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Henry Threadgill Continues Challenging Colleagues, Listeners, and Himself

The NEA Jazz Master and Pulitzer Prize winner, has a new album with the Zooid quintet, a plethora of new multimedia projects, and two books

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Henry Threadgill (photo: John Rogers)
Henry Threadgill (photo: John Rogers)

“I think that the greatest thing to have happened has been George Floyd.” What?

As an artist, Henry Threadgill has never shied away from provocation. The music he’s made over his 50-year career challenges listeners’ ideas of rhythm, harmony, form, and timbre. This, however, is—to say the least—an unexpected assertion. Especially from the 78-year-old multi-reedist, composer, and bandleader, whose personal manner is unfailingly gentle and cerebral (not to mention a little playful).

But after the initial shock, it’s clear that Threadgill is talking about the aftermath of Floyd’s 2020 murder by a Minneapolis police officer: protests, activism, and the United States’ public reckoning with race and inequality. That, to him, has been overwhelmingly positive.

“It’s kind of like the civil rights movement,” he says, speaking by phone from his home in New York. “All of a sudden, in the music world, all of these women composers, composers of color, and LGBTQ composers are being recognized. Look, I went last October to Alice Tully Hall for a concert of Missy Mazzoli, John Adams, and Anthony Davis. A woman, a white man, and a Black man; all three American composers. The place was packed! People went crazy—they got five curtain calls! And George Floyd, he was definitely a catalyst.”

Conscious as Threadgill is of history, as an improvising musician he thrives on being present in the moment. As it happens, this moment is a remarkable one for him. In 2021 he was honored as an NEA Jazz Master, the U.S.’s only formal national recognition for jazz musicians. He also released Poof, a 2021 album by his quintet Zooid—the band’s first since 2016’s In for a Penny, in for a Pound became the third jazz work ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Such honors are wonderful, Threadgill concedes, but he doesn’t let them go to his head. “I just put it out of my mind, you know. It never really gets in the way,” he says. “I think everybody wants to be recognized for what they do. But what really matters are the awards that are closer to the ground: from the musicians and the public. Because that’s who we play music for.”

He’s doing plenty of that in the present moment too. Currently, Threadgill is preparing new arrangements of Zooid pieces for a 2022 art exhibition in Paris; rehearsing a new composition for a pair of February multimedia performances at Brooklyn’s Roulette; writing a new commission for Zooid, two string quartets, and percussionist Ross Karre of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE); and continuing work on Passages, a long-in-the-making collaboration with sculptor Danae Mattes and choreographer Hope Mohr.

Multimedia projects are a frequent part of Threadgill’s output; the Chicago native is a pillar of that city’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which encourages musicians to take a holistic view of the arts. Yet he isn’t just contributing soundtracks to visual and performing artists’ work: Threadgill also has two books being published in 2022. One is a collection of photographs and written reflections of New York during COVID; the other, cowritten with Brent Edward Hayes, is an autobiography. Once again, Threadgill keeps a toe in the past while planting himself in the present.

Henry Threadgill (photo: John Rogers)
Henry Threadgill (photo: John Rogers)

Released in September, Poof marks 21 years since Zooid’s 2000 debut. The band’s instrumentation alone differentiates it from any other: flute and alto saxophone (Threadgill), acoustic guitar (Liberty Ellman), cello (Christopher Hoffman), tuba and trombone (Jose Davila), and drums (Elliot Humberto Kavee). There has been some variation across the years. Until recently, Zooid was a sextet with bass guitarist Stomu Takeishi; he was preceded by Tariq Benbrahim, an oud player. Neither version of the band brought it closer to convention.

Threadgill is very sensitive to timbre. Indeed, he has experimented with unique orchestrations since at least 1979’s X-75 (which featured four reeds, four basses, and vocals). But that’s only the most superficial of Zooid’s unique qualities.

The word zooid refers to a type of biological cell that is part of and connected with a larger grouping of cells, but can also move, function, and live independently of that grouping. So it is with the band: Threadgill supplies the basic compositions, but he asks the musicians to work both collectively and individually to help create new definition and contour for every performance. Thus, while Threadgill’s name is above the band’s, each of its players is a key presence.

