When Archie Shepp first heard John Coltrane in high school, he made it his job to seek out his jazz hero. He eventually found him at the Red Rooster, a now-defunct but iconic live jazz haunt off Market Street in West Philadelphia. Coltrane’s contributions that night were limited, and Shepp, a legendary saxophone player in his own right, remembers leaving the club feeling underwhelmed.
“I was hoping for more, because I didn’t really get to hear all the things he was capable of,” Shepp, 78, admits as he looks back on his relationship with the iconic sax guru. There was no telling then, but Shepp would find out exactly how much further Coltrane was willing to push not only his sound, but that of jazz music as a whole, in the coming years. What was even less predictable was the role that Shepp himself would play in helping break jazz music free of its traditional constructs.
Shepp played on Coltrane’s seminal A Love Supreme and later was one of 10 players brought into the fold for what would become Ascension. Released through Impluse! Records in February 1966, the session proved to be a watershed moment in the evolution of free jazz. Experimentation and improvisation was the rule on Ascension, and each player was given their own solo over the course of the 38-minute session. Coltrane refused to give his ensemble any specific direction on where to take the music, save for insisting that solos end on a crescendo. The result is a recording as liberating as they come, packed with moments of pure cacophonous bliss and others that showed just how open and fluid jazz music could sound when taken off the leash.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Ascension session, Shepp looks back on the evolution of his relationship with Coltrane, how the saxophonist helped him take his music to new places, and what place jazz music has in popular culture in 2016.
How did you first meet Coltrane?
At the Five Spot. I was in my 20s, just out of college. He was working with Monk. I used to go down and hear him every night. When I met him, he was very generous, very kind, one of the most humble men I’ve ever met. He wasn’t the kind of guy who acted like a guru. He was almost embarrassingly humble.
When you watched him play in those early years, what jumped out at you?
Everything. His discipline, his love and passion for music. All of it.
Did I read somewhere that he actually gave you lessons? Didn’t you used to go to his house and he’d show you things?
Not so much. I mean, he gave me advice. There were guys who spent a lot of time around “Trane,” more than they admit. Pharoah Sanders and Wayne Shorter, guys like that, had a very personal relationship with him. I had a personal relationship with John, too, but I didn’t see him that frequently. A lot of saxophone players were with him. He helped me a lot, and I’m sure he helped them a lot, too.
How did you become involved with the Quartet?
Well, first I asked him to help me put together a recording with Bob Field, who up to that time pretty much ignored all my phone calls. Trane spoke for me. He was very helpful and very supportive. So after that, we got to know each other better. I never asked him for anything except for help with that recording date, but from time to time, he’d call me. I was always elated to participate in the recording dates that I did with him.
Obviously with distance and time, everyone knows him as this revered musical figure. But did you get that sense then when you were working with him? Were you aware of the ways he was working to move jazz music forward?
When I first heard Trane in high school, I was trying to play harmonics. I was trying to reach those higher notes above the high F on the saxophone. One of my colleagues in high school, a guy named Warren MacGuyver, a drummer, said there was a guy in Philadelphia named John Coltrane who was doing a lot with harmonics. From the time I was 16 or 17, I was in search of Coltrane until I finally heard him at a club in Philadelphia called the Red Rooster when I was in college. He didn’t play much. He played a few choruses on “What Is This Thing Called Love?” He had the most amazing sound. I was anticipating more, but he only played about five minutes.
But that’s all it took to sell you.
Well, actually I wasn’t that impressed. I was expecting more. But later on when I heard the first recording he did with Miles Davis, I think it was called “Green Haze” or something like that, I went around telling all my friends, “This is the guy I’ve been talking about.” Even then, I didn’t get to hear as much of Trane as I wanted to. But when I moved to live with my aunt in Harlem, I was at the Five Spot every night. One night after he got done performing, I got up enough nerve to ask him if he would help me with my saxophone. He was very generous. But I was a fan of Trane even before I met him.
Trane had been playing around in a lot of local bands in Philly, Daisy Mae and the Hep Cats and different local groups. And he came to New York. Occasionally he was with Dizzy Gillespie, but he wasn’t well known when he was in Diz’s band. The fact that I knew of him as a young kid was I think unusual, because even when he was playing professionally in New York, people didn’t know about him.
What time period was this when you started going to the Five Spot regularly?
I graduated from college in 1959 and moved to New York in 1955. So yeah, I’d say about 1956 or 1957.
You mentioned Coltrane’s generosity, which is something that really jumps out when listening to Ascension. He really lets everyone have their moment on record. What direction did he give you during that session, if any?
Really none. As I look back on it in retrospect, I was very humbled by being around this man who I and so many others considered so important. I didn’t really ask to look at any music. That was true also of A Love Supreme. I wish now that I had enough nerve to look at the music. I didn’t look at any music or have any idea about what he intended to do. On Ascension, he was quite content with no one looking at any music. He himself was in pursuit of something free and less encumbered by academic music. He was content to let the guys play what they wanted to play. In fact, he had written down a few chords for (pianist) McCoy (Tyner) to play, and I regret that I never asked to look at what those chords were.
