We discussed the organization Mobilization for Youth (MFY) when we learned that Ornette Coleman had applied there to perform. But MFY had further connections with jazz.
My friend and former grad student Evan Spring, a jazz historian who specializes in the late 50s and early 1960s, tells me that MFY put on a jazz concert on July 25, 1963 in the East River Park Amphitheatre in lower Manhattan. It featured "four neighborhood youth bands" including one led by Jackie McLean’s saxophonist son René. Jackie was the m.c. (master of ceremonies) and sat in with some of the youth bands. The concert was described in the Amsterdam News (still one of the leading Black newspapers) as reflecting "juvenile delinquency vs. jazz development," that is, as showing how involvement with jazz was a positive force that could keep young people from becoming “juvenile delinquents.”
Saxophonist/composer/author Archie Shepp was involved with MFY from about late 1962. But by the summer of 1964 the organization was facing charges that it advocated socialism, and that some staff members were communists, or had ties to Cuba. Some politicians were concerned that a few MFY members—including Shepp—had attended the left-wing pro socialist and communist World Festival of Youth and Students, held in Helsinki in the summer of 1962. (Angela Davis was there as well.)
In fact, Shepp had performed there with the group that he co-led with Bill Dixon, and it was broadcast on the radio, which you can listen to here.
You can read more about Shepp’s involvement in the festival here. That article was coauthored by Pierre Crépon, a French journalist who presents his excellent work on the jazz avant-garde in many publications. After seeing my post on Ornette’s application for a position with MFY, he shared with me his fascinating research about Archie Shepp’s involvement with that organization.
Pierre writes as follows:
The letter seeking to verify Ornette’s recommendation with Nesuhi Ertegun was dated January 4, 1965. As it happens, it was on that exact date that a group of four current and former MFY employees held a press conference to push back against attacks related to their involvement with the agency. Among them was Archie Shepp.
Shepp was no longer affiliated with MFY, but he had worked in its Coffee Shop program — the same program Ornette had applied to — from December 1962 to July 1963. Why was his name being brought up now?
On the public front, things had started on August 16, 1964 with a front page article in the New York Daily News, which at that time was known to be right-wing. The headline was “Youth Agency Eyed for Reds. City Cuts off Project’s Funds.” It described the paper’s "investigation" of MFY and its findings regarding its harboring of communists and fostering of subversion, including "racial disorders." Concerned New York City Council president Paul R. Screvane was quoted at length.
FBI loyalty checks completed earlier in the year had identified, out of 300 current MFY employees, 9 people (i.e. 3%) who had "leftist" connections in the 1930s or 1940s, with one or two having been actual Communist Party members. Even though they had found almost nothing, they continued to waste money investigating MFY.
During a December 29, 1964 press conference, the investigation headed by John J. Marchi, a Republican state senator from Staten Island, issued its Preliminary Data Report of the Senate Committee on Affairs of the City of New York on Mobilization for Youth, Inc. The hastily thrown together Marchi report disclosed the names of four current and three former MFY employees said to be of "extremist background." It contained the following about Shepp:
“A former undercover operative for the FBI identified Archie Shepp as a member of the Lower Manhattan Youth Club of the Communist Party in 1962. Mr. Shepp was a delegate to the Communist Youth Festival” (actually the World Festival of Youth and Students, mentioned above) “held in Helsinki, Finland, during the summer of 1962. The magazine New Horizons for Youth, identified by a US Senate Committee as a Communist publication aimed at young people, carried an article signed ‘Fred Archer’ in its Summer 1962 issue. A picture of the author accompanying the article was identified as Archie Shepp by the former FBI undercover operative during his testimony before this Committee.”
In response, Shepp and three others named in the Marchi report—Calvin Hicks, Marc Schleifer, and Leroy McRae, who all worked part-time for MFY—held a press conference at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery on January 4, 1965. The New York Times coverage did not quote Shepp except to indicate that he "dismissed the whole report as 'red-baiting.'" (That is, persecuting people who are suspected of ties to Communism.) The Daily News included a large picture showing Shepp and the other speakers with its coverage of the conference:
According to this Daily News article, Hicks and Shepp said that it was "irrelevant" whether or not the alleged associations were true. "Shepp, 27, was in MFY community work for five months, leaving 1 ½ years ago because of 'disagreement with some of the things going on,'" the newspaper wrote. "He said the coffee shop in which he taught music was ill-equipped and should have had more Puerto Ricans involved."
The next month, on February 16, 1965, Shepp recorded the bulk of his second Impulse album, Fire Music. It contained "Los Olvidados," a composition titled after Luis Buñuel’s acclaimed film that depicts gangs in Mexico City slums. Shepp explained in the liner notes that part of the experience out of which the music had been born came from his time working with MFY as a counselor ("a glorified street club worker," he said) and music teacher. The music was to relate "the frustration of that gig — knowing I couldn’t do anything meaningful about that scene.” In the original notes by Nat Hentoff, those comments are at the bottom of the first column and the top of the next:
And here is the relevant portion, from the CD booklet, which has a larger font:
Meanwhile, Marchi’s anti-Communist maneuvers eventually fizzled out, and his anticlimactic report was not followed by anything more definitive. "The Mobilization affair had not proved to be of any political help to the Republican Party," Alfred Fried wrote in a detailed account of the crisis published in the book Community Development in the Mobilization for Youth Experience.
But of course, as is well-known, even when an investigation has ended, it is impossible to repair the damage done to organizations and individuals. For this and other reasons, MFY did not survive more than another five years.
Thank you, Pierre, for this fascinating report!
All the best,
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Perry Robinson talked about his involvement with the youth concert with Shepp et al in his autobiography
Amazing work as usual Mr. Porter-- you and your colleagues are allowing us to see these luminaries work through daily life, bringing greater richness to their music!