Poets Of Action: The Saint Louis Black Artists’ Group, 1968-1972

Gateway-Heritage: The Quarterly Journal of the Missouri Historical Society – Vol 22, No. 1 (Summer 2001): 16–27.
by Benjamin Looker


St. Louis has always been careful to cover its tracks, razing its history so it can start over again with a clean slate. Occasionally, though, the past sticks a foot in the door of the future and demands to be let in. One such stubborn caller, whose voice has been muffled, but not quite silenced, is BAG. Between 1967 and 1972, St. Louis was home to an arts cooperative known as the Black Artists’ Group or BAG, which brought together and nurtured local African American experimentalists involved with theater, visual arts, dance, poetry, film, and jazz.

The members of BAG, inspired by the formation of artistic collectives around the country, particularly Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), fused ideas of artistic modernism with the local experience of blacks, Afrocentric ways of viewing art, and traditional forms of blues, jazz and narrative expression with social activism and a communal focus. But unlike other artistic collectives of the period, BAG was fundamentally committed to a collaborative interweaving of its members’ diverse artistic mediums. Most significant, perhaps, were BAG’s theater and music components. The musicians built on the free-jazz vocabulary developed by John Coltrane and others before his death in 1967, and their innovations later energized the seminal mid-’70s loft-jazz scene in New York; meanwhile, BAG’s actors and directors developed a theater which provided an engaging synthesis of avant-garde European techniques with cultural traditions of African Americans and issues of importance to progressives generally. The group, in embracing much of the program of the Black Arts Movement, was emblematic of an emerging social phenomenon; many of its founders, in the words of former BAG saxophonist J. D. Parran, “were entering new territory culturally and politically as well as artistically.” During their time in St. Louis, these artists not only contributed to the cultural richness of the city, but also created a strong model for interartistic cooperation and arts-driven social activism.


BAG emerged from two parallel trends towards consolidation in the black St. Louis arts world of the late 1960s, in theater and in jazz. Although rooted in the underground free jazz scene that emerged in St. Louis during the mid-1960s, the musical segment of BAG found fertile soil in a St. Louis that had produced a number of nationally recognized black musicians during the 1940s and 1950s, including Clark Terry, Miles Davis, Grant Green, and Jimmy Forrest. The amateur and semi-professional local music scene also was lively at the time, with members of the black community actively participating in drum and bugle corps, school music programs, church choirs, and dance and jazz ensembles. The St. Louis scene changed to reflect the times following the bop era, with a small but healthy cadre of free jazz musicians developing new sounds and interests. Noted trumpeter Lester Bowie started out as a participant in this scene, but decided that the opportunities for his music were better in Chicago and moved there in 1966. The free jazz community that Bowie left behind was relatively concealed from the St. Louis music-listening public. Many of these musicians made their livings playing bebop or rhythm and blues, gathering to rehearse newer styles at the home of saxophonist Oliver Lake or in Forest Park.

Local jazz radio host Dennis Owsley, who came to St. Louis in 1969, describes these free-jazzers gathering at Art Hill in Forest Park and playing in different intrumental combinations. These groups almost never included a complete rhythm section, mirroring their future nonstandard groupings. The free and avant-garde jazz scene that Lester Bowie found in Chicago became, in many ways, the model for the musicians remaining in St. Louis. The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) had been formed in Chicago in May of 1965. Composed primarily of members of the South Side African-American community, most AACM musicians had experience in blues and gospel. They had met as part of the Experimental Band, a group exploring European classical concepts such as polytonality, chromaticism, and serialism as well as free jazz and collective improvisation under the leadership of Muhal Richard Abrams. Many of the future BAG members worked along similar musical lines, developing and building upon the vocabulary of late-period Coltrane and free musicians such as saxophonists Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp. At the same time, BAG members explored modernist European ideas including serialism and the work of composers such as Stravinsky and Schoenberg, fusing elements from a wide variety of sources into their musical aesthetic.

