Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Threadgill, Henry (Luther)
Composer and multi-instrumentalist Henry Threadgill is an iconoclast and individualist. These qualities are evident in his penchant for hybrid groups, his ability to cross musical boundaries, and collaborations that blend music with poetry, dance, and theater. He has shown a consistent interest in blurring the lines between composition and improvisation.
Threadgill often cites Jelly Roll Morton as a model, and he performs on saxophone, flute, and clarinet, as well as percussion and other instruments. He was one of the earliest members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a collective organization founded in Chicago in 1965.
Unlike many of his AACM peers, he has always preferred ensemble work, and has never recorded an entire unaccompanied solo project. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003. His daughter, Pyeng Threadgill, whose mother is dancer and choreographer Christine Jones, has established her own career as a singer.
Early Life and Musical Training
Threadgill was born on February 15, 1944, in Chicago, where his extended family included an aunt who studied classical piano and voice, and an uncle, Nevin Wilson, who played bass in pianist Ahmad Jamal’s trio, and was a close friend of bassist Wilbur Ware.
The checkerboard of ethnic groups in Chicago’s city blocks provided Threadgill encounters with the music of Poland, Yugoslavia, Mexico, and country-and-western music. He encountered classical music on the radio and at school, and remembers finding himself absorbed in Tchaikovsky. He heard gospel music at church, and was impressed by the theatricality of religion. He also heard the blues and other black music at the Maxwell Street flea market.
He attended Chicago’s Englewood High School. Other Englewood alumni include AACM members Steve McCall and Roscoe Mitchell, bassist and trombonist Louis Satterfield, and saxophonist Donald Myrick, who would later gain fame as a member of the Phenix Horns, the permanent horn section of Earth, Wind, and Fire.
Threadgill credits Myrick as an influence and mentor during these formative years. At Englewood, Threadgill began playing the tenor and then baritone saxophones, inspired by local players including John Gilmore, Gene Ammons, Von Freeman, and Clifford Jordan. As a young teenager, Threadgill attended rehearsals and performances of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, and was impressed by the uniqueness of the bandleader’s musical and organizational approach.
After high school, Threadgill played with Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) marching bands in parades, as well as with blues, mariachi, gospel, and polka bands. He also enrolled at Wilson Junior College, which is now Kennedy-King College. There he met musicians who later joined him to create the AACM, including Joseph Jarman, Richard “Ari” Brown, Anthony Braxton, Malachi Favors, and Roscoe Mitchell.
Jack DeJohnette, Eddie Harris, Bunky Green, and Betty Dupree were also students at Wilson with Threadgill. With the encouragement of faculty member Richard Wang, these students formed a music club, and invited Muhal Richard Abrams, the AACM’s future first president, to perform at the school.
Threadgill and other members of this cohort soon joined Abrams’s music workshop, now known as the Experimental Band, which laid the groundwork for the AACM. Every member was expected to compose music, with a part for every musician in the ensemble, regardless of instrument. Threadgill recalls first creating a piece for the Experimental Band around 1962, adding momentum to the composing he had begun in high school.
In the following decade, Threadgill built on his experience from Wilson at Governors State University and then at the American Conservatory of Music (ACM), where he ultimately received a degree in flute performance and composition. He studied clarinet there, and remembers learning pieces by Poulenc and Hindemith. Stella Roberts, Threadgill’s composition teacher at ACM, had studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.
“I wasn't in those programs to get [a] degree; I was there just to take everything they had,” Threadgill later told Gene Santoro. This attitude of immersing himself in any possible musical experience remained Threadgill’s modus operandi in any setting.
He toured the U.S. with Philadelphia-based evangelist Horace Shepherd in 1963 and 1964. In the late 1960s, he toured with gospel singer Jo Jo Morris. With Shepherd, especially, he remembers being fascinated by the ability of the group’s highly trained musicians to shift gears based on the emotional trajectory of the service, making each performance unpredictable and unique.
