Easily Slip Into Another World: A Life in Music
It is absolutely a measure of his importance and achievement as a musician that a major publisher has brought out this book, Henry Threadgill’s autobiography (written with Brent Hayes Edwards in a fluid and engrossing style close to that of an oral history). Jazz in general is not a subject the big publishers are interested in, much less for someone like Threadgill who has been a leader in the avant-garde for decades. He simply does not have the same level of recognition from the general public as someone like Sonny Rollins (the subject of a recent and notable biography, Saxophone Colossus, by Aiden Levy). That’s no knock on Threadgill; he was born into the first generation of musicians to come of age the decade after the decline in jazz’s popularity had begun, and on top of that he never followed anything like the traditional jazz path.
This book could also be subtitled “An Artist’s Progress,” and it is one of the finest artistic memoirs I’ve read, and one of the very, very few biographies of a musician that is both real and honest about what it means to become a musician—this is absolutely fascinating to read, and also valuable. There’s a phrase that is used constantly when it comes to musicians, with variations; “classically trained,” or “professionally trained.” It’s a lazy editorial shorthand that imagines it’s saying something but is completely meaningless and uninformative. What does it really mean to train as a musician, what is that practice?
As Threadgill plainly shows, that practice is practice, and a huge part of that practice is just plain living (and surviving, which he did as both an Army band musician and infantryman in Vietnam through a number of encounters, some dangerous, some bizarre, some hilarious), and it’s true for every musician and something that should be shown in writing each and every time. Saying “classically trained” actually dismisses the incredible hard work and patience it takes to be a high level musician by reducing everything down to the assumption it’s nothing more than scales and etudes, square ensemble playing and studies that all creative musicians reject. He also makes the point that not all common methods of practice are meaningful:
Kids spend hours practicing … a Coltrane solo. What do you want to learn … ‘Giant Steps’ for? … You might check it out a little and try to figure it out. But don’t steal that stuff, because it’s powerful. When you’re an artist, you’ve got to be careful in your training. Practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent. When you start putting things into yourself, it’s going to take time to get them out.
As Threadgill’s story shows plainly, the practice is in being curious about music and how it’s made, everything from the blues and gospel to ethnic dance musics, to Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Webern, and Varèse. There is also the practice of playing, of putting yourself into positions where you have to learn on the fly—not just playing the horn with others but how to engage with the audience—and he was willing to both try out situations where he was admittedly over his head, and also willing to fail. Both things are key—the practice of being a musician is to work on things that are hard, that you can’t do, until you can do them; that means being unafraid to fail, even encouraging it, to know where you are, where you want to be, and how to get there. That, above any innate talent, is something musicians either have or they don’t.
Threadgill has it, his entire musical career is proof. One of the unique things about his work, at least to this listener, is how he is more interested in moving in different directions, and to keep moving, than in neatly rounding off styles and ideas. Many of his records have pieces that just don’t work, that don’t reconcile form and structure. His series of albums with Zooid (on the Pi Recordings label) are a great body of work but not one of the album is a consistent whole—the things that don’t work as well are the proving ground for music that both moves the body and imagination, and his albums—with the exception of Air Lore (1979, Arista Novas) from his trio Air, with bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall—are best taken as compiling a body of work, not neat forty-five minutes of music sequenced and packaged like a classic Blue Note album.
That movement, that rethinking and working through ideas, make Threadgill one of the great modernists in twentieth/twenty-first century music, absolutely in the spirit and manner of Stravinsky and Miles Davis, but following his own path. As the revival of his Very Very Circus band for this year’s Long Play festival showed yet again, he’s been digging into the music of the past and rethinking it in new ways for decades.
He founded the band in the early nineties as a double-trio—Threadgill and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes backed by two guitars and two tubas and drummer Gene Lake—similar to Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time band and, in terms of a before-and-after pivot, holding a roughly comparable place to Bitches Brew in Davis’s career. Threadgill accepts these comparisons, but really opens the door by talking, essentially, about his interest in polyphony and counterpoint. This has been a nearly-fifty-year process, which brought him the Pulitzer and created a way of making jazz that is an exciting balance of disciplined organization, freedom, and a real innovation. Though still specialized mostly within his ensemble Zooid, it was exciting to hear the Spirit of Nuff…Nuff album recreated live by what was a repertory band: Threadgill didn’t play, instead it was alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry, and José Davila played trombone and managed most of the cues. (Threadgill’s work seems to be gradually creeping into the playing of other musicians, like Vijay Iyer and the excellent Italian group Roots Magic.)