When future BAG members first began experimenting, “traditionalists said they were crazy,” remembers former BAG trumpeter Floyd LeFlore. Yet, LeFlore claims, such experimentation allowed leeway for musicians to “mess up” and make mistakes as part of their process of artistic development. In St. Louis, Lake’s group The Lake Art Quartet debuted at the Circle Coffee House in LaClede Town in 1967. Saxophonist Julius Hemphill, originally from Fort Worth, settled in St. Louis in the late 1960s after earning his bachelor’s degree in Music Education at Lincoln University in 1966. Despite his musical education and navy band experience, Hemphill was initially excluded from the blues and bebop scene by club owners and other musicians due to his atypical style and tastes, one former BAG member recounts. With Chicago’s AACM as a model, Hemphill, fellow Lincoln University alumnus Oliver Lake, and other black St. Louis musicians began to consider forming a similar cooperative to facilitate wider exposure and garner additional playing opportunities. Lake describes returning from a visit to Chicago and calling a meeting of his like-minded musician friends. “In our meeting,” he recalls, “I suggested that we become a branch of the AACM. Julius [Hemphill] then suggested that we form our own group which included all the artists we had been associated with-poets, visual artists, dancers and actors. While future BAG musicians developed plans for a collective, impetus was also underway to form a black theater company in St. Louis. Actor and director Malinke (originally Robert) Elliott had been discussing with Country Day School English teacher Russell Durgin the possibility of establishing such a company to provide a focus for the young and developing black theater community in St. Louis. Elliott says, “Out of these discussions we decided that the best way to bring everyone together was to initially have some kind of common experience of working together.” Eventually Elliott and others decided on a performance of French playwright Jean Genet’s The Blacks as their first collaborative effort. The Blacks (first published as Les Negres in 1958) is a play within a play that, according to one critic, “stands as the obituary of [white] mastery.” The play depicts whites watching a group of blacks enact the fabricated story of a rape in a minstrel-show atmosphere, which reinforces the whites’ image of them, but meanwhile other blacks are engaged in subversive activities elsewhere.

During the planning period for the play, Elliott remembers that Lake and other musicians contacted him about collaboration with their planned artistic collective. Eventually, the actors and musicians decided, according to Elliott, that by integrating music into the production, The Blacks “would be a perfect vehicle for us all to get together, collaborate, have a common experience, and would be a great foundation to establish a group.” The production, Hemphill recalls, served as a catalyst for the formation of BAG in bringing together a range of black artists from various disciplines: “A number of people before that I didn’t know, mainly actors, were cast in the play and there was a concentration of talents there.” The performance took place in July 1968 at Webster College’s Lorretto-Hilton Center, and in both its emphasis on social commentary and its integration of music and drama, it presaged many of the multimedia performances BAG would undertake. The following month, the artists mounted a presentation of music, dance, and poetry at the City Art Museum, and the well-attended concert was also the first occasion that the BAG musicians performed as a large ensemble. As BAG continued to develop, its members formulated a coherent guiding philosophy, the goal being “to bring performances and arts instruction of high quality to the St. Louis community…, to synthesize the proud black past with the black present, and to bring together many art forms into a unifying experience.” Many of the musicians in BAG already lived or subsequently took up residence in LaClede Town, a federally funded, mixed-income housing complex built on sixty five acres between Channing, Ewing, and Laclede Avenues and Olive Street on the edge of downtown.

LaClede Town, with its racial and economic diversity, small-scale design, and its residents’ varied mix of professions, proved an excellent breeding ground for artistic endeavor as well as for social activism. Architectural historian Ramin Bavar contrasts LaClede Town with the superblock complexes typical of the time (including the neighboring Pruitt-Igoe), recounting that “[l]ittle stores were placed throughout the project for various uses such as: a barber shop, laundry, a small grocery, coffee shop, and a bar with a sidewalk cafe. The project was designed at human scale and it tried to bring back some of the old ways of life.” Planners envisioned the complex as an “urban utopia.” To the sometimes-idiosyncratic director Jerome Berger, one of the most important principles was diversity, and he tried to keep LaClede Town integrated; during the late 1960s, the project was 50 percent white, 40 percent black, and 10 percent other minorities, including many immigrants to the U.S. BAG trumpeter Floyd LeFlore fondly remembers his days living in LaClede Town and the “real cultural experience” LaClede Town’s racial, socio-economic, and immigrant mix provided for his children. LaClede Town’s Circle Coffee House, where saxophonist The Lake Art Quartet got its start, hosted poetry readings, productions by improvisational theater groups, and performances by future BAG saxophonists Hamiett Bluiett and Julius Hemphill. In many ways it became the center of life in the community.

Open to unusual artistic ventures, the Circle Coffee House was where Parran first heard the instrumental combination of a sax-duo sans rhythm section, as Hemphill joined forces with then-St. Louisan David Sanborn. Hemphill recalls the help that BAG members received from LaClede Town director Berger: “[He] allowed us to use his office so that we could put out mailings to people around the community about our group’s projects. We got non-profit status, incorporated, and put on our initial program at the City Art Museum.” Berger believed the success of the housing community depended on the participation of residents in its cultural life. He provided musicians performing at the Circle Coffee House three months of free rent in order to encourage a creative and active social environment within LaClede Town. The BAG members living there and elsewhere soon began using the Gateway Theater on Boyle Avenue (in St. Louis’s Gaslight Square district) for more elaborate multimedia concerts and presentations, including the group’s weekly performance series held Sunday evenings. The series included varied offerings, such as dance and music, but primarily strove for collaboration and a multidisciplinary approach. Thematic material evolved out of current issues in the black community and out of historical issues related to the African-American cultural experience. The phrase “layers of transparency,” according to Malinke Elliott, summarizes how participants’ interaction was geared in this multimedia setting, which also included films developed for rear-screen projection during shows. “Our idea was that no one element of theater should dominate; the lighting and everything was … one seamless tapestry,” he says.