The AACM was founded in May of 1965, and Threadgill was among its earliest members. But like many of his AACM colleagues, he had to leave Chicago for military service in 1966. He first worked in the Army as a musician and arranger—until, he claims, his arrangement of a patriotic song struck Army brass as disrespectful, and he was sent to Vietnam. Threadgill’s stint in the army however introduced him to top-notch musicians and allowed him to dedicate much of his energies to music.
He returned to Chicago in 1968 and joined the AACM Big Band, and also worked with Philip Cohran, one of the AACM’s four original founders. Cohran had by then moved away from the collective, and what he saw as its tendency to be too “out,” and founded the Affro-Arts Theater.
Threadgill visited New York City in 1969, but soon returned to Chicago, where he recorded for the first time with Muhal Richard Abrams’s all-AACM quintet in the summer of that year, on the album Young at Heart, Wise in Time.
Career As a Leader
In early 1970s Threadgill turned his energies towards composing for and leading groups of his own. The first of these was Air, a trio with Fred Hopkins on bass, and AACM founder Steve McCall on drums. Threadgill played saxophones and the hubkaphone, a found-sound percussion instrument he built out of hubcaps.
Initially called Reflection, the trio was formed for a one-time event—a 1971 centennial celebration of ragtime composer Scott Joplin’s birth, held at Chicago’s Columbia College. Columbia also commissioned Threadgill to score for modern dance performances at this time.
The trio renamed itself Air after moving to New York in 1975, where many of the AACM members had also moved. The three worked more or less as a collective, both musically and organizationally, although the bulk of the composed material was Threadgill’s.
Air toured widely and recorded nine albums together, the best known of which is Air Lore in 1979. The album was a rare exception to the original-music-only credo of the AACM, but a return to the trio’s roots, which included arrangements of Joplin rags and two Jelly Roll Morton pieces. A reconfigured trio, New Air, recorded two albums in the mid-1980s.
As Air’s members became increasingly busy in New York, Threadgill embarked on larger-scale projects under his own name. The first was X-75, which, like many of his endeavors to come, brought together unlikely combinations of instruments, often in pairs or even multiples. In X-75, Threadgill used four basses including a piccolo bass, four woodwinds and a vocalist. The group recorded only one album, X-75 (vol. 1).
Threadgill worked widely in New York, with the David Murray Octet and Bill Laswell’s collective, Material. He then put together another ensemble that would be his most visible effort for several years—the Henry Threadgill Sextet, or “Sextett,” as he sometimes called it.
The group featured instrument pairs, which allowed him to compose for “sections” of strings, brass and percussion: bass and cello, trumpet and trombone, and two drummers. These three pairs combined to create the sound of Threadgill’s “sextet.” Threadgill was the one-man woodwind section, playing alto saxophone, clarinet, and various flutes. This “little orchestra,” as he called it, allowed him to experiment with Ellingtonian cross-sectional voicing.
Threadgill’s broad range of experiences contributed to a rich compositional palette for the Sextett across its six album and eight years together. The group recorded fight songs, calypsos, gospel, and blues swirled with odd-metered post-modern classical structures, with the energy of free jazz. The two drummers played a central part in the ensemble, often introducing pieces or spelling the horn players with high-energy duos, like a parade band percussion section.
The early 1990s saw the end of Threadgill’s Sextett and the birth of the Very Very Circus, an ensemble composed of his reeds, a French horn, two guitars, two tubas, and drums. He also began to receive numerous nominations and awards in jazz magazine critics and readers polls.
His composition and arranging projects for others multiplied, and even his own albums featured chamber music-like pieces on which he did not play. One of these is 1993’s Song Out of My Trees, where a quartet of graduated acoustic guitars teamed up with pianist Myra Melford.
