Henry Threadgill

Henry Threadgill..... Composer, multi-instrumentalist and bandleader has been a seminal figure in the vanguard of contemporary instrumental music since the early-70's. He has created a body of music that includes more than 150 recorded works which, while firmly rooted in America's Great Black Music tradition, often integrate forms and instruments historically associated with chamber or orchestral music. It's no surprise that Threadgill won Best Composer honors in Down Beat's International Jazz Critics Poll in 1990, 1989 and 1988, when he placed in 11 categories and had two albums nominated as Record of the Year. A more remarkable tribute to his talent and craft is the fact that he received the composer award in 1988 and 1989 from Down Beat's Readers as well.

Threadgill's music has been performed by some of the most acclaimed and adventurous instrumental ensembles of the past two decades: the trio Air, which emerged from the core membership of Chicago's visionary cooperative the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (A.A.C.M.) to become one of the most influential bands of the '70s and early '80s; the resourceful seven-piece Sextett he formed in the early '80s and led through the advent of the '90s; such speciality units as X-75, his 20-piece Society Situation Dance Band and his Marching Band; and his current group, Very Very Circus. He has also received diverse commissions ranging from music for small ensembles such as the Roscoe Mitchell and Rova Saxophone Quartets, to larger works for the American Jazz Orchestra "Salute to Harold Arlen", the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival and the Brooklyn Philharmonic.

Born in Chicago in 1944, Threadgill began playing music when he was five, inspired by an aunt who was a classical pianist and vocalist. He started taking piano lessons when he was nine and picked up the saxophone when he entered high school, starting out on tenor and additing the alto when he began playing in a church band. He cites tenor saxophonists Lester Young and Wardell Gray as early influences, followed by Gene Ammons, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins. Saxophonists Johnny Hodges, Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman were later inspirations on alto. Threadgill continued his formal musical education at Wilson Junior College and received a degree in flute and composition from the American Conservatory of Music. It was at Wilson that he first met Muhal Richard Abrams, an important mentor whose Experimental Band of the early-'60s would evolve into the A.A.C.M. Threadgill played with Abrams band briefly, but eventually decided to concentrate on playing in church orchestras, dance bands and college ensembles before going into the army where he was a musician in the infantry in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968.

After returning to the U.S., Threadgill finished his service based near St. Louis where he spent most weekends with Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill and other members of another cooperative, the Black Artists Group (B.A.G.). Upon his discharge in 1969, he returned to Chicago, sought out Abrams, joined the A.A.C.M. and met bassist Fred Hopkins and percussionist Steve McCall. The three formed the trio Air in 1972 and the ensemble went on to record a dozen critically-acclaimed albums and tour throughout North America, Europe and Japan before disbanding in 1985.

Threadgill moved to New York City in 1975 and quickly became an integral and influential member of creative circles flourishing in lower Manhattan's lofts and clubs. He also began connecting with writers, poets, dancers, actors and artists active in the "downtown" scene, an experience he cites as a major influence on his development as a composer and musician. Black musicians began to be invited to partecipate in different projects and began working with dance and theater companies and Threadgill would write music for them that was instrumental but not necessarily jazz; it could be whatever he wanted it to be, whether that meant improvised or composed. He still looks to dance and theatre - as well as to the worlds of radio, film and video - for inspiration and stimulation today. Feeling the general climate for music in New York has become more conservative in recent years, Threadgill is constantly taking advantage of opportunities to take his band out on the road. His two "Great American Tour" found him visiting more than two dozen cities in the U.S. and Canada with the "Sextett" in 1984 and "Very, Very Circus" in 1991 and he performs annually at leading jazz festivals in North America, Europe and Japan.

Threadgill sees himself as an artist in a state of constant change, and views his creative process as an ever-evolving one. "I don't perceive what I'm doing in a finite sense, but on a certain level my music can be seen as part of a continuum", he explains. "Take the groups I've worked with, for example. "Air" came about a personal way when three people who played certain instruments made a creative connection. With the "Sextett", I consciously wanted strings, brass and percussion - the three components of an orchestra - represented so I chose the instrumentation first and found the people later. With "Very, Very Circus" I'm looking for a whole different type of texture, something similar to what Miles Davis was doing when he "went electric" and recorded "Bitches Brew", or what Ornette did when he formed the group "Prime Time". But I've also combined the tuba, one of the earliest instruments in jazz and the forerunner of the bass, with the electric guitar, a comparatively recent instrument. So in "Very, Very Circus" I've got a new ensemble that can look both forward and backward and pay its respects to various traditions while building upon them. This is what I hope my music has always done and will always continue to do".