Perhaps it was the complex interweave of various artistic mediums with trenchant cultural themes that led BAG poet Bruce Rutlin (then known as Ajule) to comment, “We’re not artists. We’re cultural aestheticians.” Because of the interartistic diversity of performances, reviewers sometimes had difficulty characterizing BAG productions, calling them everything from ballets to operas to dance dramas. Elliott draws a parallel between the heavy emphasis on improvisation in the theater component and the free jazz of the BAG musicians. “A lot of times people would approach us and ask to see the scripts for the performance, and we had no scripts,” Elliott remembers; “It had all been improvised and worked out in rehearsing. We collaborated continuously.” As BAG began adding more performances and artists, the participants took their artistic collaborations to a variety of venues around town, including Washington University, St. Louis University, the Loretto-Hilton Center at Webster College, the Page Park YMCA, and the Pruitt-Igoe housing project. Many of the performances on college campuses were enabled through the student activity funds that became available with the advent of the student protest movement. Performances began to draw a diverse crowd, which LeFlore says included intellectuals, white progressives, “right-on black brothers,” people from the St. Louis County suburbs, and residents of the city’s north-side African-American neighborhoods. The typical audience was about 60 percent black and 40 percent white, and Elliott recalls that audiences “were usually very raucous and spirited. … People would get caught up in the moments of the drama, where they would shout things…, or spontaneously applaud, or even augment the drama by jumping into the aisles and doing their own thing.” The associations and musical give-and-take between St. Louis’s avant-garde musicians and Chicago’s AACM didn’t end with the formation of BAG. LeFlore remembers a reciprocal agreement of sorts between the two groups, with joint performances in Chicago and St. Louis on a regular basis. Trumpeter Lester Bowie, former St. Louisan and a founder of AACM-outgrowth The Art Ensemble, was an important link between BAG musicians and their colleagues in the Windy City, especially since his brother Joseph was a trombonist in BAG. “They would come down here, we would go up there,” said Hemphill of the AACM members; “We had a kind of exchange program.” This reciprocity between artistic collectives also came to include other cities, including performances with the Artists’ Workshop in Detroit.

The cooperation led to an affinity of style; LeFlore says there is still a distinctive sound to former BAG and AACM musicians that no one else has: “That will always be a part of me. I can hear it in my playing now.” The atmosphere in St. Louis at the time of BAG’s formation was not particularly receptive to the new sounds being explored by Lake, Hemphill, and their musical comrades. Lake describes the lack of new-jazz venues and audiences as part of the impetus for forming the Black Artists’ Group: “In St. Louis, it was about doing it or nothing would happen. If we wanted to get exposure for what we were doing, the only way to do it was to make it happen ourselves. Once we did realize that, things happened for us, we were really successful in St. Louis.” Hemphill concurs regarding BAG’s interest in taking a proactive promotional role, saying, “In the ’60s, there was a lot of interest in exploring unfamiliar territory, in putting on concerts instead of waiting for someone else to do it, in playing in places other than clubs.” Members of BAG actively promoted their own productions in response to the lack of established performance venues. Despite a rich tradition of black music in St. Louis, few career opportunities existed for St. Louis’s black musicians. African-Americans were excluded from careers in the St. Louis Symphony, the advertising industry, and the socialite gig scene. Local recording opportunities were mostly limited to vanity pressings and demos, many produced by saxophonist and recording engineer Oliver Sain in his studio on Natural Bridge Road. In Chicago, the AACM managed to develop fruitful relationships with critic John Litweiler of Chicago-based Downbeat magazine, the most widely read jazz magazine in the U.S., and producer Chuck Nessa of Chicago-based Delmark Records. The AACM’s Roscoe Mitchell recorded his first album in 1965, but such opportunities for exposure were not readily available to BAG’s musicians. Oliver Lake, for instance, didn’t put out a record as a leader until 1971, when the Arista label released NTU Point From Which Creation Begins.