Poof underlines this situation. Like predecessor In for a Penny, the album is a set of “concertos,” each of its five tracks a feature for one member of the band. “Now and Then,” for one example, spotlights Ellman. Though he interacts at points with Davila, Hoffman, and Kavee, he is unquestionably the lead voice throughout the track.

“Henry picks people to be in the group that he has faith in, and that have a unique voice that he wants to add to what he’s doing,” the guitarist says. “He’s very specific about what he wants to do with the music itself; he’s got a lot to say about describing the overall piece. But otherwise, you just have to figure out how to make it work and make music out of it—and how to make it sound like it belongs inside of his world.”

His world includes an idiosyncratic musical language based on intervals: the distance between the notes in the tempered scale. Asked to elaborate on his system, Threadgill demurs. “It’s too long and complicated,” he says. “It’s really far too much information for any kind of short conversation.” Pianist Myra Melford, who studied composition with Threadgill, takes a crack at it instead.

“Say you have three notes: C, G, E,” she explains. “The intervals in there are a perfect fifth, and a minor third, and a major third. I could transpose this figure by a major third, or by a minor third or a perfect fifth. I could play it backwards and have some of the same intervals. Things like that. You’re creating permutations from these ideas as a way of developing the material.”

If you can learn that system, adds Ellman, just about anything within it is fair game. “I remember showing up in the beginning, and kind of doubting whether I was doing what he wanted me to do,” the guitarist says. “I remember asking him, ‘Am I doing this right?’ He said, ‘Did I say you were doing something wrong?’ I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Then you’re doing it right.’”

Then there’s the rhythmic matrix. Threadgill is renowned (and highly influential) for his complex and often overlapping beat cycles that make a tune’s pulse both palpable and impossible to count. 

Davila notes, “There’s so much detail to the interior of the rhythm. Elliot,” he says, addressing his drumming counterpart in the band, “you look through his music and it’s numbers. It’s just numbers. I’ll look at his stuff and I’m like, ‘Yo! What is that?’”

“That’s true!” Kavee confirms with a laugh. “I’m doing these time cycles with different bar lengths, and I deal with them as sets of numbers. Say a cycle lasts 31 beats; there are bars of four, five, seven within that cycle. I can play them as written, or I can rearrange them, as long as they add up to 31.” 

Threadgill also takes a modular approach to composition. Pieces usually have multiple sections; he keeps them fresh by creating new juxtapositions for each performance. Zooid’s Paris concert, part of an exhibition at the Bourse de Commerce’s Pinault Collection, will feature pieces from their catalogue, reworked in exactly this fashion. It requires the band to know the repertoire from the inside out, which in turn requires exhaustive rehearsal.

“We rehearse so much, it’s like boot camp,” Davila says. “For Poof, we rehearsed at least once a week for the two months before the record; he already had the music written, and we got together just to touch the music and get used to working together, workshop it. And then he always does a gig right before the recording, so by the time we get to the recording session we’ve nailed it.”

Threadgill doesn’t see the big deal with all that rehearsing. “That’s what you’re supposed to do!” He chuckles. “Sun Ra’s group, Duke Ellington’s group, all these people rehearsed all the time! That’s how you get good!”

Henry Threadgill at New York Society for Ethical Culture, November 1997 (photo: Alan Nahigian)
Henry Threadgill at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, November 1997 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

A resident of Manhattan’s East Village since the early ’70s, Threadgill has had a front-row seat for the neighborhood’s gentrification. In 2020, he had a similar view of what one might call its de-gentrification: a mass exodus, and a bizarre one.

“With COVID, you got to remember, they had to let half the Metropolitan Opera go! Half!” he says. “And there was a limited amount of people they could keep on the Broadway shows. They have condominiums and co-ops—I’m talking about the new, young people in New York—with mortgages that all of a sudden they couldn’t pay.”

