Chris Guiton discusses the Attica prison riot of September 1971, and Archie Shepp's creative response to it
In September 1971, the bloodiest prison riot that the United States has ever experienced took place at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York. Archie Shepp, one of the great American jazz saxophonists, was outraged by its brutal suppression. He quickly went on to record Attica Blues, one of his finest albums, in January 1972. He viewed the riot as a courageous rebellion against the shocking failings of the prison system. And dedicated the album to Black Panther member George Jackson and those killed in the riot.
The riot’s origins lay in the barbarous, dehumanising conditions imposed on the inmates, compounded by the overtly racist behaviour of the prison officers. Its spark was the fatal shooting a few weeks before of George Jackson, regarded by many as a political prisoner, at San Quentin State Prison.
Attica prisoners raise fists in support of demands made during prison uprising, Sept. 10, 1971.
Attica's inmates took control of the prison, taking 42 members of staff as hostages. They demanded to be treated with dignity and justice. The prisoners maintained calm and ensured the safety of the hostages. But negotiations broke down, and Governor Nelson Rockefeller (with the full support of President Nixon) told the state police to storm the prison and take back control. What resulted was a massacre; 29 prisoners and 10 hostages were killed in a hail of police and National Guard bullets.
Attica’s prisoners paid a high price for their rebellion. They faced beatings, torture and the denial of medical care. This was all accompanied by a media blackout designed to suppress the truth. In a later interview, Shepp commented on the significance of the uprising, which had become a symbol of the racial and political tensions which existed at that point,
It was a political time…the civil rights movement was happening, and of course the Attica Prison riot heralded the changing times. There was a lot of shit happening in that place, in that jail with the guards and everything…It affected a lot of people….It happened at a time when people were really beginning to pay attention to repressive regimes in the prisons, but also poverty and the lack of social opportunity. So, when it happened, a lot of people were enraged.
Shepp’s lengthy career has seen him span avant-garde jazz, R&B and the blues. He became a key figure in New York City’s thriving free-jazz scene in the 1960s, playing alongside Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane. He continued to push the boundaries, incorporating an increasingly Afro-centric approach as well as spoken word in his recordings. He also harked back to older jazz and blues traditions. In his later years, his style has become more reflective and he’s now something of an elder statesman of jazz. But he’s never lost the ability to produce powerful music that provides a sonic journey through the Afro-American experience.
He’s always been a politically engaged artist. And he has spent his life fighting for civil rights. Challenging the racism that disfigures American society. Asserting the original, and hugely creative role, that jazz plays in American culture. And damning its appropriation and commodification by the mainstream. As he once said,
In my heart I’m an African. They stole my land, but they’ll never steal my culture or my identity.
Attica Blues is a superb example of how he seamlessly weaves together his wide-ranging musical sensibility with a radical political message. In the process, he created something utterly unique. Intriguingly, Shepp defied expectations by refusing to create a simplistic musical polemic. The album offers the deep soul of his finest albums. But is also characterised by shifts of tone, poetry readings and an emotional power that underpins the content of every track. It highlights jazz's ability to act as a vehicle for social commentary whilst also creating great music.
You know you’re in for a treat with the title track, “Attica Blues”. Opening with the line, “I’ve got a feeling that something ain’t going right”, it balances righteous anger with a storming funk-based call for black liberation. Jo Armstead, once part of The Ikettes, delivers the lyrics as if possessed,
If I would have had the chance to make the decision
Every man could walk this Earth on equal condition.
Every child could do more than just dream on a star
…And I would put an end to war.
William Kunstler, the lawyer who helped represent the Attica prisoners, reads “Invocation: Attica Blues”, a short poem about civil rights,
Some people think they are within their rights
When on command they take a black man’s life.
Let me give you a rundown on how I feel.
If it ain’t natural it ain’t real.
"Steam" offers a complete mood change. A lush, slow number, given two haunting, string-soaked outings. “Invocation to Mr Parker” opens with a wandering bass line by Jimmy Garrison before asking, “where’s that driving music man who used to wail out back?”. “Blues for Brother George Jackson” is a lament as well as a classic groover, which pays tribute to the murdered George Jackson.
Kunstler features again, reading another poem “Invocation: Ballad For A Child, “I would rather be a plant than a man in this land…I would rather be a tree with branches and leaves that can grow free.” The theme is taken up in the tender, wistful “Ballad of a Child”. This is followed by the breath-taking “Good-Bye Sweet Pops", written by Cal Massey. It’s actually a homage to Louis Armstrong but feels absolutely right in this context. The album closes with another lovely Cal Massey tune, "Quiet Dawn", sung, in a slightly off-key and rather other-worldly style, by the composer's seven-year-old daughter.
Shepp’s solos on tenor and soprano are generally short. But there’s an insurgent quality to his gruff, expressive tone which is instantly recognisable. Significantly, the album cover features the iconic image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics raising their black-gloved fists in a Black Power salute during the US national anthem.
Shepp has always been interested in the improvisational and existential qualities of Black American music. He’s also concerned by America’s failure to understand its own political and cultural history, “Apathy is frightening. Because that allows the people to be disarmed, disengaged, turned around and ultimately dismissed.”
Shepp revisited Attica Blues with the release of I Hear the Sound in 2013. Using a new big band, featuring both French and American musicians, it’s a joyous reminder of the quality of the original material, interspersed with some additional cuts. He went on to tour it successfully. His abiding interest in conveying the lessons of Attica was as strong as ever. In the liner notes, he said, “Some gave their lives hoping to change the world. Unfortunately, not much has changed. Perhaps we are all prisoners.”
The influential political activist Angela Davis once said, “The events at Attica finally awakened greater numbers of people from their socially inflicted slumber.” Attica Blues provided Shepp with the perfect opportunity to give voice to the importance of the ongoing struggle for freedom and dignity in all our lives.
This article was first published on the blog of the Wealden Wordsmith.