Thus Hemphill started his own local record label, Mbari, to counteract the lack of opportunities to record and document the music of BAG and other new musicians. In liner notes to Arista’s 1978 re-release of Hemphill’s 1972 LP Dogon A.D. on the Mbari label, reviewer Robert Palmer wrote that in the six years since its original release, the album had “become an underground classic, and reviewers in various publications have compared it to the finest works produced by improvising musicians during the past decade.” While suffering from poor distribution, Mbari reflected BAG members’ proactive role in attempting to develop a niche in the St. Louis arts community. Difficulties certainly existed in garnering exposure for music and drama which increasingly stood outside the mainstream. Oliver Lake describes the struggle to achieve visibility for such music and its attendant social ideas: It could be that there is a singular way that they would like everyone to operate within a certain system. Somebody doing something outside of that isn’t really brought forward or put in the mainstream. Because of this practice, people are not aware that there’s another thing happening that is completely different or from another angle which might make them think a little more.

The more docile and trained they keep the masses, the less trouble. Former Washington University ethnomusicologist Ingrid Monson suggests that black jazz musicians in the mid- and late-1960s hoped that their music would continue to be popular with African-American audiences, even as the music moved farther towards experimental, avant-garde, and free jazz. (She describes groups led by arts leaders such as Amiri Baraka using federal money to drive through the streets of New York blasting the free jazz of Sun Ra into African-American neighborhoods.) But jazz critics stopped promoting free and avant-garde music after Coltrane’s death in 1967, says local jazz radio host Owsley, who claims, “When Coltrane died it was like the sun went out.” Instead of embracing the increasingly dissonant and seemingly esoteric music, large portions of the African-American music-listening community turned to R&B, soul, Motown, and funk, even as jazz critics turned their attention towards fusion, a new electrified blend of jazz, rock, and other styles. Of course, part of the commercial marginalization of jazz was due to repression by reactionary police agencies (through drug charges, removal of caberet cards, and so on) and an increasingly conservative music business network, both of which limited opportunities, especially for black experimentalists. However, BAG musicians such as Lake continued to work in the free and avant-garde tradition of late-period Coltrane and his ’60s sidemen. In addition to finding performance space, developing audiences, and creating recording opportunities, BAG members worked to gain nonprofit status and incorporate. Unlike their AACM counterparts in Chicago, BAG members actively sought and obtained financial grants from local organizations such as Monsanto, the Danforth Foundation, and the Missouri Council for the Arts, as well as from the New York-based Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In April 1968, the Rockefeller Foundation approved a grant of $100,000, which, paired with a matching grant from St. Louis’s Danforth Foundation, was for the establishment of Artist-in-Residence programs and Cultural Enrichment Centers in St. Louis and East St. Louis. In press releases, the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis, the administrator of the combined grant, noted, “The cultural enrichment centers would be an extension of an experiment now being conducted in East St. Louis on a limited scale, under auspices of Southern Illinois University, by Miss Katherine Dunham.”

The reputation and recognition that dancer and artistic leader Dunham already enjoyed by that point was one key to the grant applications’ success. The Artist-in-Residence Team, or AIR Team as it came to be known, operated on the Missouri side of the river and overlapped to a great extent with the personnel, goals, and activities of BAG. The program was designed to place professional artists in a variety of mediums in work/living spaces throughout inner-city St. Louis, where they could conduct classes for youth and hire several part-time youth apprentices to assist with their work. The AIR Team “was created out of the conviction that the inner city of St. Louis needs the presence of creative, professional working artists living and working in its midst just as it needs lawyers, doctors, educators, etc.,” according to a publicity brochure. The Arts and Education Council selected Hemphill, BAG’s first chairman, as the director of the AIR program, and named BAG’s Lake the director of the AIR Team’s music component. “This partnership developed as a result of the similar goals that both these groups have set for themselves,” the BAG-AIR consortium announced. “The whole [BAG] concept really came together when we got some grants together,” Floyd LeFlore maintains. This grant money allowed salaries for members of BAG, both musicians and artists in other mediums, to teach free classes and private lessons for disadvantaged African-American youths in St. Louis. The idea for classes also may have originated with the AACM in Chicago, which opened its free music school in 1969 and at times had up to fifty inner-city youths enrolled. The goal of the BAG-AIR center, said Hemphill in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, would be “to make black people more aware of their creative potential.” Eventually the cultural enrichment center component of the grant and the Artist-in-Residence component came to operate independently. Katherine Dunham proceeded with her cultural enrichment centers in East St. Louis, while the BAG-AIR group developed different goals and objectives.

