Rediscovering the Black Artists’ Group

Symposium to examine influential '60s arts collective Feb. 16-17

In the mid- and late 1960s, the Black Arts Movement emerged as the aesthetic and spiritual corollary to the Black Power philosophy. Spurning assimilation, the movement often took militant pride in black history, culture and traditions, and in so doing laid much of the groundwork for contemporary multiculturalism.

BAG dancers
Dancers rehearse in preparation for a 1969 performance of “Poem for a Revolutionary Night.”

In St. Louis, the Black Artists’ Group (BAG), which flourished between 1968 and 1972, gave rise to a host of nationally recognized figures, including Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill and Hamiet Bluiett of the World Saxophone Quartet; trumpeter Baikida Carroll; painters Emilio Cruz and Oliver Jackson; and stage directors Malinké (Robert) Elliott and Muthal Naidoo.

“The Black Artists’ Group was a seedbed for artistic innovation,” says Benjamin Looker, author of “‘Point From Which Creation Begins’: The Black Artists’ Group of St. Louis” (Missouri Historical Society Press, 2004), the first book-length study of the organization.

“But unlike most other artistic collectives of the period, BAG was fundamentally committed to a collaborative interweaving of its members’ diverse artistic mediums,” says Looker. “The organization brought together and nurtured an array of African-American experimentalists, in disciplines ranging from music, theater and dance to visual arts, poetry and film.”

On Feb. 16 and 17, Washington University in St. Louis will host a symposium on the “Music and Musicians of the Black Artists’ Group in St. Louis.” The event will include panel discussions, concerts and other events dedicated to the music of this influential yet little-remembered collective. Both Lake and Bluiett will participate in a panel discussion during the symposium and perform with the World Saxophone Quartet. Lake will also present a master class.

The event, sponsored by the Department of Music in Arts & Sciences, comes amidst a dramatic resurgence of interest in BAG’s history and music. In addition to Looker’s monograph, a series of rare BAG recordings have recently been reissued on the Ikef, Quakebasket and Atavistic record labels, including “The Collected Poem for Blind Lemon Jefferson” (1971), “BAG in Paris — Aries 1973” (1973) and “Funky Donkey” (1968).

“The astonishing artistic richness of the Black Artists’ Group deserves to emerge into full view,” adds Looker, a Yale doctoral candidate who first encountered BAG’s legacy while pursuing undergraduate degrees in music and urban studies from Washington University. “Their work represents a unique and engaging effort to discover an artistic voice adequate to the social and cultural dislocations of its time.”

Schedule of Events
Participant Biographies

History of BAG

In many ways, BAG represented the convergence of two parallel trends in the black arts world: free jazz and experimental theater.

Oliver Lake
Saxophonist and BAG co-founder Oliver Lake in a 1971 publicity shot for his album “NTU: Point From Which Creation Begins.”

In the mid-1960s, St. Louis free-jazz musicians were largely confined to informal concerts on Forest Park’s Art Hill and at the home of Oliver Lake. Though many made livings playing bebop or rhythm & blues, they were strongly influenced by John Coltrane (1926-1967) as well as by modernist European ideas, notably serialism, and the work of composers like Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951).

In 1967, such underground gatherings gave rise to The Lake Art Quartet, which debuted at the Circle Coffee House in LaClede Town, a federally funded, mixed-income housing complex at the heart of the city’s counterculture.

Meanwhile, Lake, Julius Hemphill and other local musicians began to discuss forming a cooperative as a way to take control of their own artistic destinies — a social and economic strategy already embraced by experimental jazz musicians in groups such as Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.

Lake soon approached Malinké Elliott, who was then working to establish a local black theatre company, about a possible collaboration.

In summer 1968, the nascent group of actors and musicians staged “The Blacks” (1958), Jean Genet’s controversial play-within-a-play, at Webster College’s Lorretto-Hilton Center. The piece depicts a group of blacks, possibly actors, re-enacting the possibly fabricated murder of a white woman.

“With its aggressive posture toward its audience and its ironic treatment of race and color, ‘The Blacks’ presaged many of the multimedia performances BAG would undertake,” Looker notes.

“As the group developed, its members attempted to hammer out a core philosophy based upon unifying BAG’s various modes of expression. Productions during these years ranged from sharp satires dramatizing immediate issues of the local community to sweeping ritualistic pageants that laid out broad visions of black survival, spirituality and nationhood.”

BAG headquarters
In 1969, BAG artists transformed an abandoned warehouse at 2665 Washington Blvd. into the movement’s headquarters.

As BAG expanded, it attracted major grant funding from the Danforth Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others. In July 1969, the group obtained, for an annual rent of $1, a building at 2665 Washington Blvd., in the heart of the inner city, which soon housed living quarters, performance/rehearsal space, a painting studio and teaching facilities for dance, theatre, music, film, creative writing and visual arts.

Yet despite a rich tradition of black music, at the time “the atmosphere in St. Louis was not particularly receptive to the new sounds being explored by Lake, Hemphill and their musical comrades,” Looker points out. For example, Hemphill’s LP “Dogon A.D.” (1972), released on his own Mbari record label, was praised by jazz critics yet found only limited distribution and virtually no radio play.

By the early 1970s, leading BAG musicians had grown frustrated with the lack of opportunity and relocated to Paris and then New York.

In particular, Lake, Hemphill and Hamiet Bluiett quickly carved out dominant roles in New York’s underground “loft-jazz” scene. Within a few years, the three had captured international acclaim as co-founders of the World Saxophone Quartet, a group hailed by The New York Times as “probably the most protean and exciting new jazz band of the 1980s.”

“BAG continues to be most widely known for the cadre of jazz improvisers and composers that it fostered,” Looker concludes.

“But a few broader themes do emerge from the collective’s repertoire: arts as a potent method of community engagement; institution-building as a response to the social and economic forces rending the fabric of urban life; and an aesthetic vision focused on black heritage and tradition in the context of new forms and techniques.”