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5/28/11

Hendrix/Shepp: The night a decade bit the dust



It was December 31, 1969 and I turned down a couple of New Year's Eve parties to take on an assignment for Dan Morgenstern, then Editor of Down Beat. He wanted me to spend the evening covering a concert at the Fillmore East, which was not how I ideally wanted to usher in a new decade, but I accepted the assignment, knowing full well that a 10:30 show would not leave time to get to a party by midnight. I also had something else to do for Dan that day, a late afternoon interview with Archie Shepp, who lived around the corner from the Fillmore.

A page ripped out of my desk calendar.

The Sixties was an eventful decade and even if you were't around to experience it, you surely are, in some way, bouncing in its wake. It is hard to believe that some of the "suits" who today slip out of Wall Street boardrooms and into waiting limos were once insurrectionary hippies or beaded flower children. Well, that's what they were called, the truth is that some of them would strangle you with their flower necklace for a hit of the "good stuff." Although I traveled in an world of indulgence, I never took to using drugs, because I liked to be in control of myself, but I was curious about one thing: a good joint's alleged ability to enhance the sound of jazz. 

One day, the late trumpeter, Charlie McGhee, whom I had apprised of my curiosity, discreetly left a couple of joints on my coffee table. I eyed them for a week or so before making my experiment, which had me place a very familiar Bird disc on my turntable, lean back on my sofa, and light a joint. My intention was to play the recording as soon as I felt some kind of buzz, but when that came, I found myself transfixed, unable to move across the room. I eventually fell asleep without having activated the turntable and it was early morning before I came to, awakened by the sound of milk bottles. Not a sound as I had known it, not that quick clink of the milkman stepping off the elevator, placing a bottle at my door and picking up the empty one. On  this morning, what I heard sounded like a dozen bottles in slow motion. Amazing, I thought, these guys weren't kidding. That ended my curiosity and Charlie Parker went back on the shelf.

Getting back to the Sixties, for young people it was a mad scramble to get as far away from the previous decade as possible. The prom queen of the Fifties baked apple pies and found the hills alive with The Sound of Music, the bra-less flower chick of the Sixties munched on watercress and took it all off in Hair. Jazz was still thriving in smoke-filled clubs, but it, too, was on the move, trying to shake the stigma of association with dives and sex. They said that jazz had been a synonym for lewd intimate behavior, so it became a dirty word to some musicians—hence my opening question to Archie Shepp, who represented the new breed of jazz musicians, artists who sought acceptance as musicians rather than entertainers. Earlier in 1969, Woodstock had stirred the pot and given rock music a legitimacy it had not previously enjoyed. Performers and audiences at Woodstock shocked the music industry by throwing off the shackles of propriety and doing their thing, but that shock turned to awe when the money started rolling in. The recording industry—once run by people who knew and loved the music—was in the hands of lawyers and CPAs who increasingly moved it away from the music and and into the realm of product. They wasted no time signing up pop artists with figures and benefits that jazz artists had never seen or known to be possible. More money was spent on press parties than on must jazz sessions, and Miles Davis became the opening act for Blood, Sweat & Tears. It was an insult that NARAS, the Grammy people, carry on to this day, an insult that some of the rock performers became aware of, but did little to correct. Many jazz performers felt cheated and rightly so, and some began to see their rock counterparts as the enemy. You will hear some of that in the hour-long Archie Shepp interview. Mr. Shepp is still very much with us and it would be interesting to hear if the intervening four decades have changed his mind about some of the rock stars he mentions. I suspect so, but that does not justify an industry's dismissal of a musical genre to which it owes its survival. For decades, jazz recordings have served as what the industry calls good "catalog items." That is to say that they have a long shelf life and while they may not initially sell in chart-busting amounts, the accumulated sales figures put many pop records to shame. For example, because it was released under different titles and catalog numbers, an album like Stan Getz's Long Island Sound was never awarded gold status, but it accumulated the required figures a very long time ago.

Getting back on track, this is not so much an interview as it is Archie Shepp talking, with occasional prompts from me. I was preparing to write an article, not produce a radio program, so I approached the task accordingly. I should mention that there were others present in Mr, Shepp's apartment that day, a musician friend of his who I wish had been closer to the microphone, and a Down Beat secretary who I wish had been in another room. If you detect any cuts, rest assured that I did not remove any of Archie Shepp's words, just some of the young lady's intrusive and uninformed questions and giggles. 

  

In 1963, Archie Shepp posed for photographer Ole Brask in the window of a rooming house on New
York's West 82nd Street. It had been my residence until I moved to my present apartment. Ole took
it over.


Here, then, is what I experienced for the rest of the day. This is my Down Beat review as it was published in the March 5, 1970 issue. I have to tell you that reading my old words is enough of a cringe, but actually typing them in and not being able to to make changes is a nightmare.