“The St. Louis group went for younger artists, mostly local,” reported Norman Lloyd, the Rockefeller Foundation’s director of arts programs, in June 1969; “These younger artists do not want to accept Katherine Dunham’s role as leader, since they want to develop their own style. … The program, therefore, has been split into two parts-one for St. Louis and one for East St. Louis.” As BAG expanded its membership and received more funding, the group was able to move into its own building, complete with living quarters, performance space, and a teaching area. By July 1969, the BAG-AIR group had obtained (for a nominal annual rent of one dollar) a building on Washington Avenue, located several blocks from the Pruitt-Igoe housing project. The building would serve as a center and site for classes. Monsanto soon renovated one first-floor room for the group; another room served as space for theater and dance workshops, rehearsals, and classes. Upstairs was a huge loft, ideal for a painting studio. “Twenty four hours [a day] for the next several years, you could walk into the BAG building and something would be going on,” Malinke Elliott recalls of the nonstop teaching, rehearsing, and performing that took place at the center. BAG members instructed young, mostly African-American aspiring artists over the course of several years at the center, usually averaging an enrollment of about fifty students at any given time. The teaching staff came to include Bruce Rutlin (creative writing), Georgia Collins (dance), Thurman Falk (film), and Emilio Cruz (visual arts), in addition to the BAG musicians and actors. Elliott’s sister Marian Hill, BAG’s staff secretary, served as the center’s “house mother,” proctoring the students and helping them to solve problems such as lack of money for instruments and books. Successful musicians such as clarinetist/saxophonist Marty Ehrlich and guitarist Kelvyn Bell, both now playing in New York, emerged from the BAG classes, as well as other artists such as poets Michael and Jan Castro.


The new intersection of politics and the arts that emerged in the 1960s enabled BAG members to engage in projects reflecting some of the political and social tenor of the time. The theater component of BAG, in particular, chose to tackle experimental and highly political material, exploring important social issues of the late ’60s and early ’70s. BAG’s members were influenced especially by the political prose, plays, and poetry of radical writers such as Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins, Jean Genet, and Frantz Fanon, and Elliott urged BAG members to become “poets of action.” Scholar Peter Madden d eclares, “The awareness of class issues beyond just the [artists’] own advancement, as demonstrated by … BAG’s participation in activism like a rent strike, posit the collectives as progressive entities with an acute understanding of the problems facing their communities.” LeFlore remembers that the musicians did not always set out to address social issues in their music. Nevertheless, LeFlore adds, the music couldn’t help but reflect many important trends and issues because of the way in which music and sociopolitical concerns intertwined in the late 1960s. “All different types of music were doing that: acid-rock, rhythm-and-blues, jazz,” LeFlore says.

Similarly, Oliver Lake in a 1998 interview remarked: I never really thought of [BAG’S work] as political. … In the ’60s, when the BAG started, there was so much politics, even the way the BAG started, how it was named was political, because of the civil rights movement that was happening. So everything that you did was interpreted as a political move. We had our own building, we were teaching, presenting ourselves, that in itself was a political statement that we were taking control of our musical destinies. BAG’s involvement in local activism led to relationships with other artistic groups with varying political and aesthetic goals. The Human Arts Ensemble (run by BAG drummer Charles “Bobo” Shaw), the Big River Association, and the Solidarity Unit, interracial musical groups that included non-BAG members, were examples of the loose offshoots of BAG often put together for specific benefits, recording projects, or concerts. The importance of African American artists’ collectives went beyond their involvement in activist causes, says Monson: “I think they had an enormous symbolic value … in the sense that in the early ’60s there starts to be a lot of examination of the racial stratification of the economic structure in the jazz business.” Indeed, saxophonist Archie Shepp once poignantly referred to jazz clubs as “crude stables where black men are run until they bleed, or else are hacked up outright for Lepage’s glue.” The movement towards artistic collectives gathered steam from the unfair treatment black artists frequently received at the hands of white record executives and club owners, or the downright exclusion from white theater and dance companies and venues; examples of such collectives included trumpeter/composer Bill Dixon’s Jazz Composers’ Guild, Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Jazz and People’s Movement, the Collective Black Artists, and Amiri Baraka’s Harlem-based Black Arts Repertory Theater, as well as, in some ways, Sun Ra’s Arkestra.

By organizing their own performance venues and recording opportunities, not controlled by white club promoters or record label bosses, Monson contends that “it felt like the musicians were trying to take control of the means of production.” The founders of the collectives simultaneously defended themselves from exploitation by organizing their own appearances and took responsibility with other members of the black community by training young artists in various fields. The Afrocentric consciousness that arose in the black community during the 1960s also was evident in the music and lifestyles of BAG’s artists. The group may have been formed to increase exposure and earning power for the members, but a more coherent philosophical direction began to emerge. Oliver Lake remarked that the influence of the Black Power movement had created “energy towards having groups in the community” in St. Louis. It is within BAG’s community-oriented framework that we can see what scholar Paul Gilroy has called “the power of music in developing black struggles by communicating information, organising consciousness, and testing out or deploying the forms of subjectivity which are required by political agency”; Gilroy highlights here the nexus of artistic, political, and cultural practices that was central to the group’s philosophy. Musically, BAG embraced many of the sounds being created by better-known free-jazz musicians in New York and their emerging counterparts in Chicago. This new music, itself, carried social implications, such as those of the tempestuous and seemingly unstructured group improvisations. Critic Frank Kofsky in 1970 controversially wrote: Collective improvisation symbolizes the recognition among musicians that their art is not an affair of individual ‘geniuses,’ but the musical expression of an entire people-the black people in America. … In every respect the combined social-musical revolution in jazz amounts to a repudiation of the values of white middle-class capitalist America.