Wider critical reception led to a major-label contract with Columbia Records in 1995, which did not last long. “When I signed,” he told writer Dan Ouellette, “the divorce papers were already being drafted.” Gradually, the Very Very Circus gave way to Make a Move—guitar, accordion (or vibraphone), electric bass, drums, and Threadgill’s saxophone.
Zooid was Threadgill’s next hybrid group. It included guitar, oud, cello, tuba, and drums, along with the leader’s woodwinds. Always known for thorough compositional organization, Threadgill began in this group to employ improvisational strategies based not on chords but on sets of intervals, making it difficult even for well-trained ears to predict the frequency of cyclic repetition.
Over the years, much of Threadgill’s work has gone unrecorded, sometimes by choice. He has always preferred the interaction and unpredictability of group performances to solo work. His twenty-some-member Society Situation Orchestra has performed infrequently in the U.S. and abroad. For Threadgill, the group’s chief function is to provide live music for dancing, not to be documented.
He also leads the WindString Ensemble, which includes saxophone, violin, viola, cello, and tuba, another section-based group he calls 3+3: three cellos, tuba, drums, and his flute and saxophone, and a marching band.
In 2001, he organized a multimedia event centered on the poetry of Derek Walcott, with dancers, visual art, spoken word, and music composed for an octet. He has written pieces for chamber orchestra, saxophone quartet, for organ and orchestra, and an ensemble he conducts called Aggregation Orb, which includes French horn, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, acoustic guitar, oud, tuba, hand drums, drumset, vibraphone/marimba, and vocals.
Threadgill’s versatility can best be summed up in his own words. “I do music, period… Jazz. European orchestral music. American religious music, white and black. Parades. All types of functional music. All music, period. All of it.”
Alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, clarinet, flute, alto flute, baritone flute, bass flute, percussion, hubkaphone, hub “T” wall, Chinese musette, Eastern banjo, gongs, percussion, little instruments, cymbal gongs, finger cymbals, gong, garbage can bottoms, handbells, plumbing brass, rhythm sticks, hackbrett, vocals.
Selected List of Commissioned Works and Other Performances
Solo alto saxophone piece played by Anthony Braxton at an AACM recital c. 1969.
“RSVP,” with Mordine & Company, at Columbia College, Chicago, c. 1971.
“May the Angels Take You into Heaven on Earth,” for Quintet for Strings and
Woodwinds, Carnegie Hall, 1983.
“The Android That Terminated Hugh-Pinkston Sells and Committed Suicide,” New York
Art Institute (Wind-String Ensemble), 1984.
“Premier Piece, Second Quintet,” Carnegie Hall, 1985.
“Thomas Cole, a Walking Dream” (The New York Shakespeare Festival), 1985.
“Run Silent, Run Deep, Run Loud, Run High,” the Brooklyn Academy of Music/Next
Wave Festival (conducted by Hale Smith), 1987.
“Flores y Animales,” with Mordine & Company, at Columbia College, Chicago, c. 1989.
“Background for Saxophones,” commissioned by the Rova Saxophone Quartet, 1989.
“Mix for Orchestra,” commissioned for the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra (Max
Roach, soloist; conducted by Dennis Russell Davis), 1993.
“he didn’t give up/he was taken,”_quartet for baritone voice, violin, alto saxophone, and
piano. _Text by Thulani Davis. Recorded on Mitchell’s release Pilgrimage (Lovely Music, 1995).
“Veryation for Organ and Orchestra” (conducted by Petr Kotik), 1997.
“On Walcott” (European tour), 1997, (New York City), 2001.
“And Yet” for orchestra, performed by the S.E.M. Ensemble at Brooklyn’s Willow Place
Auditorium (conducted by Petr Kotik), 2001.
“Peroxide,” an “evening-length work” commissioned by the Miller Theatre at Columbia
University (dedicated to the Columbia’s 250th anniversary), 2003.
