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A Heady Time In St. Louis: Film Offers Rare Snapshot Of Influential Black Artists Group

In the 1960s and 70s, Black Artists Group musicians would gather outdoors for rehearsals and jam sessions. This photo is seen in the documentary "The Black Artists Group: Creation Equals Movement," which is part of this year's St. Louis International Film Festival.
John Mallaire
In the 1960s and '70s, Black Artists Group musicians would gather outdoors for rehearsals and jam sessions. This photo is seen in the documentary "The Black Artists Group: Creation Equals Movement," which is part of this year's St. Louis International Film Festival.

When the Black Arts Movement began sweeping across the United States in the mid-1960s, its message of Black ownership and empowerment touched every art form. Amiri Baraka formed the Black Arts Repertory Theatre in Harlem. Haki R. Madhubuti launched the Afrocentric publishing house Third World Press in Chicago.

In St. Louis, Black poets, musicians, dancers and theater artists formed the interdisciplinary collective Black Artists Group. It not only provided a platform for Black artists of all sorts but often led to collaborative projects that blurred genre lines.

The Black Artists Group of St. Louis: Creation Equals Movement,” a film about the group, is part of this year’s online-only St. Louis International Film Festival. It will be available to stream for three weeks beginning Thursday.

The non-narrated documentary, directed by Bryan Dematteis, combines previously unseen archival footage and interviews with several members of Black Artists Group. Its soundtrack includes period selections from BAG members and their influences — including Art Ensemble of Chicago, co-founded by St. Louis native Lester Bowie, whose younger brother Joseph was active with BAG.

“When I realized the interdisciplinary nature of the group and the fact it went so far beyond music — it had a political element, an educational element — I realized there was a story that needed to be told there,” Dematteis said.

Dennis C. Owsley
Copyright Dennis C. Owsley
Hamiet Bluiett co-founded World Saxophone Quartet with other Black Artists Group members.

An extensive legacy

BAG was only active from 1968 to 1972, but many of its veterans went on to have long and influential careers. The late Hamiet Bluiett, Oliver Lake and Julius Hemphill co-founded the World Saxophone Quartet. Joseph Bowie recorded many albums with Defunkt and Ehthnic Heritage Ensemble. J.D. Parran recorded extensively with Anthony Braxton.

Poet Shirley Bradley LeFlore became the second poet laureate of St. Louis. Emilio Cruz, who ran BAG’s visual arts program, exhibited his work around the country.

The artistic output was often boundary-breaking. Underpinning it was a fierce commitment to self-producing work by Black artists, for Black audiences.

In the film, theater director Malinké Elliott describes the founding philosophy of BAG.

“Politically, BAG was just the instrument,” he said in the documentary. “The goal was Black empowerment, economic empowerment. That was the impetus for BAG. We need to do for ourselves. We gotta quit standing at the back door with our hat in our hand, waiting on a handout. We gotta walk through the front door, in charge.”

Director Dematteis, a St. Louis native, discovered the collective through a reference to Black Artists Group’s 1973 album “Live in Paris” on a list of influential free jazz recordings. He tracked down BAG co-founder Charles “Bobo” Shaw, a prolific drummer, who connected him with many of the people who appear in the film.

Among them is trumpeter George Sams, who would co-produce the film. He was just 16 when he started hanging out with the BAG crowd, some of whom would gather at Forest Park’s Art Hill for rehearsals and jam sessions.

Black Artists Group (Oliver Lake) - Re_cre_a_tion

“These guys were very studious guys. They always had something that they had set to do. They were always on a mission,” Sams said in an interview. “It was a very organized, collective improvisation setting with the intention to do exactly what they were doing.”

The film was several years in the making. It was a particular challenge to find surviving film footage of BAG at work, though Dematteis did uncover some priceless footage, including clips of dance performances and an art class for children at BAG’s Washington Avenue headquarters.

Dematteis cautioned that the 49-minute film is not a comprehensive history of BAG but a vivid snapshot of a heady time.

“It’s the shared experience of people who were there and directly affected by this,” he said. “That’s what we set out to do, let these folks tell their stories about this important collective at this important time in St. Louis.”

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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