This is most obvious from the statements of the musicians themselves; but it is also apparent (to those who trouble to listen with open ears) in the wild and exciting music which the revolution is producing. While many critics and musicians would dispute the far-left analysis of writers like Kofsky, several of BAG’s members did see a strong connection between the new musical dialects and emerging social phenomena. J. D. Parran remembers that the intense new music, with innovations such as “open tonality and form as well as unmetered rhythmic momentum … excited some while it confused and horrified others, musicians and lay listeners alike.” Yet jazz radio host Owsley claims that, due to the city’s conservatism, groups in St. Louis found it difficult to present a set of ideas overtly tied to the Black Power or other radical political movements. Parran recalls, “Early Afro-centric Free Jazz could not find refuge in traditional venues such as black churches and public schools,” remembering also that the conservative St. Louis society, including many blacks as well as whites, frowned upon “Afro”-styled hair and dress. But the city’s relative social conservatism did not prevent the group from displaying more subtle aspects of the Black Power movement’s philosophies. Madden asserts, “Presenting themselves as serious artists and intellectuals, the collectives were living up to the examples of respectability that had been set by popular figures like Coltrane, King, and Malcolm X.” Indeed, an important component of the Black Power movement was a conservative notion of personal responsibility. The often-aprocryphal stories surrounding jazz legends such as alto saxophonist Charlie Parker unfairly presented the black jazz musician as a drug-addicted womanizer, and members of BAG worked hard to counteract these derogatory stereotypes.

As Oliver Lake recalls, BAG members were acutely aware of these images, and actively sought to avoid them: “We’re not going to eat any pork, not going to take any drugs… We were responsible, and still are.” Musicians in BAG also counteracted negative stereotypes surrounding black jazz musicians by holding daytime performances in their own building and performance spaces, separating the music from what was often seen as the “illicit atmosphere of nightclubs and the attendant drugs and drinking.” Indeed, members of the group seemed always to prefer non-club settings: from the Circle Coffee House in LaClede Town and the BAG building in Gaslight Square to the American Center in Paris and the mid-’70s “loft-jazz” scene in New York City. With its own building, BAG changed the traditional context of jazz performance. “Rejecting traditional modes of jazz performance carried an ideological dimension that was consistent with the unique musical philosophy of the collectives,” contends Madden. By collaborating with artists in other fields, creating new performance venues to replace static nightclub appearances, and operating a school, BAG members expanded their positions to empowered and inclusive roles such as-in the words of J. D. Parran-“musician/educators” and “cultural ambassadors.” In a similar vein, scholar and trombonist George Lewis-a member of the AACM-has claimed that an expanded role for the black artist became necessary in the face of “a wide-ranging denial of African histories, [which] could well result in the erasure of cultural memory.” BAG and AACM members functioned not only as artists but also as scholars, historians, educators and cultural critics as part of an intervention in this process. Elliott, in his 1971 Black Theatre Notebook (both acting manual and cultural critique), commented on BAG’s increased orientation towards the needs and experiences of its own community: “Black arts is family and the black arts movement considers any concept that places the black artist outside of his community as a western corruption of that natural unity of aesthetics and ethics.” The group’s artistic focus on its local context thus exemplifies what sociologist Les Back has called “community as a narrative achievement.”

In addition to the voluntary behavioral codes, new performance settings, and black audience orientation that the group adopted, BAG’s incorporation and creative use of so-called traditional African influences was another manifestation of the period’s social and political tenor. Jazz scholar Monson comments, “The whole point of embracing Africa is something most of these groups were really into-wanting to validate African roots, a lot of them experimenting with African instruments, especially percussion instruments, and entitling tunes with names suggestive of Africa.” Certainly members of BAG exhibited signs of the emerging Afro-centric consciousness. Hemphill’s record label, mentioned earlier, bore the African-inspired name Mbari, and his first album was called Dogon A.D. after an African ethnic group living along 125 miles of rocky escarpments to the southwest of the Niger River bend. BAG’s dance instructor Georgia Collins (the first black dancer to appear with the New York City Ballet) featured much in the way of “authentically derived” African dance in BAG productions, remembers Elliott. Album covers and pictures of BAG musicians in Paris also show them dressed in African clothing and patterns. In 1979, Hemphill commented on the positive response his music usually received from black audiences: “Without being condescending, I’d say that black audiences are like home ground. Nowadays, with the advent of communications and what not, I think that white people have a more literary approach.” While grant money helped establish the important educational programs of the AIR-BAG team, the money and programming disappeared within several years. The tenor of the artists’ work, and especially of the dramatic performances, made the funding agencies, the Danforth Foundation, in particular, reluctant to continue supporting the project.

