The uncompromising saxophonist-flutist-composer recently became the third-ever jazz musician to win a Pulitzer Prize—but he’s far from content to rest on his laurels.
“I’m who I am because of my failures,” Henry Threadgill declares, thumping the table for emphasis. We’re sitting in a tiny East Village café he likes because it’s usually empty, free of the loud music and roaring conversations he despises; the barista, who’s used to him, turns our way with a half-smile. “Everybody wants to be a success, and they want it right now. But you don’t learn from success. You learn from what doesn’t work. That’s how you go forward.”
I totally agree. But since I’ve known him for 30 years, I can’t help hearing this through some historical irony.
At 72, the composer-saxophonist-flutist has spent five-plus decades as a musician, the first four living on the margins and largely under the radar of mainstream cultural arbiters. Now he is only the third jazz artist to win a Pulitzer Prize, for In For A Penny, In For A Pound, the latest CD by Zooid, his unconventional sextet (reeds, acoustic guitar, cello, tuba, bass guitar, drums). That was just his latest accolade. In 2003, he was awarded a Guggenheim; in 2008, a United States Artist Fellowship. His 2015 Doris Duke Impact Award was immediately followed by a 2016 Doris Duke Artist Award. He’s a regular at artists’ colonies, and landed a Copland House Residency Award: “the first black non-classical musician to do that,” he emphasizes. Right now, he’s planning a 5-city international tour of two bands and 16 musicians that will be filmed—a challenging scenario. “What am I gonna do, dream of playing the Blue Note?” he quips. “I’ve got big things to do, and now’s the time to do them.”
"Older cats said we couldn’t play, because we were looking to do something different, something that reflected and spoke to our time."
This is vintage Threadgill—laser-focused on now, dreaming new dreams. His career trajectory features creative pivots, jumps, and flights worthy of Michael Jordan. His 1970s trio AIR (Artists In Residence)—reeds, bass, and drums—dropped ragtime’s bedrock piano and lovingly turned the genre inside out with vibrancy and wit. His Sextett—actually a sextet with two drummers, hence the double t—featured intricate postbop writing and powerhouse soloists and a wallop that belied its size; it sparked a 1980s resurgence of little big bands that’s still with us. In the 1990s, Very Very Circus was characteristically unorthodox and extraordinarily mutable—two electric guitars, two tubas, a trombone/French horn, drums, and Threadgill’s alto sax and flute, often augmented by strings, Latin percussion, accordion, vocals, you name it—with a molasses-thick sound and complex compositions. He’s had large-scale interdisciplinary works commissioned by Carnegie Hall, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the New York Shakespeare Festival, Bang on a Can, and Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. Erotec (The Human Life of Machines), his provocative music/theater piece for the Jim Henson Foundation choreographed by Alice Farley, ran for six nights of the 1996 Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater in NYC.
But that’s not what he’s talking about: “As a composer, I have to learn from failure. I can’t necessarily hear every nuance of everything I’ve written in my head; once it’s performed, I can understand where I need to go back, or maybe rearrange the lineup. As a leader, all my bands started as failures. It took two years to get AIR really going. For the Wind String Quartet, I thought I was hearing a bass, but it turned out it was the tuba. Tuba can move between me and the strings; the bass can’t do that.” You’ve always had a thing for the tuba, I say. He shrugs. In fact, the tuba can be a window into Henry Threadgill’s life and art.
In early jazz, he’ll tell you, tubas were a staple—because of the Civil War (tons of leftover military band instruments were available for cheap or nothing); because of the marching-band tradition early jazz musicians trained in; and finally because tubas recorded better than acoustic basses, which were used on the bandstand. Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Threadgill witnessed parade bands in the streets; his first gig was playing percussion in his high school marching band. By then, jazz had little use for the unwieldy, old-fashioned tuba, though it lingered in parade and classical music.
