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The Commonspace

Dec 2004 / communities :: email this story to a friend

A City Built to Music
By Ben Looker

Thirty-six years ago, in the packed auditorium of the Saint Louis Art Museum, an aesthetic explosion sent a charge through the crowd that left some angry and some delighted but everybody changed.

The concert that evening launched the musical wing of the Black Artists' Group (BAG), a seminal arts collective comprised of local African American jazz players, actors, poets and dancers. The overflow audience had come to hear the latest offerings from the city's maverick squad of young free-jazzers — performers like Oliver Lake, Hamiet Bluiett and J. D. Parran. But as the music proceeded — the band spiking traditional horn-driven jazz with a heady dose of free sounds — a large contingent of the audience stormed out, shaking their heads in disgust or incomprehension. Reviewers weren't much kinder. "Not all black music is rhythmical, nor is it even listenable," sniffed one local black weekly.

As quickly as the disgruntled listeners could flee the scene, though, their seats were filled by a throng of fans pressed together in the lobby outside. By the program's end, the remaining audience members had risen in a tumultuous standing ovation.

The mixed reaction that greeted BAG's inaugural concert would be repeated over and over again throughout the group's tenure in St. Louis from 1968 to 1972. As its musicians flouted the conventions that governed the local club scene, BAG polarized the city's music community like no other ensemble before or since. "They thought we was a bunch of wild animals, not real musicians," laughed former BAG saxophonist James Jabbo Ware in a recent interview.

Point from which creation begins Eventually, the collective won over at least some of its skeptics. With its rich menu of mixed-media productions, BAG firmly established itself as the city's edgiest performance troupe, the latest word in avant-garde presentation. But the group was always about something more than a tug-of-war of aesthetic fashion. Amidst a constant bustle of rehearsals, artistic presentations, youth classes and community events, its leaders drafted a compelling blueprint for inter-artistic cooperation and arts-driven social activism — one that saxophonist Oliver Lake later dubbed an experiment in "socio-economic liberation."

In its retrofitted warehouse on Washington Boulevard, the organization created a moment of intense and vibrant life, surrounded by the physical and economic evisceration of a deindustrialized city core. And whether in plays generated by pressing civil-rights concerns, performances that thrust the arts into the middle of local events, or venues that grounded the organization's energies in the city's individual neighborhoods, BAG's impetus derived from a dynamic relationship with the north-side community. These experiences positioned the arts as one forum for a kind of public discourse that often eludes us today, suggesting ways that a collaborative and community-based approach to creativity can energize both artist and audience.

Fair or not to its remarkable range of activity across the arts, BAG's music component would always be its most striking calling card to the outside world. Leaders like Oliver Lake and group chairman Julius Hemphill embraced an experimental, modernist ethos that remained grounded in a black musical continuum.

The group offered "a chance to work out all our musical fantasies," as Lake later explained. Members offered up an expansive sonic arsenal of rattles, bells, scrapers, bike horns and everyday bric-a-brac. Some punctuated performances with groans, screams and yowls, others with musical skits that could swerve from slapstick humor to biting social commentary. Occasionally, the BAG ensembles mounted sunrise concert ceremonies on the pavement of Washington Boulevard. Their forays into collective modes of organization opened up a space in which players and composers could develop vigorously innovative styles and approaches.

Through sheer grit and persistence, the organization's jazz players became increasingly well known to an underground arts audience scattered across the Midwest's urban areas. Still, their efforts to reach a national audience, or even a wider local listenership, proved disappointingly unfruitful. It was only following the collective's dissolution that their stubborn confidence was rewarded. Over the course of the 1970s, BAG alumni like Lake, Hemphill and Bluiett came to command leading roles in New York's loft-jazz scene, a flowering of experimental music in the abandoned industrial buildings of Lower Manhattan. There, these three reedmen went on to found the World Saxophone Quartet, one of the most original and acclaimed jazz ensembles of the 1980s.

Today, the Washington Boulevard building that housed the BAG cooperative for its brief St. Louis career sits vacant. The surrounding storefronts are even more derelict, the streets emptier than they were 35 years ago. But the collective itself is attracting some newfound and sorely overdue attention.

At Harvard's Fogg Art Museum, for example, composer Marty Ehrlich and painter Oliver Jackson recently collaborated in a multimedia tribute to their deceased friend Julius Hemphill, filling the galleries with images and sound. Meanwhile, over the past four years the Ikef, Quakebasket and Atavistic record labels have been re-issuing BAG vinyl sides on CD, making these ultra-rare documents once again available to clued-in St. Louis listeners. And more lately, several BAG alumni have returned to their hometown, here renewing the group's commitment to building artistic institutions embedded in the fabric of the local community.

A year before his untimely death in 1995, Hemphill insisted: "People keep looking rearward for the tradition. The tradition in this music is forward, forward! Not what you did last week, but this week." In defining the past not as a fund of dead memories but rather as a springboard to innovation, Hemphill called to mind a crucial attribute of the BAG experience. By combining restless experimentation with a sense of origins and tradition, members distilled the politics of black identity into a strong brew of aesthetic adventurousness and social awareness — all of this squeezed out of the struggle for meaning under the peculiar pressures of everyday urban life in St. Louis.

Ben Looker lived in St. Louis from 1996 to 2000. His book, "Point from which creation begins": The Black Artists' Group of St. Louis, was published in October 2004 by the Missouri Historical Society Press. Copies are available from local and online booksellers, at the Louisiana Purchase Gift Shop in the Missouri History Museum, and from MHS's distributor, the University of Missouri Press.

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