Henry Threadgill :: Biography

Henry Threadgill, born February 15, 1944, on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, is a Pulitzer Prize winning American composer, saxophonist and flautist, who came to prominence in the 1970s leading ensembles with unusual instrumentation and often incorporating a range of non-jazz genres. He attended Chicago's Englewood High School. After High School, Henry played with Veteran 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, later renamed Kennedy-King College.

He studied at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago co-majoring in piano and flute, along with composition. He studied piano with Gail Quillman and composition with Stella Roberts (1899-1988). He has had a music career for over forty years as both a leader and as a composer. He was awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his composition In for a Penny, In for a Pound.

As a young teenager in Chicago, Henry had been listening to all kinds of music from radio and shops. Live music only from churches, as he was too young to go into other places where they were playing live. He could also soon be able to enter rehearsals of the Sun Ra Arkestra with John Gilmore on tenor sax. Some other strong influences on tenor sax from this region were Gene Ammons, Eddy Williams and Clifford Jordan. The visiting Sonny Rollins was another influential tenor sax player. Interviewed by Ted Panken about his influences, Henry also mentions Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis as probably the most original saxophone player he ever heard in his life with his convoluted sound, which his nickname gossips of. Johnny Hodges was a sound master on alto saxophone and Henry also points out the essential innovations made by Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor as being inspiring.

Muddy Waters is often mentioned by Threadgill as another influential Chicago musician. In off-hours from high school, Henry rehearsed with Eugene Hunter's big studio band and proceeded to hang out with his class mates Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell, these three for a time also performing together in a sextet. Another class mate from 1962 and early AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) member was the drummer Jack DeJohnette, together and with whom Roscoe, Muhal and bassist Larry Gray, Henry made his (February 2015) latest album, and together with Jack his second record release on DeJohnette's Made in Chicago label. This Special Legends Edition was recorded live from a Chicago Jazz Festival concert in August 2013. The very first together with Jack occurred only eight months earlier, namely on Wadada Leo Smith's double CD The Great Lakes Suites.

Threadgill also gives prominence to the fact that he works in the tradition of innovators like Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, who continuously were developing new standards, never reproducing others. For example, Henry has used an interval concept of composition for his later group Zooid, which was going to take hours to explain and in fact took at least a year for the musicians to learn to play.

He was an original member of the legendary AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) in his hometown of Chicago and worked under the guidance of Muhal Richard Abrams before leaving to tour with a gospel band. In 1967, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, playing with a Rock band in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968. He was discharged in 1969.

Upon his return to Chicago he rejoined fellow AACM members bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall, forming a trio which would eventually become the group Air, one of the most celebrated and critically acclaimed avant-garde jazz groups of the 1970s and 1980s. In the meantime, Threadgill had moved to New York City to begin pursuing his own musical visions, which explored musical genres in innovative ways thanks to his daringly unique group collaborations. His first group, X-75, was a nonet consisting of four reed players, four bass players and a vocalist.

In the early 1980s, Threadgill created his first critically acclaimed ensemble as a leader, Henry Threadgill Sextet (actually a septet; he counted the two drummers as a single percussion unit), which released three LPs on About Time Records. After a hiatus, during which Threadgill formed New Air with Pheeroan akLaff replacing Steve McCall on drums, Threadgill re-formed the Henry Threadgill Sextett (with two t's at the end). The six albums the group recorded feature some of his most accessible work, notably on the album You Know the Number.

The group's unorthodox instrumentation included two drummers, bass, cello, trumpet and trombone, in addition to Threadgill's alto and flute. Among the players who filled these roles were drummers akLaff, John Betsch, Reggie Nicholson and Newman Baker; bassist Fred Hopkins; cellist Diedre Murray; trumpeters Rasul Siddik and Ted Daniels; cornetist Olu Dara; and trombonists Ray Anderson, Frank Lacy, Bill Lowe and Craig Harris.

During the 1990s, Threadgill pushed the musical boundaries even further with his ensemble Very Very Circus. In addition to Threadgill, the group's core consisted of two tubas, two electric guitars, a trombone or french horn, and drums. With this group he explored more complex and highly structured forms of composition, augmenting the group with everything from latin percussion to French horn to violin to accordion and an array of exotic instruments and vocalists.

Threadgill composed and recorded with other unusual instrumentations, such as a flute quartet (Flute Force Four, a one-time project from 1990); and combinations of four cellos and four acoustic guitars (on Makin' a Move).

By this time Threadgill's place in the upper echelon of the avant-garde was secured, and he was signed by Columbia Records for three albums (a rarity for musicians of his kind). Since the dissolution of Very Very Circus, Threadgill has continued in his iconoclastic ways with ensembles such as Make a Move and Zooid. Zooid, currently a sextet with tuba (Jose Davila), acoustic guitar (Liberty Ellman), cello (Christopher Hoffman), drums (Elliot Kavee) and bass guitar (Stomu Takeishi), has been the primary vehicle for Threadgill's most current compositions throughout the 2000s (decade).

He became the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003 and a United States Artist Fellowship in 2008 as well as a 2015 Doris Duke Impact Award. In June 2015, Henry became inducted to the ASCAP Jazz Wall of Fame, which made him joke about if he was still alive.

In 2016, Threadgill's composition In for a Penny, In for a Pound was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Henry's daughter, Pyeng Threadgill, is a singer and bandleader, who has her own recording career, starting with Sweet Home, the music of Robert Johnson.

You can read more about Henry Threadgill here.


The Illustrated Henry Threadgill Discography A work in progress by Lars Backstrom, Discographies (http://discography.backstrom.se/threadgill/)

Sources: Jazz Roots Rhythms, Wikipedia, Discographies