CAUGHT IN THE ACT


Jimi Hendrix—The Voices of East Harlem
Fillmore East, New York City

It was in many ways a special evening. A new year was about to be rung in, a chaotic decade was coming to an end, and one of the star exponents of the music that so colored that decade was changing direction.

Spending New Year's Eve at the Fillmore is not exactly my idea of a fun way to ring out the old, but I must say the management had done its best to lend a holiday touch to the proceedings—from donning its ushers in greeting-inscribed sweatshirts to placing a small metal tambourine at each seat and projecting, on the large movie screen behind the stage, a caricature of Guy Lombardo, baton in hand.

The press release stressed the group's freedom to drift independently.
The late concert was scheduled to begin at 10:30 p.m., but the doors did not open until 11, and another 20 minutes passed before the houselights dimmed, Lombardo faded away, and the screen showed a film of various black youngsters leaving their respective Harlem homes, gathering by a subway entrance, riding the train, emerging in Greenwich Village, running down Second Ave. and through the doors of the Fillmore East. A quick fade-out and the same youngsters, 20 of them, came running down the aisles of the theater (this time "live") and onto the stage. A cute and effective wy to introduce the Voices of East Harlem and begin the evening's program.

The Voices were formed about a year and a half ago, with the help of urban development programs and an energetic, strong-voice adult Gospel singer named Bernice Cole. Under the guidance of Miss Cole, the group has developed into a spirited choir that can swing, as it certainly did on this occasion, through a repertoire of Gospel and Pop with infectious Vivacity.

It was getting close to midnight when Miss Cole appeared and added her powerful voice to a few Gospel numbers, which had the capacity audience smacking its toy tambourines. The Fillmore East became, for a moment, a gigantic store-front church and 20 youngsters from the streets of Harlem had shared a part of their heritage with 2,639 appreciative downtown hippies and gloriously demonstrated where it all came from.

At three minutes before midnight, a large clock was projected on the screen. The youngsters had danced off stage amid deafening sounds of approval, and the sound of the tambourines grew increasingly louder as the big second hand brought us closer to the new year.

I braced myself as large figures appeared superimposed on the clock for the countdown of the last 10 seconds—10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. It was 1970 and the new decade was roared in by the playing of the awesome opening of Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, popularized by its use in the movie 2001. With its playing, the screen was lifted, revealing the inner workings of the Joshua Light Show, which now projected its multicolored images on the cheering crowd.

After a few thousand "Happy New Years," the screen slipped back into place, Joshua and his gang cast their imagination on it, and the star of the show, Jimi Hendrix, intoned a most unusual rendition of Auld Lang Syne, turning it into a blusey thing of strange beauty.

Hendrix was changing directions—a new group and a new repertoire. It is no longer the Jimi Hendrix Experience but rather Jimi Hendrix: A Band of Gypsys, with Buddy Miles (formerly of the Electric Flag and the Buddy Miles Express), drums, and Billy Cox (an Army buddy of Hendrix's), electric bass. As for the repertoire, the emphasis is decidedly on the blues. The result is promising.

I say promising because Hendrix had not yet had time to fall into his new groove. He is still over-amplified through his three-unit system, and he still resorts to such crowd-pleasing tricks as playing his guitar with his teeth. There was less of this gimmickry than usual, however, and I suspect that he will eventually give it up.
Hendrix and his Band of Gypsys

That ability of his to utilize fully the technical possibilities of his instrument, combined with his fertile musical imagination, makes him an outstanding performer. His feeling for the blues is strong, and his application of electronic sound effects to the most traditional aspects of that music so charged the emotions of the Fillmore audience that nary a tambourine stirred.

Hendrix never really has considered himself much of a singer, and he is right. Perhaps that is why he let his guitar drown out his voice each time he sang while he did not allow it to interfere with Miles' vocals. Miles is a good blues singer, and I think Hendrix would be wise to let him handle that department. His work on the drums is not bad, but it cannot stand comparison with numerous jazz drummers.

It appears that Hendrix is finding where he should be at, and he might well emerge as the greatest of the new blues guitarists. I only hope that he learns that it is not necessary to amplify to or past the point of distortion. Lesser talents might need that: he doesn't.

I did not cherish the idea of spending my New Year's Eve at the Fillmore, but as it turned out, it was a rewarding experience.  —Chris Albertson

I don't recall whether Dan Morgenstern edited it out or if I omitted mention of the gallon jugs of wine and very loose joints that passed from mouth to mouth throughout the theater, silencing some tambourines, turning others into a nightmarish metallic clatter. I think I detected cannabis clouds above, but I can't be sure, because an exhaled mist of highs made the visibility low. Miss Cole and her little angels left the theater none too soon.



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