Just Do It

BAG artists transformed an abandoned warehouse at 2665 Washington Blvd. into the movement's headquarters. Photo by Michael E. Emrick, 1969

Black Artists’ Group
BAG in Paris, Aries 1973

BAG : 1973

Oliver Lake, alto and soprano sax, flute; Floyd LeFlore, trumpet; Joseph Bowie, trombone; Baikida Carroll, trumpet, bass;Â Charles “Bobo” Shaw, drums. Everyone also plays “miscellaneous instruments.”

“The AACM inspires musicians to band together to do what they do, because otherwise it wouldn’t be done…. And it’s not so much because of the music itself, but the idea…. The idea: to pool our engeries to a common cause.”–Muhal Richard Abrams, 1975

Common cause. Not exactly an American ideal these days. We mostly seem stuck in The Century of the Self, but it wasn’t always so. The Abrams-led, Chicago-based AACM model of common cause was a bright beacon. In fact, it was so successful that it led to similar collectives sprouting in other cities –including Detroit, Boston, and, most notably, St. Louis.

“That’s what the cats were doing in Chcago, and that blew me away and really inspired me. So it was from that trip [in 1967] that I came back and started my group and said, ‘Oh! What am I waiting for? Do it—that’s the key!’… It was such a simple thing to do.”–Oliver Lake, 1977

Lake did it, all right, starting up the Black Artists’ Group in his native St. Louis. BAG became a cultural center that featured all aspects of the black arts movement — dance, theatre, music, painting — plus community outreach and education. Unfortunately, some key funding was withdrawn around 1972, right about the same time the first wave of BAG musicians heeded Lester (brother of Joseph) Bowie’s call of Allons-y! and made for Paris. The next generation of BAGers was too green to withstand the forces at work, and BAG ceased to be an active organziation.

But the BAG exiles made the most of their Parisian sojourn, and worked often. This self-released recording features the leading lights of the St. Louis experimental scene playing before a receptive French audience. “Something to Play On” is drummer Shaw’s tune, and he swings freely along throughout. It’s a fairly spacious track, with each member finding plenty of room in which to make a statement. Bowie’s trombone is a key ingredient, offering some splendid counterpoint to the trumpets when not establishing his own melodic lines.

Lake’s “Re-Cre-A-Tion” is, after it’s title, both playful and continually in the process of coming into focus. To our ears the more AACM-ish tune, it highlights Lake’s lyricism and facility on flute, as well as the group’s fearlessness in the face of empty space. There’s something theatrical about this track too — something out of The Living Theater, maybe. Note how the scrims of sonic scenery keep shifting, how the brass solos feel like they’re divulging bits of narratives, earnest soliloquies against often absurdist backdrops. Dig the chattering noises at the 7:30 mark and spoken interjections at the 11:00 juncture. This track requires some patience, but rewards the faithful audience.

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For the complete story on the Black Artists’ Group, see Benjamin Looker’s book on BAG: Point From Which Creation Begins: The Black Artists’ Group of St. Louis. Looker’s long article on BAG, a distillation of the book, can be read at Oliver Lake’s site, and also at All About Jazz (the latter link includes the source notes).

Bill Shoemaker reviewed this album in the January 2006 issue of Point of Departure. At around the same time, a symposium on BAG was held at Washington University in St. Louis; the press release for that event holds some interesting history and photos.

Perhaps the most wonderful recent news, aside from Lake’s cryptic note [scroll down] regarding a CD release of this album (a note that looks to be about a year old), is this very timely report out of St. Louis, courtesty the stellar, unflagging St. Louis Jazz Notes blog, concerning BAG II:

Now some of the members of the original Black Artists Group, along with some new faces, have formed Black Arts Group (or BAG II for short). According to an email from bassist / composer / mbira player Zimbabwe Nkenya, the new organization’s mission is “to present to the community music, dance, theatre, visual and literary arts and foster wholistic health practices, welcoming and appealing to all age groups and multicultural audiences. BAG II is working to revive the creative efforts of and expose audiences to BAG’s musical, artistic and cultural legacy.”

BAG II has scheduled several events in St. Louis over the next few weeks, all to be held at the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site, 2658 Delmar Blvd in St. Louis.

The sidebar of St. Louis Jazz Notes alone offers a concise crash course in the rich jazz traditions of that city. Here’s hoping BAG II stakes a claim of its own, and finds common cause with an appreciative audience.

Category Black Artists' Group, Oliver Lake

9 Responses to Just Do It

  1. Hey- great to see my friend and former Albuquerque bassist/mbira player and composer Zimbabwe Nkenya getting into Bag II. Zimbabwe and I have played music together for nearly 20 years here in the southwest. Check out High Mayhem’s release from last year, Zimbabwe Nkenya and the New Jazz (with Chris Jonas and special guest Rob Brown, as well as Dave Wayne on drums)….

  2. Thanks very much for mentioning and linking to St. Louis Jazz Notes. Although the focus of the site is local, DO readers who poke around a bit may nevertheless find various items of potential interest, and for sure I will be doing my best to report on future developments regarding BAG II.

    I’ve also just gotten a copy of the CD that Peter Breslin mentions, courtesy of Zimbabwe Nkenya, and will likely be writing something about it once I’ve had a chance to listen and digest.

    FYI, I’ve also put up a post at StLJN linking to this one because I know at least some readers will definitely be interested in getting copies of these tracks. Thanks again and keep up the good work.

  3. fyi, I’ll be playing a track or two from Zimbabwe Nkenya and the New Jazz today on KSFR, streaming from http://www.ksfr.org, probably around 1:35 or so.

  4. Thanks, Dean and Peter. The world shrinks yet again.
    Believe I missed the track on your show, Peter; are they archived/stream-able after the fact?

  5. Never mind. Listening now. Forgot about time change. Ugly Beauty!

  6. Bluiett is so apropos as an anti spam word as it was his home too. Charles Bobo Shaw left another gorgeous ayudio document called Concere NTasiah, on a short lived independent label long lost. Find it if you can.

    He did some other work for Bonandrini’s Black Saint, the dance infused Junk Trap.

    Frank Lowe also came from St. Louis. This just underscores the importance of seeing this music as the outcome of cohering communities rather than the artificial media scribbler search for the big deal guy.

    http://baystatements.blogspot.com/2007/01/best-jazz-pianist.html is my odd attempt to address this unseemly search for the Big Kahuna.

  7. Not to nitpick here, but Frank Lowe was from Memphis, not St. Louis.

    The NY Times obit for Lowe, written by Ben Ratliff, has disappeared behind the Times Select wall, but you can read it in this thread fom Sax on The Web, about halfway down the page:


    I do agree with you about the “importance of seeing this music as the outcome of cohering communities,” though.

  8. That’s right, I forgot about Memphis. For some reason, I think he may have spent some time with the Saint Louis Community but I can’t remember why.