Jazz as a Social Force: Archie Shepp and Jason Moran’s “Let My People Go”

If you list the forces in 2021 working against jazz, and against an album like this one, it can feel overwhelming, depressing even. Do not despair. This is only a feeling. The truth is somewhere else, somewhere deeper.

Let us list the forces anyway.

First there is our shared understanding, taken as universal truth for at least sixty years now, that jazz is a thing for the museum set or the coffee shop, a factory of ambiance for Olive Garden or an upscale brunch. Jazz was once a living thing, this view holds, a music for crooks and drunks and junkies. Now its proponents and creators emerge from university programs, bleary-eyed from study, fingers inked by charts and ears indented by noise-canceling headphones, marching toward classrooms of their own. Don’t get me wrong, these are artists. They know every head in the fakebook. They’ve mastered their craft and many of them capitalize on this mastery to move the art in new directions. But many of them are equally at home serving as historians and conservators, pulling riffs and solos from the grimoire or Slonimsky’s Thesaurus. When you put it all together, jazz viewed from this frame of reference feels a bit like publishing monographs for the academic press. This music once moved mountains. Now it must exercise its influence through the same channels as philosophy and the social sciences: grants, endowments, public television. If you support Jazz at Lincoln Center, you may qualify for a thank you gift. Ask your operator for details. 

The old mountain-movers possess a sort of mystique, therefore, like former heads of state or old soldiers surveying the world with a thousand yard stare. Their numbers are dwindling, and with them passes a unique way of listening to the world and reacting to its vital rhythms. With jazz, popular music reached a crescendo of sophistication and creativity that took listeners to the very edge of popular sensibility and sometimes beyond. It was almost too much. It was almost as though Americans exhaled a collective sigh of relief when Little Richard took the stage. The best students of jazz will continue driving the form, and some of them will push it further, but it is almost seventy years since the heat of rock and roll displaced bebop’s cool, and the distance between here and there, now and then, feels greater than ever before.

It is mostly the session players from those heady days who remain with us now, not the stars, aging alongside the modern artwork in darkening valhallas from New York to San Francisco. If you dwell on it in this frame of mind, a jazz record can feel like a funeral procession. Perhaps this is appropriate. Born from the funeral marches of old New Orleans, jazz seems destined to return to the bayou shades. 

We live in the age of the funeral procession, but jazz is not the music for this age. Witness the first moments of the video for “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” A duo is a uniquely intimate mode of collaboration. Especially in an improvisational medium, each partner in the duo must understand the other’s moves, must know their very mind. In this light, the distance between Shepp and Moran in the opening moments of the video feels like a yawning gulf. If the moment hits you right, the gulf between the artists on that dimly lit stage feels like the chasm separating us from all of the friends and loved ones we’ve lost this year. It feels like the passage of time, the inevitability of entropy and change. Thank God for the horn that moves us past that moment, into the now. 

If you think of this album as a sort of fastness, a place made warm and safe through a powerful magic combining equal parts spirit, talent, collaboration, and history, you can hear the music repelling these forces like a force-field. Let My People Go is not a funeral march. It is not a testament to the passage of a generation or the decline of all things. It is, instead, a remarkable antidote to the depressing array of negative forces that send us into fits of melancholy at the beginning of YouTube videos or set us off on doom-scroling odysseys into the far corners of night. Let My People Go is a force for good. 

The album opens on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” a spare rendition of the moving Negro spiritual rendered all the more powerful by this remarkable duo. Jason Moran’s expansive intro sets a fitting stage for Shepp’s piercing exploration of the melody. Shepp and Moran play in proximity to one another but rarely together, probing the song’s musical themes like murmuring voices in the darkness, seeking one another, seeking consonance. This is the power and the promise of a masterful duo. Each artist has the space to stretch out, but the restraint to fill the voids left by their counterpart without drowning them out. Shepp and Moran achieve this careful balance on the album’s opening track.

My favorite moments on the album come on its second cut, a meditation on Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington’s 1967 standard, “Isfahan.” Where Ellington’s piece is a perfect study in restrained beauty, Shepp and Moran draw out its blue notes, seeking shelter in the spaces in between the notes of the melody as though from a quiet rainstorm. Shepp’s time spent playing alongside Coltrane shines through on “He Cares,” which opens on an expressive, birdsong intro and slowly climbs toward a moving crescendo across the next six and a half minutes. When Moran moves into the spotlight around 3:30, the piece coheres beautifully. 

“Go Down Moses,” the fourth cut, seems to examine the dialectic of tension and possibility inherent in freedom through the interplay between Shepp’s opening improvisation, set against Moran’s restless, oceanic backdrop, and Moran’s solo improvisation building up to Shepp’s expressive, vibrato singing. The duo carries us into new territory with “Wise One,” a freer, more consonant space. With “Lush Life,” the duo flies the perennial Strayhorn standard beloved by Coltrane to transcendence, and the closing track, “‘Round Midnight,” keeps them firmly in those rarefied spaces. 

“If my music doesn’t suffice, I will write you a poem, a play. I will say to you in every instance, ‘Strike the Ghetto. Let my people go.’”

Archie Shepp, “An Artist Speaks Bluntly,” Downbeat, 1965

The forces this record repels only feel overwhelming when they are framed as cultural forces, and that is only because we’ve spent the last sixty years convincing ourselves that culture is somehow both sacrosanct, on the one hand, and thoroughly shaped by immovable hegemonic forces, on the other. For music, this view conflates market forces with culture, valorizing expression through its quantification to argue that its forms are no longer valid when they fail to move units or fill seats. To put it as simply as possible: fuck that. Of culture and music we may say this instead: jazz gives the world meaning through a set of coherent rules and rituals. This way of looking at the world was supremely influential for a brief period before and after the second world war before giving way, as a popular commodity in the marketplace, to other forms of expression. It did not die when its practitioners moved to conservatories. It is not passing.

It is the crushing inevitability of commodification that Let My People Go most powerfully counteracts. Shepp and Moran’s message is a cultural one, yes, but it is also a social one. It is there that we should spend some time. “Let my people go” harkens to Moses in Egypt, but it was the terrible lash of slavery that reduced millions of Africans to things, to motherless children on the auction block. From the beginning of his career in the 1960s, Shepp’s music has been centered on liberation—wailing for freedom, exalting in its possibilities, lamenting its elusiveness. In 1966, he told Downbeat that jazz was “for the liberation of all people.” “Why is that so?” he continued, “because jazz is a music itself born out of oppression, born out of the enslavement of my people.”

The pandemic is a social force. So is violence in defense of power. So is the market, with all its cruel iniquity. We may feel these forces as an overwhelming weight upon our shoulders. We may view them as insurmountable, hegemonic. To do so would be to ignore that enduring promise of jazz, however, and the complete and utter freedom it offers its adherents. Art, Shepp insists, can be a countervailing force. Listening to his work with bandmate Jason Moran on Let My People Go, I cannot help but agree. It is fitting this art should find us in a dark hour.