threadgill hed


Speak to Henry Threadgill about his work, and a funny thing happens. Once the conversation really starts to take off, you find you're not discussing music, even though you're talking to one of America's most creative musicians -- an intense, inventive, generous, and witty saxophonist who, over a career more than 20 years long, became both a leader in jazz, and a composer who ranks with the best in any form of music today.
No, this man might not talk to you about music. Instead, he'll talk about painting, theater, dance, or even food. With delight, he'll tell you that in Holland, there used to be a restaurant with no menu. You'd sit down to dinner, he remembers, and the chef would ask you what you wanted to eat. "You would say, I've got a taste for some lamb, and he would say, but how do you see the lamb? How do you want it to be?" Once this chef had figured out your vision of your lamb, well, that would inspire him, and he'd come up with something neither you nor he had ever dreamed of. He never cooked the same way twice.
And this little tale isn't really a digression. Threadgill gets reminded of the improvising chef when he explains something musical, his reasons for rewriting the pieces on his records whenever he performs them live. "You can't let musicians get too relaxed," he says, talking not just about the people in his bands, but also himself. "You do something you know too well, you're not going to get excited. You'll do what you know."
Hence the chef, who never wanted to repeat himself. "Cat would take some Cuban black rum and put it in a frying pan, cut up some grapefruit and fry it with butter and black rum!" Fried grapefruit! Threadgill gets musical ideas from daring thoughts like that. He'll get them from theater productions, from the crazy spinning movements a painter friend used to use when he'd paint, or from a peculiar quality of light he remembers finding in Holland, back when he'd go to the fried grapefruit place: "The light under the darkness! You ever seen that? When the sky is dark, and there's light under the darkness, light shooting down? That's given me new ways of thinking musically."

No Limits

With influences like these, it's no wonder he won't limit himself by calling himself a jazz musician -- or, for that matter, by putting himself in any other category. "I just started out hearing music," he insists, thinking of his younger days, when he was growing up in Chicago during the 1950s. He'd hear gospel in church, and Muddy Waters in clubs. On the radio, he'd hear "Polish music, Yugoslavian music, Mexican music, all kinds of black music, country and western, classical music…" In grammar school one of his teachers loved to play Tchaikovksy. "I knew that music backwards."
When he was five or six he taught himself to play the piano, starting with boogie woogie, because its regular patterns made it easy to figure out. One of his uncles was a bassist who played with Ahmad Jamal, so he wanted to learn the bass. But he was too little. "They kept telling me I had to wait till I grew up, so I said forget the bass. I didn't make up my mind what to play till I got to high school and studied the saxophone."
His teacher was a famous musician named John Hauser, who'd played with Charlie Parker. "He was a school in himself," says Threadgill. "He had an ensemble, and he'd teach us to read stock arrangements, 'Melancholy Baby,' things like that." This very practical training served Threadgill so well that soon he got hired by marching bands; he'd parade through Chicago streets with the VFW and the Shriners.
Then he went to Wilson Junior College, and that's when things really started to explode. The school, Threadgill says, was like 52d Street in New York during the first years of bebop; musicians who'd later push the frontiers of music further out , people like Anthony Braxton, Jack DeJohnette, and Joseph Jarman, were all there together. But the place also must have been like Paris in the '20s or the Harlem Renaissance because, as Threadgill most happily remembers, "it wasn't all music. It was everything. It was poets, writers, painters, revolutionaries. We read poetry and philosophy. When school was over, we'd go across the street to a church and open up rooms for poetry readings, for bands to rehearse in, for art exhibits."
To make a living, Threadgill was still playing in marching bands, but also in polka bands, mariachi bands, and blues bands -- though not jazz bands. That was, first of all, because in the bands around Chicago "everyone was trying to play what Art Blakey was playing, or Horace Silver, or Miles. I was practicing those things, but I had started to hear some new music. I was hearing Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor." Plus, from high school on, he'd been listening to Sun Ra -- along with, as he got older, world music and 20th century classical composers like Varese.
And as if all this wasn't enough, Threadgill also studied at the American Conservatory of Music, where, he wants everyone to understand, "there was no such thing as jazz. I became a clarinet player; I played Poulenc, Hindemith." He co-majored in piano and flute, along with composition, which he studied with a woman named Stella Roberts (a student of the world-famous Nadia Boulanger, who'd also taught composers like Copland and Philip Glass). Roberts, it's clear, influenced him enormously, and in ways that, considering how he thinks about music now, seem uniquely Threadgillian. "I'd bring her my compositions," Threadgill says, "and if she found something that didn't work, she'd go to the window, point out a building and discuss its architecture. [Her studio overlooked the pioneering modern structures on Chicago's Michigan Avenue.] Or she'd take a photography book down off the shelf, and talk about the photographs."

