Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Thornton, Clifford

Cornetist and valve trombonist Clifford Thornton made an often-overlooked mark on free jazz in the 1960s with a series of politically outspoken albums and performances. His ability to play multiple instruments, including the shennai, an Indian quadruple-reed instrument, gave him a rich palette from which to combine ideas from bebop with free improvisation.

Thornton was born in Philadelphia on September 6, 1936. He was a cousin of drummer J.C. Moses. He attended Temple University from 1954 to 1956, and studied with Donald Byrd in 1957. He played with tubist Ray Draper from 1956 to 1957, and toured both Korea and Japan with an Army Band from 1958 to 1961.

Settling in New York after the Army, Thornton recorded with Sun Ra in 1962, played with Pharoah Sanders in 1963 and John Tchicai in 1966. In December of that year he recorded on trombone and cornet with Marzette Watts. The following year he formed the New Arts Ensemble, a free-jazz group, and recorded as a leader on Freedom & Unity, the mood of which was informed by its timing; it was recorded the day after the funeral, of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane on July 22, 1967.

Unlike Albert Ayler or Ornette Coleman, who utilized folk forms or country blues ideas in their pursuit of a free-jazz aesthetic, Thornton employed big band concepts drawn from both Mingus and Ellington, particularly in terms of tone color and space. This is the first recording with a young Joe McPhee, who would forge his own, similar path to Thornton’s. Stylistically similar to Don Cherry’s long form pieces, such as Complete Communion or Symphony for Improvisers, Thornton did not draw on the same folk forms or rhythm 'n' blues backbeats as Ayler, nor did he try for multi-phonic pastiche in the manner of Coltrane'sAscension.Instead, not unlike saxophonist Anthony Braxton in the middle 1970s, Thornton was looking for his own path.

For example, on Freedom & Unity, Edward Avent’s bright cornet and Thornton’s brassy and flexible valve trombone are contrasted with Karl Berger’s sophisticated and thoughtful vibes and a strong rhythmic foundation of the two double basses of Don Moore and Jimmy Garrison. The music has a political subtext, and is alternately heartbreaking, complex, and demanding, yet sometimes employs simple motives.

In 1969 Thornton performed with Dave Burrell, Sonny Murray, and Archie Shepp, and he then recorded with Shepp at the Antibes–Juan-les-Pins Jazz Festival in 1970. Thornton was banned from France following this concert for being a member of the Black Panther Party. In George Lewis’s A Power Stronger Than Itself, Famoudou Don Moye, the drummer for the Art Ensemble of Chicago, described the incident. A benefit concert for the Black Panthers was organized at the Mutualité, a hall at the end of Boulevard St. Germain, with the Art Ensemble, the Frank Wright Quartet, and Daevid Allen’s “Gong.” Thornton made an incendiary speech that shocked even his fellow Black Panthers; the audience responded wildly, but as he left the stage, a special inspector met him and escorted him out.

Thornton’s 1971 album The Panther & the Lash was a live recording from November 7, 1970, which took its title from a 1927 book by poet Langston Hughes which similarly expressed ideals of Black Nationalism. Released by a French label and using French musicians pianist François Tusques, bassist Beb Guérin, and American expat drummer Noel McGhie, Thornton offers a program on West African, Tunisian, French free-jazz, and his own compositions, such as “Huey Is Free.”

On “Paysage Desolé” from the same album, Thornton's valve trombone uses distorted pitches, raw splatters of long notes, and low, almost tragic sounds in tandem with plucked bass and percussive jolts.

“Right On!” has a gospel-inflected piano theme repeated on valve trombone in the style of Lamont Johnson’s “Old Gospel” from Jackie McLean and Ornette Coleman’s collaboration. Yet,Thornton’s solo abruptly changes pace and slows to a blues-like dirge, as the bell-like celeste repeats the theme behind him. Slippery squawks and a nearly melancholy minor mode devolve into a percussive background. The trombone then intercedes in an atmospheric, chamber-like sonnet. Piano chords, a quickening hi-hat, and a mournful, almost primitive figure from the trombone characterize most of the rest of the piece.

Like Marion Brown's work, this track explores not the frenetic, energy-based dynamics of free jazz, but its introspective, exploratory atmosphere. Thornton’s music, though politically and musically current with idea of their time, remains undated and vigorous, and his wiry, accelerated trombone style are among the most distinctive of the period.

From 1969 to 1975, Thornton was an Assistant Professor of African and African-American Music at Wesleyan University, where he started his own label, Third World Records. In 1976 he became an educational counselor at the African American Institute, an organization supported by UNESCO. He lived in Geneva, Switzerland, where he died on November 25, 1983.

Thornton's music, such as Gardens of Harlem, draws from a range of influences from the Carribbean, West and North Africa, as well as Afro-American blues and gospel influences, despite its categorization in the free-jazz genre. He used his facility on multiple instruments to craft sometimes-violent eulogies with sweeping open aural spaces. In doing so, Thornton’s often-overlooked performances seek a bridge between bebop and later ideas of the jazz avant-garde.

Select Discography

As a Leader:

Freedom & Unity, Unheard Music / Atavistic, 1967

The Panther and the Lash, Freedom, 1970

The Gardens of Harlem, JCOA, 1974

with Sun Ra:

Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow, Saturn, 1965

with Sunny Murray:

Homage to Africa, BYG, 1969

with Joe McPhee:

At WBAI's Free Music Store, HatART, 1971

with Archie Shepp:

Attica Blues, Impulse!, 1972

Contributor: Sean Singer