The Rockefeller Foundation’s Norman Lloyd listed a number of concerns voiced as early as September 1969 by Danforth Foundation president Merrimon Cuninggim: “The program has tended to exacerbate white-black relations and increase rather than diminish tension … [and t]here have been no effective working relationships set up between the Katherine Dunham group and the AIR-BAG group.” Cuninggim characterized as “starry-eyed” the glowing BAG reports of Michael Newton, president of the Arts and Education Council, which administered the grant. The Danforth Foundation’s consultant for the project, Gene Schwilk, reported to the Rockefeller Foundation his concern that artists were more interested in “social reform” than “art,” citing involvement of the artists in housing strikes and demonstrations. Norman Lloyd told the Rockefeller Foundation, “[Schwilk] feels the contact between blacks and whites in the program has been very limited. The impact of the program has been mainly on black youth. Artists have been heavily involved in social reform efforts. … [The program] is not particularly aimed at Danforth’s definition of urban problems.” The charge that BAG exacerbated racial tensions, claims Elliott, never was expressed to the group’s leadership, instead being voiced only in a series of private memos and telephone conversations between Danforth and Rockefeller personnel and their consultants. Elliott heatedly disputes the suggestion that BAG exacerbated racial tensions, arguing that “BAG performances at that time in St. Louis [were] the only place where you had blacks and whites communing together, enjoying each other, understanding where we each were coming from, and contributing to one another.” Elliott also highlights the number of white youths who were taught in the BAG school. Nonetheless, for a variety of reasons, most local and federal grant money had disappeared by the eve of the BAG musicians’ move to Paris.


After four years of operation in St. Louis, the leading musicians of BAG had grown frustrated with the lack of opportunities in St. Louis and in the United States. As mentioned earlier, Hemphill’s record label Mbari, which he started because few domestic labels would record BAG’s type of music, suffered from poor distribution. Outside of a small underground arts audience, most St. Louis jazz fans in this period had little interest in the type of music played by BAG, and the Mbari records received no local radio play. The final decision to leave St. Louis, however, was precipitated by two more specific occurrences: the disappearance of grant funding and the AACM’s glowing reports of opportunities in France. In June 1969, the Anthony Braxton Trio and the Art Ensemble, both groups that had developed from Chicago’s AACM, moved to France with no booked performances or engagements. Within two months of their arrival, the groups had recorded six records and appeared in numerous live and televised concerts. Several of the returning AACM musicians stayed in BAG’s St. Louis building following their work in Paris. Lake recalls, “My friend Lester Bowie had arrived in Paris a couple of years before with the Art Ensemble and when he returned he was very excited about the acceptance of the music; hence my interest was piqued.” The combination of diminishing grant money in the U.S. and the plethora of overseas musical opportunities recounted by Bowie and his comrades had enticed leading BAG musicians to leave St. Louis.

Their destination, Paris, had been a traditional host for marginalized African-American visual artists, musicians, and writers. Monson cites mus ical examples ranging from singer/dancer Josephine Baker (another St. Louisan), trumpeter Louis Armstrong, and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins to bebop musicians such as Charlie Parker and Kenny Clarke, and avant-garde performers like Steve Lacy and Archie Shepp. “One of the things about European audiences is that [they] always respected the avant-garde explorations,” she remarks. Oliver Lake remembers, “BAG had begun performing throughout the St. Louis bistate area and we were looking to expand our musical and performance horizons, so we said, ‘Let’s go to Paris’.” Eventually Oliver Lake, Joseph Bowie (brother of Lester Bowie), Baikida Carroll, Charles “Bobo” Shaw, Floyd LeFlore, and several others raised enough money in St. Louis for the trans-Atlantic trip and purchased two vans for driving to the French provinces for gigs. Their first gig, a televised concert at the American Center (a Parisian cultural organization that played host to many of the more radical American artists of that era), was cancelled because of a French television strike. However, the appearance was rescheduled and the group immediately began to attract the attention of listeners and the press as well as obtaining money from the French Ministry of Culture.

