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Shepp, Archie (Vernon )free

  • Ryan D.W. Bruce

(b Fort Lauderdale, FL, May 24, 1937). American jazz saxophonist, singer, composer, educator, poet, and playwright. Shepp was brought up in the blues and gospel tradition and, after moving to Philadelphia, began playing piano when he was ten. He started the alto saxophone in high school, and played in R&B bands by age 16. Under a full scholarship, he attended Goddard College in Vermont as a pre-law student, but switched to dramatic literature for his last two years of study. After graduating in 1959, he moved to New York, switched to the tenor saxophone, and was introduced to the local avant-garde scene when he joined Cecil Taylor’s group (1960–62)—a stylistic change from his early influences of Ben Webster, Don Byas, Lester Young, Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane. Taylor liberated the harmonic constraints of Shepp’s playing to focus on melody and rhythm; his sound coalesced while working with Bill Dixon from 1961–63, and later with Don Cherry in the group called New York Contemporary Five (1963–64). Shepp received further attention as a young “energy” tenor player when he performed and recorded with Coltrane (1964–65). In 1964, Shepp was an active member of the Jazz Composers Guild and released his first album for the Impulse! label titled Four For Trane (1964).

Shepp gained a reputation as an advocate for Civil Rights during the 1960s, frequently providing articulate statements about the economic, social, and political aspects of jazz. His albums Fire Music (1965), The Way Ahead (1968), and Things Have Got to Change (1971), and his play The Communist, renamed Junebug Graduates Tonight (1967), reflect his political views. His playing style of the time used a range of techniques such as overblowing, false-fingerings, multiphonics, subtones, vibrato, and slurs, and sounds that translate vocal effects onto the saxophone, such as crying and shouting.

His albums from the late 1970s show a turn toward traditional repertoire, including blues and gospel albums and tributes to Charlie Parker and Sidney Bechet. Shepp continued playing jazz standards through the 1980s and early 1990s, later collaborating with other avant-gardists after the late 1990s. He has also recorded and performed as a jazz singer since the 1980s. As an educator, he taught at the State University of New York in Buffalo (1969–74) and the University of Massachusetts in Amherst (1974–2001). Shepp continues to perform and record for his record label, Archie Ball, which he founded in 2004.


  • D.N. Baker, L.M. Belt and H.C. Hudson, eds.: The Black Composer Speaks (Metuchen and London, 1978)
  • L. Jones (A. Baraka): “Voice from the Avant-Garde: Archie Shepp,” DB, 32/1 (1965). Reprint with changes in L. Jones (A. Baraka): “New Tenor Archie Shepp Talking,” Black Music (New York, 1967), 145–55
  • J.O. Calmore: “Critical Race Theory, Archie Shepp, and Fire Music: Securing an Authentic Intellectual Life in a Multicultural World,” lxv Southern California Law Review (1992), 2129–230
  • S. Smith: “Archie Shepp: the Sound and the Fury,” JT, 31/5 (2001), 46–50, 52, 54, 164–5
  • M. Pfleiderer: “Goin’ Home: on Archie Shepp’s Sound Shaping,” Jf, 34 (2002), 133–47
Jazzforschung/Jazz Research
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