As a leader:
Air Song (Why Not, 1975)
Live Air (Black Saint, 1976)
Wildflowers 1 (Douglas, 1976)
Air Raid (Why Not, 1976)
Air Time (Nessa, 1977)
Open Air Suit (Arista/Novus, 1978)
Live at Montreux 1978 (Arista/Novus, 1978)
Air Lore (Arista/Novus, 1979)
Air Mail (Black Saint, 1980)
80° Below ’82 (Antilles, 1982)
X-75 volume 1 (Arista/Novus, 1979)
With New Air:
Live at the Montreal International Jazz Festival (Black Saint, 1983)
Air Show No. 1, featuring Cassandra Wilson (Black Saint, 1986)
With the Henry Threadgill Sextet (or Sextett):
When Was That?(About Time, 1981)
Just the Facts and Pass the Bucket (About Time, 1983)
Subject to Change (About Time, 1984)
You Know the Number (RCA/Novus, 1986)
Easily Slip into Another World (RCA/Novus, 1987)
Rag, Bush and All (RCA/Novus, 1988)
With Very Very Circus:
Spirit of Nuff … Nuff (Black Saint, 1990)
Live at Koncepts (Taylor Made, 1991)
Too Much Sugar for a Dime (Axiom, 1993)
Carry the Day (Columbia, 1995)
Song Out of My Trees (Black Saint, 1993)
With Make a Move:
Where’s Your Cup? (Columbia, 1996)
Everybody’s Mouth’s a Book (Pi, 2001)
Up Popped the Two Lips (Pi, 2001)
Pop Start the Tape, StoP (Hardedge, 2003)
With other artists or on compilations:
Muhal Richard Abrams: Young at Heart, Wise in Time (Delmark, 1969).
Chico Freeman: Morning Prayer (Why Not, 1976)
Roscoe Mitchell: Nonaah (Nessa, 1977)
Anthony Braxton: For Trio (Arista, 1977)
Muhal Richard Abrams: 1-OQA+19 (Black Saint, 1977)
Frank Walton: Reality (Delmark, 1978)
Roscoe Mitchell: L-R-G/The Maze/S-II Examples (Nessa, 1978)
David Murray Octet: Ming (Black Saint, 1980)
David Murray Octet: Home (Black Saint, 1981)
David Murray Octet: Murray’s Steps (Black Saint, 1982)
Material: Memory Servess (Celluloid, 1981)
Material: The Third Powers (Axiom, 1991)
Various Artists: Amarcord Nino Rotas (Hannibal, 1981)
Billy Bang/Craig Harris: Hip Hop Be Bops (ITM, 1993)
Sly & Robbie: Rhythm Killerss (Island, 1987)
Bahia Black: Ritual Beating Systems (Axiom, 1991)
Kip Hanrahan/Paul Haines: Darn It!s (American Clave, 1992)
Kip Hanrahan/Paul Haines: A Thousand Nights and a Night (Shadow Night - 1) :(American Clavé, 1994 – 1996)
Various Artists: Weird Nightmare: Meditations on
Mingus (Columbia, 1992)
Sola: Blues in the East (Axiom, 1994)
Leroy Jenkins: Themes & Improvisations on the Blues (CRI, 1994)
Abiodun Oyewole: 25 Years (Rykodisc, 1996)
Flute Force Four: Flutistry (Black Saint, 1997)
Jean-Paul Bourelly: Trance Atlantic - Boom Bop II (Challenge, 1997–2001)
Jean-Paul Bourelly: Boom Bop (Jazz Magnet, 1999)
Douglas Ewart and Inventions Clarinet Choir: Angles of Entrance (Arawak, 1998)
Ejigayehu “Gigi” Shibabaw: Gigi (Palm Pictures, 2001)
Lucky Peterson: Black Midnight Sun (Dreyfus Records, 2002)
Billy Bang: Vietnam: Reflections (Justin Time, 2004)
Dafnis Prieto: Absolute Quintet (Zoho Music, 2006)
Contributor: Greg Campbell