Time for Joplin

From there it's a straight line to the Henry Threadgill whose music is shaped by clouds and light in Holland. He formed his first ensemble, Air, after a stint in the military, where he played and arranged for Army bands. He'd returned to Chicago, and fallen in with an avant-garde theater and dance community that flourished (by now we're in the early '70s) on the city's North Side. He made his living writing music for their productions, one of which -- with a budget large enough for only three musicians -- needed Scott Joplin tunes.
So Threadgill recruited a bassist and a drummer, never worrying that, by conventional standards, such a choice was totally bizarre. Joplin was the father of ragtime, after all, and his music couldn't be more closely identified with the sound of the piano. Worse still, it rests on a bed of solid chordal harmony, which the linear trio of sax, bass, and drums can't reasonably provide.
But Threadgill -- who'll almost rhapsodically recall his work around that time with a Balinese dancer, a man who required everyone working with his company, even musicians, to study dance -- was looking for new ways of moving through musical space. And that's what he did, both in the Joplin music (which only began with Joplin, before taking off into improvisation), and when the trio played Threadgill's own compositions, touring and recording 12 albums as Air. "I studied what Ahmad Jamal was doing with drums," he says, "how the drums were tuned, how the drums wouldn't just keep time, they would play melody." In Air, it's fair to say, nobody kept time, and everyone played melody. Musical space -- normally organized by rhythm and harmony -- is instead shaped by movement. Or, to put the same thing in visual terms, Threadgill's pieces for Air are like surprising pencil drawings, in which you don't see colors or even forms, but which instead are brought to life by the active twisting of the penciled lines.
Threadgill's next long-lasting ensemble after Air was the Henry Threadgill Sextett, which didn't have six players -- it had seven, a lineup that included trumpet, trombone, bass, and Threadgill on saxes and flute, along with an unexpected cello and two drummers. (Threadgill counted the drummers as a single part; that's why he called the group a sextet). He recorded six albums with this ensemble, and his music got fuller. It had rich harmony now, and a quasi-orchestral sonic palette, challenging Threadgill to make quick changes of instrumental color, fine adjustments of, as he happily puts it, "how much white are you going to put in that red?"
But the Sextett made his music looser, too. He relaxed a little more; his compositions smiled. Now that he had more instruments, the drums might stray back to an enhanced version of their traditional role; the horns could play melodic lines from gospel music, R&B, or New Orleans jazz. Threadgill himself had played all those styles; as his freelance career expanded, he'd toured with a gospel choir (though that, he says, was also because the church fascinated him), and played dates at home with R&B groups like the Four Tops and the Dells. With the Sextett, he began to draw many kinds of music he liked into his work, creating a typically American -- and, if you like, typically postmodern -- stylistic stew.