Threadgill found his neighborhood crowded with things he hadn’t seen there in years: moving trucks and “For Rent” signs. As he walked the streets, he also started seeing the detritus of lives left behind.

“Why would $5,000 speakers be sitting out and nobody was taking them? Why would a Panama hat worth $400 be sitting out on the street? Well, one reason is because there were no homeless people. They put all the homeless people in a hotel so they could keep them alive!” This, he notes, was different from what he’d seen after the last mass exodus, the White Flight of the 1960s and early ’70s: “That left the homeless people behind. This wasn’t reminiscent of that; it was reminiscent of a ghost town!”

It was an overwhelming spectacle, and Threadgill responded by taking photographs of what he saw. He also started writing, both abstract poetic responses to the imagery (“a kind of automatic writing”) as well as what ultimately became a novella. Finally, he collected all of it in a book titled Migration, or the Return of the Cheap Suit. “Underneath the title it says, ‘Pictures, words, and,’” he says. “I’m not claiming to be a photographer or a writer. I’m using words and I’m using photographs.”

Yet these new pursuits weren’t enough on their own for Threadgill. His work demands a complex, layered presentation. And so he incorporated the words and images into a multimedia spectacular to take place over two nights at Roulette. 

Actually, it’s two multimedia spectaculars: “One” and “The Other One.” Each night will begin with a different 18-minute film of a performance by a Threadgill ensemble, both at different galleries and with different pieces of music. (These, too, have complementary titles: “Plain as Plain in Plain Sight” and “Plain as Plain but Different.”) 

Following each film will be a live performance of a new piece, “Of Valence,” by a special 12-piece ensemble: piano; violin; viola; two cellos; tuba; tenor saxophone; two alto saxophones, with one alto doubling on clarinet; two bassoons; and a percussionist working with trap drums and electronics. While the ensemble plays the piece—dedicated to drummer Milford Graves, among jazz’s many losses during the pandemic—Threadgill will sit behind a revolving set of full-body masks, offering readings from Migration as well as vocalizations both live and recorded onto tape loops. 

“I’m only doing vocal work,” he says, adding with a laugh, “This will be my debut doing vocalese.”

“Everybody’s got a cellphone that they don’t pay for, and some expensive gym shoes, but they say, ‘Oh! Twenty dollars! That’s too much for a record.’”

Migration isn’t Threadgill’s only forthcoming stab at publishing. Summer 2022 will see the issue of Easily Slip into Another World, an autobiography that Threadgill assembled with the assistance of writer and scholar Brent Hayes Edwards. The project came out of another long-term one that Edwards has been working on: a history of New York’s 1970s “loft jazz” movement, in which Threadgill was a participant. 

“I’ve been doing oral histories,” says Edwards, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. “Henry was one of the first musicians I interviewed. We met and talked a couple of times, and then he actually suggested—he was the first to say it: ‘Let’s do a full oral history. Not just an interview about 1976 and my sense of the downtown scene in Manhattan, but let’s sit down and do a thorough series of interviews about my life.’ And who’s going to say no to Henry Threadgill when he says that?”

That initial conversation took place around 2010. It led to multiple, hours-long conversations spanning a decade. “We really took our time going through the various stages of his life,” Edwards says. “Of course, one’s memory doesn’t work in a linear, chronological fashion, so we jumped around a little bit, but we progressed up to the present, including his development as a composer and an instrumentalist and the various groups that he’s led. He’s had a very long and varied and complex career.”

As Edwards worked to transcribe the interviews, calling Threadgill to fill in gaps and elaborate on ambiguous passages, it was again the musician who suggested a more ambitious undertaking. “Maybe we should do something formally with this,” he said. “Not just record a bunch of interviews but put it together and formalize it.” He didn’t want other voices to be woven in and out of the narrative, as in Dizzy Gillespie’s To Be or Not to Bop or Randy Weston’s African Rhythms. “I want it to be my story, in my voice.”

