Music and Musicians of the Black Artists’ Group in St. Louis

Participant Biographies

Hamiet Bluiett is recognized as one of the finest baritone saxophonists of the modern era, and his recordings during the 1970s and 1980s led to the instrument’s resurgence in jazz. Bluiett began his musical career by playing clarinet for barrelhouse dances in his native Brooklyn, Ill., before joining the Navy band in 1961, where he developed his astonishingly high register by playing alto parts on the baritone. He returned to the St. Louis area in the mid-1960s and led the Black Artists’ Group big band during 1968 and 1969. After moving to New York in fall 1969, Bluiett performed with a host of jazz greats as a member of groups such as the Charles Mingus Quintet and the Sam Rivers large ensemble. He released several critically acclaimed solo saxophone albums in the late 1970s and co-founded the World Saxophone Quartet along with fellow BAG alumni Oliver Lake and Julius Hemphill. Soon leading jazz publications such as Down Beat had dubbed Bluiett “the most important baritone player to come along since Harry Carney”— the illustrious Ellington band member who had pioneered the instrument’s use. He has since formed several other single-instrument ensembles, including the Clarinet Family and Baritone Nation. During the 1990s, Bluiett began recording and supervising sessions for Mapleshade Records. He returned to his hometown of Brooklyn in 2002.

Malinké (Robert) Elliott has had a long and varied career in theater and film, as an actor, writer, director and teacher. A founding member of the Black Artists’ Group, he served as its first artistic and executive director. After his stint with BAG, Elliott spent the early 1970s teaching acting and mime in Europe in collaboration with leading Continental artists such as Eugenio Barba of Denmark’s Odin Teatret and Ingemar Lindh of the National Mime School in Stockholm. A St. Louis Metropolitan Fellowship granted by the Danforth Foundation supported his work at the University of Stockholm Ballet Academy and the French National Theater. After relocating to the West Coast, Elliott joined the Tony Award-winning Oregon Shakespearean Festival as an actor; served as a consultant on human rights issues to the U.S. Forest Service; performed field research for the Oregon Arts Commission; and developed and taught a course in Ethnic Play Production at the University of Oregon. In collaboration with Julius Hemphill, Elliott wrote the libretto and directed the production of the acclaimed production “Long Tongues: A Saxophone Opera” during the early and mid-1980s. Over the past decade, Elliott has contributed to educational research through his award-winning video scripts produced by the Oregon Center for Applied Science. He is a past recipient of the Telly Award, the NEA Golden Apple Award and the Travelers Award for his screenwriting work, which has been supported by the National Institutes for Health, the Centers for Disease Control and the American Cancer Society. Elliott is currently at work on a dramatic screenplay.

Oliver Lake is a saxophonist, composer and leading innovator in jazz and contemporary music. After attending Lincoln University in the early 1960s, he returned to his native St. Louis and co-founded the Black Artists’ Group in 1968. He served as the group’s music director on a grant funded by the Rockefeller and Danforth Foundations, then led a BAG touring ensemble to Europe in the early 1970s. During the mid- and late 1970s, Lake recorded prolifically while also performing on the circuit of converted New York City loft buildings that had become a hotbed for avant-garde and contemporary music. Lake, along with BAG alumni Hamiet Bluiett and Julius Hemphill, formed the World Saxophone Quartet in 1976, and he continues to work with the Quartet and his own groups — including the roots/reggae ensemble Jump Up — on recordings and international tours. Lake is the most frequently commissioned composer for the Meet the Composer organization, and he is a past recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship. He has collaborated with performers ranging from pop artists Bjork and A Tribe Called Quest to poet Amiri Baraka to law professor and political commentator Patricia Williams, and has composed commissioned works for ensembles such as the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra. Lake’s non-profit organization Passin’ Thru, founded in 1988, commissions works by emerging artists and contributes to various educational activities.

Floyd LeFlore is a St. Louis trumpeter and composer, and nephew of the local musician Clarence “Bucky” Jarman. In the mid-1960s, LeFlore returned to the city after serving in the military; he then played in the Oliver Lake Art Quartet before helping to found the Black Artists’ Group in 1968. During the early 1970s, LeFlore appeared on several albums with the Human Arts Ensemble, and he spent several years performing in Paris along with the BAG touring ensemble, garnering warm reviews from European critics. He has worked as a sideman with performers ranging from Sun Ra to bluesman Albert King, and, over the past decade, he has been a featured performer in several concerts produced by the New Music Circle, the nation’s oldest continuously operating presenter of newly composed music. These appearances have included his music/theater piece “Ritualistic Revival,” with LeFlore in the role of the Rev. Alonzo Alphonso Jones. His first recording as a leader, the 1997 CD “City Sidewalk Street Song Suite,” was praised by jazz critic Terry Perkins for combining “elements of straight-ahead jazz, R&B, funk and traditional children’s street rhymes into a seamless and highly entertaining recording.” More recently, LeFlore has performed around the bi-state area along with Freddy Washington as part of the Divinity Jazz Quintet.

Shirley LeFlore is a St. Louis poet, performance artist, activist and educator. During the late 1960s, she was a member of the Black Artists’ Group, meanwhile working on civil-rights and housing issues in the local community. LeFlore founded the Messenger Singers, a female vocal ensemble, in the early 1970s, and along with that group performed with musicians such as the trumpeter Baikida Carroll, and the percussionist Famoudou Don Moye of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Since her years in BAG, LeFlore has continued her involvement in projects pairing poetry with other artistic mediums, including the Free N’ Concert ensemble, which combined spoken-word performance with dance and music, and the New York-based group Spirit Stage, a five-piece jazz and spoken-word ensemble that released its first album in 2002. During the mid-1980s, LeFlore founded the Creative Arts & Expression Laboratory, an institution built from the BAG blueprint and intended to foster young poetic voices in the St. Louis area. In 1996, LeFlore appeared in the documentary film “Underground Voices,” produced by the Tony-Award-winning poet Reg E. Gaines. She has taught at a number of educational institutions, and was associate professor of African American Studies and Women’s Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Her work has been published in numerous collections and periodicals over the past several decades, and in December 2005 she received the Warrior Poet award from the nonprofit arts organization Word in Motion.

J.D. Parran is a New York-based reed specialist and composer known particularly for his use of the seldom-heard alto clarinet and bass saxophone. Parran participated in the Black Artists’ Group while a student at Webster College and at Washington University, where he earned a master of arts in music education. He first moved to New York in 1971 in order to study at the New School for Social Research after the Danforth Foundation awarded him a Metropolitan Fellowship intended for leaders showing promise in “accelerating community progress and human reconciliation.” During the 1970s, Parran continued to participate in St. Louis-based improvisational groups such as the Human Arts Ensemble and the band Third Spirit in Circuit. In the years since, he has appeared as a sideman on over 45 recordings, playing alongside leading contemporary improvisers and composers such as Anthony Braxton, Douglas Ewart, Derek Bailey and Anthony Davis, as well as with musicians including Stevie Wonder and John Lennon. At the Harlem School of the Arts, Parran has served as chairman of the Music Department and director of Jazz and African American Music Studies, and he also teaches at the City University of New York. Parran released his first album as a leader, “J.D. Parran & Spirit Stage,” in 2002, and he has recently appeared at the London Jazz Festival, the Library of Congress, the Salzburg Festival and the New York City Ballet.