He's No Stylist

But of course there had to be another group. "I'm not a stylist," Threadgill says. "I get dissatisfied when I start seeing my procedures too much, and I have to move on." And Threadgill's next group took the innovations of the Sextett even further. Its name -- Very Very Circus -- gives one clue to what it's about. Somewhere along the line, Threadgill had played in a circus band; now he thought he'd create a musical impression of two circus rings, with separate performances going on in each.
And while the music never quite splits into two fully independent parts, the two-ring metaphor does help explain the group's zany composition. Threadgill again played saxes and flutes, joined by trombone (later French horn), two guitars, drums, and two -- count them, two -- tubas. Common sense would tell you that the blended tubas ought to sound muddy, but Threadgill's music transcends common sense. The tubas don't blend. They each dance in a separate circus ring, overlapping but never getting in each other's way, as they function as the bass of two conceptually distinct trios (guitar, tuba, and sax, paired against guitar, tuba, and trombone). The music sounds fluid and lithe. It's full of delicate detail, so much so, in fact, that Threadgill's emotional range seems to grow; you hear wry irony, and a kind of light-hearted tenderness.
There's also an even wider range of musical styles, which his new album deftly demonstrates. (Carry the Day is the fourth Very Very Circus album, though Threadgill, who just won't stand still, keeps adding new instruments and credits this and the last record to "Very Very Circus Plus.") On the first track, "Come Carry the Day," you hear the alert patter of Venezuelan drumming, a light-hearted sound that reminds Threadgill of "bubbles on a stream." Parts of the second cut, "Growing a Big Banana," could almost have been crafted by the most elegant of postwar serial composers, Pierre Boulez (though Boulez could never relax enough to think of a title so wonderfully absurd). The third piece, "Vivjanrondirski," moves between two musical spaces, like a theater production staged on two levels; other tracks draw on traditional jazz, free jazz, and on an almost abstract way of setting words to music you'd most often find in advanced modern classical music.
All of which makes you wonder what Threadgill's work ought to be called. His relationship to jazz is clear enough. It's part of his heritage, of course, and he did embrace at least one variety of it. He was strongly influenced by Muhal Richard Abrams and his Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which pioneered exactly the blend of avant-garde jazz and abstract 20th century classical styles that Threadgill exemplifies in his work with Air.
But it's also fair to say that jazz is something he was channeled into. That's because he plays the saxophone, stereotyped as a jazz instrument, and because he's black: "I didn't have much hope of going to work in a symphony orchestra," he says, "because they weren't hiring many black people." It's also because he moved to New York, and found, he says, that in New York's vast musical world he really was placed in a jazz slot. He wasn't as welcome in dance and theater as he'd been in Chicago.
Clearly he wouldn't call himself a classical musician. Working in classical music would have muffled him; he couldn't have made a career as both composer and performer, couldn't have improvised, couldn't have worked with Venezuelan drummers or honking sax styles right out of R&B. But calling his music jazz is almost equally limiting. The "jazz" label makes you forget that Threadgill wrote a thoughtful orchestral piece, premiered by the Brooklyn Philharmonic in 1993; worse yet, it makes established orchestras less likely to ask him to write another one. It makes you think his music is improvised, when much of it -- up to 90%, he's said -- is composed. And while he's been named "best composer" by Downbeat magazine's critics and readers, he's effectively barred from the highest honors American composers get, including supremely prestigious awards like the Pulitzer Prize.
Does he mind? Sometimes, but, as he says, "I just think it and it's gone. I can't dwell on it." He'd like to think of himself simply as an artist -- as a composer of serious art music. If he has to be categorized, he wants his records to be planted in the world music bin, which might not give people any idea what they sounded like, but would at least put him next to the sounds he often feels closest to.
But mostly he wishes these classifications didn't exist. He thinks they turn away part -- maybe a large part -- of his potential audience. "Put a label on music," he says, "and some people won't buy it. But people are broader than that. I believe everybody on the street would be broader than that, given a chance." Because in the end, music will be judged for quality, not form. "Does a house have to be built one way," Threadgill asks, "does it have to have an east wing and a west wing to be a great piece of architecture? All these divisions!" he sighs. "If it's a great piece of music, it's a great piece of music."

(written for Columbia Records, as part of the press kit for Threadgill's first Columbia album, Carry the Day)