In a parallel to his compositional work, Easily Slip into Another World—titled after Threadgill’s 1987 album with his then Sextett—is constructed in a modular mode, with parts interchanged and reordered. “I’m trying to give it some of the formal experimentation that his music has, but not lose the idiosyncrasy and the power of his voice,” Edwards says. “He’s charismatic, funny, and a great raconteur of his own life! He’s such an incredible talker, and you don’t want to lose that.”

As for Threadgill, he appreciates the platform to say some things about not just his own life, but the music industry—and its audiences. “We have created a culture of take and don’t pay,” he says. “They got more money than we ever saw, young people do. Everybody’s got a cellphone that they don’t pay for, and some expensive gym shoes, but they say, ‘Oh! Twenty dollars! That’s too much for a record.’

“I remember, we would save our money to buy albums when I was a kid. One kid would get it and everybody would rush to their house. ‘He got Gene Ammons!’ We’d all say, ‘What?’ And go tearing down the street to their house and ring the bell. We were in grammar school. Nobody had a job, we would either save our pennies or borrow from each other. ‘Man, give me a quarter, will you? For 25 cents more I can get that record.’ It was fun!”

Henry Threadgill playing tenor at the Village Gate, New York, June 1984 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

All this is just Threadgill’s work that’s in the can. There’s more still to come.

In June, he has an engagement at Detroit’s Orchestra Hall. Zooid, ICE percussionist Ross Karre, and two string quartets will premiere a new work—so new that Threadgill has yet to write a note. “I have to start!” he reminds himself. “I got a lot of work to do on that. I’m running behind because of this [Roulette] multimedia piece. But I’ll get it done. It’ll come together; I’m not worried about that.”

He’s also involved in a tripartite collaboration with California sculptor Danae Mattes and choreographer Hope Mohr called Passages. “Hope has been a big fan of my music and she just called me out of the blue and said she hoped we could do something together,” Threadgill recalls. “Then when I was in California, I met Danae and I told her about Hope, and the three of us got together and it was love at first sight!”

Threadgill has been working with dancers ever since his days in Chicago. He’s on new ground when he combines music and dance with Mattes’ sculptures, which feature large expanses of hand-shaped clay structures. The three found an unlikely common bond, however: improvisation. 

“I do process pieces,” Mattes explains. “I create the form, which is like a huge basin, and then I create walls and structures. Then I pour liquid clay into the interior of the form, and then there’s this moment where the structure could completely dissolve or it could hold. So much water has to leave the body of the clay to accept the incoming clay, and then when that starts to happen, there’s this fine line where it’s almost gelatinous, so you have the exterior walls, let’s call them, where structures are absorbing the water, and it’s almost neither liquid nor solid form.”

“I remember asking Henry, ‘Am I doing this right?’ He said, ‘Did I say you were doing something wrong?’ I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Then you’re doing it right.’”–Liberty Ellman

That’s when the dancers come in. They will move about the clay, both following Mohr’s choreography and improvising in response to the environment and to Threadgill’s music. (The band, featuring members of Zooid and ICE, will be unseen during the performance.) “Actually they’re completely covered in clay at one point,” Mattes says. “They are very claylike themselves.” Embodying the music, they will also determine the final form of the sculpture, whether through footprints, body impressions, or air pockets.

“While they push a form away from its original place, it’s all going to be integrated into the motivations of the music. It’s an incredible thing to witness,” Mattes says.

The project has been delayed due to COVID, but Threadgill is determined to see it through. “I don’t care how long it takes, it’s gonna happen,” he says. “I’m committed to that.”

That commitment is par for the course with an artist like Threadgill, who has already created a lifetime’s worth of work that is thoughtful in its spontaneity, disciplined in its free forms. Process is a part of his art as well, as much in developing his compositions as in his improvisations. Like his statement about George Floyd—or a troupe of dancers rolling around in clay—what initially seems baldly provocative reveals itself to bear nuanced, carefully considered ideas, presented in shrewd and innovative ways.

“He’s continuing to develop his ideas and evolve all the time, and trying all these new things,” says Melford. “He’s so inspiring.” 

Henry Threadgill: Be Ever Out

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.