Very Very Circus and Zooid got to where they are today via Threadgill going back to a nineteenth century starting place, with ragtime and cakewalks and the like, and then reimagining the music’s course through history, side-stepping the swing, be-bop, and post-bop eras and ending up with groups like Air and his Sextett, playing a sweet, earthy jazz with strains of blues, rags, sanctified traditions (his own playing in churches was a vital part of his early years), marches, pre-twentieth century popular dances that could also be free, while always keeping a structural idea that keeps everything together and points the way forward. The results aren’t ascetic, even as Zooid can have a very lean profile, but ecstatic. Take “Come Carry the Day” on the 1995 Very Very Circus album Carry the Day (Columbia); it’s a roiling, boisterous juxtaposition of marching band fanfare and Latin clave.
Where his music is today is what Davila recently described as “rhythmic counterpoint,” a propulsive set of polyrhythms that the musicians play along and off each other, with a theme that drops in and out, and following a system of harmonic organization where sets of intervals between notes determine where musicians can choose to move, modulate, and explore. It has features of stride, funk, and baroque counterpoint and continuo structures. There’s nothing on earth like it.
That is the artistic story of this book, the “music” part that comes out of the “life.” Those two things are never separate, and halfway through the book, the engrossing chapter “Apprenticeship of a Tail Dragger” gets into more details of how Threadgill—just back from Vietnam—developed as a young musician via the practice of living as a musician. He was active with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago and also the Black Artists Group in St. Louis. He also made music for experimental theater companies, played clarinet in polka bands, and tenor and baritone saxophone in Latin bands. Of the latter, he says “The funny thing was, they didn’t hire me to play the charts. [They] only used me as a featured guest soloist. I used to beg them to let me do more, because some of the arrangements were intricate. ‘Oh, no, Henry, you don’t need to worry about that.. We just want you to blow.’”
He wasn’t playing the jazz clubs, because, as he says, he didn’t want to just play be-bop changes. Instead, he played in the backing band for the Dells, he got well paying gigs in professional marching bands. All these experiences obviously shaped him as a musician, not just getting all the different musics in his head and under his fingers but understanding what made them work and how musicians made them work for audiences—this was public facing music made for the public, and each required a specific appreciation of their very real sophistication. An example of this is what he points out about the blues: “The blues is fundamental, but that doesn’t mean it’s … simple. In fact, the blues is a highly intricate music … on an emotional … and on a technical level.… The execution of every note is a highly sophisticated event.”
Threadgill learned how to be a musician, something that he appreciated in the moment and, in some instances, after the fact. He contrasts the AACM with another ensemble he played with (though for a short time), led by Phil Cohran, and it’s worth quoting at length:
[Under] Cohran… There was a certain discipline in that band in terms of how you were expected to present yourself and how you were expected to play.
There was serious discipline in the AACM, too … and it was something unprecedented due to the concentration of performing composers.… Our ambitions on that score were no less than those of … Elliott Carter or Philip Glass or Charles Wuorinen or Meredith Monk…
…It didn’t matter what you thought about your colleague’s music.… You were expected to give your all to everyone else’s compositions. No half-stepping, no compromise… That radical democratic orientation shrunk the ranks to those of use who had that openness and commitment to one another’s work.
With Cohran … it was a different brand of discipline.… It was Phil’s group and his music. So the discipline was a matter of following his lead with absolute conviction… And I had trouble with that. I was young and cocky. I said to myself, This is some old-fashioned authoritarian shit. I’ve already been in the military—I don’t need this.
Cohran actually ended up firing me… We wouldn’t do what he was asking … we thought that was out of date.… He said that we were talented musicians, but we just didn’t get it.
I only realized much later that it was all part of my growth. I needed to be slapped in the face right then and there. Eventually I came to understand that what Cohran was asking us to do was … too advanced for us to grasp at the time. To find creativity within constriction, to invent within conditions of restraint, isn’t elementary—it takes nuance and great self-control.
Threadgill goes on to lament the very real loss of invaluable experience in this age of institutionalized jazz pedagogy. His generation, he says, “all took the same route to becoming musicians in the Black tradition,” meaning picking up an instrument and learning to command it, to study but also to play in bands with friends, “in churches and funerals and parades, at parties, at school dances.… This is laying the groundwork. And it needs to go on for a significant part of your life. It might seem haphazard or juvenile, but it’s extremely important in terms of your development…” These experiences are “the real lessons at the foundation of the music.” And young musicians, he concludes, “haven’t been fired enough.”