It would have made it easier for you if there was some sort of structure.
Yeah. I would have had a better concept of what he wanted. At the time, I had been performing with Cecil Taylor. I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to go in, whether I wanted to continue to play classical standards or to continue to play music with Cecil, which was unfettered by chord changes.
Was it scary going in that new direction?
After having played with Cecil for a while, I was actually quite comfortable and confident to play something more free. But given the company I was in, especially with Coltrane being a master of chord changes, I was torn between playing the chords and trying to play something I really hadn’t figured out yet at that point myself.
What was your first impression of what you heard after the session wrapped? Were you surprised with how it came together the way it did?
I felt like I did what I was capable of doing at that time, but conceptually and theoretically I could have done more. A lot of people thought that I didn’t know how to play chord changes. I studied piano until I was 16 and continued even through college. But when I joined up with Cecil Taylor, it was a turning point in my whole concept of music. I had to decide if I wanted to continue to play chords in the traditional sense or whether I would follow the direction that Cecil was leading me in, something not necessarily bound to chords or specific time and measures.
That sounds like a good precursor into working with Coltrane.
It was. I felt connected to what Trane was trying to do. But whether I really achieved what it was that I wanted to do, I’m not so sure. Now when I listen back to those recordings, especially A Love Supreme, I wish I played more of what I knew to play rather than what might have been expected of me. I was really just overwhelmed with being with the man and trying to do what he wanted me to do. I must admit, I didn’t quite know what he wanted me to do.
But at the same time, isn’t that part of the fun of it, that idea of it being more about the journey than the destination? Not knowing seems like a central part of the process.
I think that’s what he wanted. He was interested in stepping outside the boundaries of traditional music. He was prepared for whatever came out of the experiment.
It’s amazing the amount of confidence he put in everyone, because that’s a big ensemble on Ascension.
Yeah, and there was quite a mix of different styles. Some guys didn’t know how to read music from an academic standpoint. Dewey Johnson had a completely free concept.
What concepts or techniques did you take away from the Ascension sessions that you applied to your music moving forward?
I continued to follow Trane’s concept. Basically, John was a very traditional player. He had been through all the steps, big bands and so forth, so when he finally broke free, it was based on musical science. It wasn’t like some of the free players who played whatever came to their minds.
There’s more to it than might meet the ear.
Well, in my opinion, a musical scientist’s theoretical innovations are as important as his performances. I think he’s important in the way that (Igor) Stravinsky was. He introduced Stravinsky to the circle of jazz music. There’s things that guys play now that nobody played before he did. I know right away a Coltrane-influenced player when I hear one.
What are the things you hear?
In particular, the harmonics. The fact that they play above the high F on a tenor saxophone. If they go up to that third register, I know they heard Trane. When I hear those things, I know where they got it from.
At this point, his influence is so vast that it’s probably easy to take things from him without even realizing it.
It’s the same as with Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker. It’s become part of the classical language as far as this music is concerned. This is a language that’s been created by several of the most important improvisers in music, and Coltrane was one of them. But I wouldn’t leave out Parker and some of the others. The jazz language is a mix of many, many different contributions going back to Louis Armstrong.
Does Ascension turning 50 have any significance to you? Five decades later, it’s still relevant.
I wonder if the relevance of those records is what they used to be. When I look at television, there’s Beyonce, Jay Z, and Snoop Dogg. I wonder where our part of this legacy fits in. We’re becoming a lost generation, and I’m afraid maybe we’ll never return to that level of creation. But of course there have been other things. Rap, hip-hop, I think those are interesting musical conventions. But that period between Armstrong and Coltrane is something we should never lose touch with. It’s something we should continue to build on. The question is if this language can continue to translate.
That’s always the question with any genre. How can it continue to survive and sustain itself in a musical culture that’s always evolving?
Yeah. Not only where will it go, but how does it keep the swing? The thing about Coltrane was no matter how abstractly he played, he always had a powerful sense of swing, which was perhaps inspired by the spiritual and gospel music that he grew out of.
Even when he moved toward more avant stuff, he had a great way of keeping everything in the pocket.
Absolutely. That’s what made him different from Albert Ayler and all the other guys. They might have been very abstract and surreal, but Coltrane always kept you in the pocket. Even if you didn’t understand quite what he was playing, he felt very strongly about it, and you went with him.
I think people overlook how accessible his music is by jazz standards. His ability to make music that was both really experimental but at the same time digestible is amazing. That’s a hard line to walk in a genre that’s so technical by nature.
And it evolves out of something, out of what came before it. So much of what was played in the ’60s seems to have been informed by its own self rather than by a tradition. Trane never lost sight of that. I mean, there’s always things from Dexter (Gordon), Sonny Stitt, and Charlie Parker that you hear in his music. He was always in touch with his tradition. He was also a consummate player of the blues. It’s the same with Art Tatum. He was a hell of a boogie-woogie player.
Blues and jazz never seem that far apart.
It’s all secular, spiritual music. Coltrane always let that lead him.