Then as now, genre distinctions didn’t deter Threadgill from absorbing whatever grabbed him. At 16, after switching to baritone, then alto sax, he idolized Sonny Rollins and Lester Young; not long after, he got to talk with John Coltrane, who upended the teen’s expectations by treating him as a peer and asking him questions about Ornette Coleman. But he also had a regular front row seat at Fritz Reiner’s Chicago Symphony: “That orchestra was so hip!” He was a fixture at Contemporary Chamber Players performances at the University of Chicago, and still raves about cutting-edge work from Ralph Shapey and Luciano Berio. One Friday afternoon, on a college assignment to “go hear any classical music,” he went to a concert at Roosevelt University and couldn’t get in. A kindly old audience member spotted his panic, ushered him in the stage door and through the backstage areas, and set him in the first row; then Arthur Rubenstein seated himself at the piano.
It was around then that Threadgill joined the fledging Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Inspired by Trane’s marathon modal outings, Ornette’s jettisoning of bebop’s cycle-of-chords, head-solos-head structure, and Sun Ra’s Arkestra’s eccentric combination of historical roots, endless rehearsals, and free-form forays, the AACM, led by pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, became an incubator for younger musicians keen to generate new formats and languages by also studying non-jazz sources. Some would emerge as the next wave of avant-jazz: trumpeters Lester Bowie and Wadada Leo Smith, saxists Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell, Threadgill. “It was open-minded and open-ended, but disciplined,” he recalls. “Older cats said we couldn’t play, because we were looking to do something different, something that reflected and spoke to our time the way bebop did for its time.”
So he got work anywhere but jazz combos: dance bands, parade bands, polka bands (“I played clarinet”), mariachi bands, Latin bands, in theater pits and churches. But mostly he was playing Chicago’s chief postwar musical export, the blues: “I was in the house band at the Blue Flame. I played with Left Hand Frank. I got a better education from all those worlds than I ever would’ve got just playing bebop. Those cats putting us down never even heard of Berio or Stravinsky or Debussy. We were studying them.”
In 1967, the Vietnam War loomed. Threadgill enlisted instead of being drafted, so the Army would guarantee his MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) as clarinetist-saxophonist; he was shipped to Fort Riley, where he added composer-arranger to his duties. Ordered to Vietnam to join the 4th Infantry Division Band, he grins, “My contract’s stipulations expanded.” He was handed an M-16A1 rifle and sent on patrol in the highlands around Pleiku. During the 1968 Tet offensive, the jeep carrying him back from guard duty came under fire and tumbled into a ravine; only the ditch’s V-shape stopped it from rolling onto and crushing him. Sent home in 1968, he was honorably discharged with two campaign ribbons.
He rejoined the AACM and started what became AIR, moving to New York in 1971. The change of scene didn’t change the old-school rap about Threadgill and other avant-gardists not knowing how to play. Any two minutes of listening to AIR or the Sextett should have refuted that: a mercurial bluesy pungency infuses his urgent, supple lines. But it’s not bebop. The generational and stylistic civil war over “defining” jazz endured into the late 1990s, when time and events simply made it irrelevant.
Threadgill being Threadgill, by then he’d moved on conceptually. Zooid was his vehicle to generate a new idiom for composing and improvising. Process, he insists, determines his music: “We rehearsed for a year before we did anything. Do you know how hard it is to get musicians in New York to commit to that? No money, no definite plans, just… rehearsing. But they did it.”
Their work aimed at erasing, as much as possible, the line between “pencil” composing and “composing in the moment”—improvisation. The Pulitzer committee explained, “A set of three note intervals assigned to each player…serves as the starting point for improvisation.” In Zooid, that creates a wide-open field for polyphonic interaction. It forces musicians to make on-the-spot decisions about anything from harmonies to whether a passage becomes a solo or an ensemble. It breaks down the standard bandstand hierarchies. It can be epigrammatic or musing. It may swing or groove or have no identifiable pulse. One result: Zooid can evoke a vaguely Ivesian sensation, as its procession of intense, varied ideas comes from different musical directions.
And the tuba is still embedded in Threadgill’s latest twist on jazz’s “sound of surprise,” though in ways no one in 1910 New Orleans or 1947 New York could have foreseen. Time marches on.
Gene Santoro has written a biography of Charles Mingus, Myself When I Am Real (Oxford University Press, 2001) and Highway 61 Revisited (Oxford 2004), about American music’s complex roots. His next project recounts his bout with Guillain- Barré Syndrome.