Admiring features appeared in French magazines, and the BAG musicians in return admired the knowledgeable French audiences. “It seemed the French were more educated, because we were doing some more abstract stuff. There were kids over there who could tell you about Louis Armstrong, and who knew who Sun Ra was, which was really impressive,” says LeFlore. BAG and AACM musicians achieved much higher visibility in the French mainstream press than at home, and the French jazz press seemed to take the BAG musicians, in particular, far more seriously than St. Louis music writers of the time. Reviewing an October 1972 concert featuring several BAG members, a writer for the French Jazz Magazine commented on the “politics of exchange” between the AACM and BAG and lauded the “many tries, meetings, exposÈs (that seem to be practiced with care), of vagabond-likeness within the sounds.” The critic also made clear that the BAG and AACM musicians did not produce a monolithic body of work, writing: Concerning the sound work … the B.a.g. musicians cleanly distinguish themselves from those from Chicago. First in their use of relationships between sound and silence, breath and music. … Here the music is often born of a very progressive invasion, very slow, of space. Here also, the gesture precedes the sound and participates in the music. While Paris would provide a congenial respite for BAG musicians, eventually they and their AACM compatriots migrated to New York City, where they came to dominate the influential “loft-jazz” scene of the mid-1970s. In this case also, the musicians eschewed the traditional club setting, taking advantage of a city government program that subsidized use of city-owned loft space for artistic purposes. Former BAG member Hamiett Bluiett says, “The critics who were going to the different halls where they were supposed to be were bored. They came downtown where we were playing in the different lofts, and they began jumping up and down.”

The New York members of BAG carved out a niche in the jazz scene. Three of them-Hemphill, Lake and Bluiett (along with David Murray of Berkeley, CA)-formed the World Saxophone Quartet, which The New York Times hailed as “probably the most protean and exciting new jazz band of the 1980s.” The artists, actors, dancers and musicians remaining in St. Louis did not fare as well in the subsequent period of grant cuts. In 1977 jazz critic Valerie Wilmer observed, “Sadly, BAG exists now only on a spiritual level. Its members continue to work together and exchange ideas, but the demise of the group was hastened by the collapse of their funding programme which coincided with the departure for Europe of their five leading members. Unlike the AACM, the younger members proved insufficiently mature to carry on the aims of BAG.” St. Louis jazz was dealt another blow when, after the merger of the black and white musicians’ unions (American Federation of Musicians Local 197 and Local 2) in the early 1970s, the black union’s rehearsal hall was closed. But many of the participants always had seen BAG’s demise as inevitable and felt that it had served its purpose during the years of its existence. “BAG was an evolutionary process, and so I never lamented the passing of BAG,” says Elliott; “BAG was merely a seed that allowed so many of us to develop out into the world community of arts.” By the time of BAG’s demise, the influence of the collectives as models for other artists had grown, and critic John Litweiler observed that by 1975 “any number of music-producing cooperatives had appeared, some to thrive, others to disappear, from California to Connecticut and also in Europe.”


How did St. Louis become, for a few short years, a crucible for such creative vitality and experimentation? Urbanist Peter Hall, in his study of creative milieux in European and American history, identifies several factors leading to periods of cultural innovation in urban settings. Among these is the material context: state of economy, mode of production, relationship between social classes, and so on; artists work “against the background to their life’s experience, which is powerfully shaped by the state of the world they grow up in.” Hall also asserts that marginality, due to ethnicity, gender, or class, can be key in a creative process nourished on constant interface with mainstream or establishment culture.

In addition, “structural instability,” or an ongoing shift in the organization of society leading to a genuine uncertainty about the future, is often a feature of urban creative milieux. In the St. Louis of the late ’60s, we see these forces at work in interconnected ways: BAG members nourished their art from prevailing social, cultural and economic conditions and directed it back towards the same set of conditions; the artists drew from their experiences as a marginalized racial and occupational group; and BAG’s artistic ferment was uniquely situated at a time of local and national “structural instability.” For a short time, wrote participant J.D. Parran, the St. Louis black collective “formed and flourished, then disappeared from its urban community setting. But for a few years, productive years, it nurtured and gave voice to the burning creative impetus at large in that city and the nation.” While St. Louisans still on occasion run across former BAG members in performances around town, it is odd that BAG has not been the subject of more extensive scholarship or attention in the popular press. As former U.S. CongressmanWilliam Clay has noted in his introduction to Discovering African-American St. Louis, “The role played by black Americans in the history of our country has been ignored, distorted, and downplayed … by those who write the textbooks and … by the so-called master historians.”

The Black Artists’ Group provides one of St. Louis’s most important links to the emergent Black Arts Movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s; by joining together social concern and artistic innovation, the BAG school, the multimedia performances, and the group’s social agenda significantly reshaped the St. Louis arts landscape. The astonishing artistic richness of the Black Artists’ Group deserves to emerge into full view as a unique and engaging effort to discover an artistic voice adequate to the social and cultural dislocations of its time.

First published in Gateway-Heritage: The Quarterly Journal of the Missouri Historical Society, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Summer 2001). Footnoted copies and originals (with photos) available from the Missouri Historical Society, P.O. Box 11940, St. Louis, MO 63112-0040 USA.