that style?
Well, I feel like I’m one of the fathers of rap. I wrote my poem “Mama Rose” in 1967, and I do that to music. It swings—it’s not rhymed couplets but it certainly is rap. The term rap has been around in the African-American community for a long time; it means “to talk.”

You were one of the first of your generation to mix words with jazz in such a dynamic way.
Many of the other musicians hadn’t heard Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot. No self-respecting person in the Brickyard, my neighborhood in Philly, would have called himself a poet. And [people felt] the same with musicians. We had a musician on my street, and people thought he was crazy. But when he wrote some music for a show that Charlie Parker was in, I finally realized how good he was. And I realized that jazz was worth listening to and that it spoke for our people.

Do you see rappers as today’s counterparts to the jazz vanguard of the ’60s?
Kids today rap because they can’t afford instruments. In the 1980s, Reagan got rid of all the special programs that allowed kids like me, when I was a young man under Lyndon Johnson, to borrow a saxophone. It’s interesting that these young people have even created new instruments like the turntable. I think it’s ingenious what black people have done since slavery to create new instruments, even including Dizzy’s trumpet bell that went up and Rahsaan [Roland Kirk] playing two horns at once.

Since you mentioned Reagan, whom do you like among the current crop of candidates?
Well, John Edwards. He’s white, he’s rich, he’s Southern—he might have a chance of making it. I would prefer Barack, but I really don’t think he’s got a snowball’s chance in hell. The first Catholic president we had was assassinated, and then shortly after that, his brother who might have had a chance was assassinated. So I don’t really have much hope for a black candidate at all, even if he’s elected.

The Archie Shepp Quartet plays Iridium Thu 16–Sat 18.