Henry Threadgill: Influences

Henry Threadgill: Influences

By Ted Panken
Copyright © 1996, 1997, Ted Panken

Henry Threadgill, composer, ensemble leader, reeds player, interviewed July 24, 1996 by Ted Panken, host of jazz and new music programs on the Columbia University/New York City radio station WKCR.FM. Music cues are provided as they were played on the air; album titles are italicized, song titles in quotation marks ("...").

MUSIC:Threadgill, "Like It Feels" (1995), "Hyla Crucifer" (1993)
TP:We have very diverse music that reflects many experiences of Henry's. I'd like to begin by talking to you about your early experiences listening to music and playing music coming up in Chicago in the 1950's as a youngster and a teenager. The first set will focus on the Chicago Blues. Was that some of your earliest listening experience?
HT:Yes, some was my earliest blues listening experience. But I listened to all kinds of music, Western European classical music, a lot of Polish-American music and American-Mexican music, and a lot of black gospel music, and what we called then hillbilly music, and of course boogie-woogie piano.
TP:You'd hear this music in the community, or on records in the house?
HT:Most of it was on the radio. That was before radio was programmed the way it's programmed today. It was pretty wide-open radio. And then I would hear some music in the community, mostly coming out of shops, because I was too young to go in places where they played music other than churches, where you could hear people like Sam Cooke, the Pilgrim Travelers, people like that.
TP:What church would he play in?
HT:All around the South Side. But this was around Cottage Grove and 31st Street, 35th Street, 39th Street.
TP:In your home were there musicians in the family?
HT:No. I had an aunt, one aunt that was studying piano and voice. She was away in school, went away to a college. Then I had a cousin who played very fine piano, but I never knew it. My aunt married a musician, my uncle Nevin Wilson, a very fine bassist in Chicago. I was very close to them as a kid, because of the music. He was playing with Ahmad Jamal at the time, so I was around them for a lot of that experience.
TP:When did it occur to you that music was something you wanted to do? Was it a natural thing that happened, or was there a conscious choice when you were a kid?
HT:It was a gradual thing, just a gradual thing. By the time I started high school I knew pretty much that's what I wanted to do, was to play music. But my ideas were very... You know the ideas of a young teenager... Well, not nearly the way teenagers think now. Teenagers nowadays, they think in terms of millions of dollars. We weren't even thinking in terms of dollars; it was just a matter of wanting to be able to play the way we heard music being performed and played. That's the way I thought, and my peers, you know.
TP:Did you have a peer group in junior high and high school of kids who were interested in music?
HT:Oh yeah. We had Absholom Ben-Sholomo, who was with Sun Ra, Richard Heard, Stephen Scott, the bassist Mchaka Ubu, my cousin Michael Wess. Arlington Davis, Jr.; his father, Arlington Davis, Sr., was a famous saxophone player from Chicago. There was the Pulliam family, which was a highly musical family in Chicago. I learned a lot from John Pulliam, the saxophonist. His younger brother and sister were my age. We all played together. And Milton Chapman. There were quite a few of us.
TP:At one point or another you've performed on nearly every saxophone and woodwind instrument, but it seems like alto has been the consistent main vehicle over the years? Was that first instrument?
HT:Oh, no, that's my last instrument. I started out as a tenor saxophone player. Tenor saxophone, the baritone saxophone, the clarinet and bass clarinet, then I went to the flute, and I came around to the alto last.
TP:Did you start playing the saxophone in high school through a band?
HT:Yeah, in the band at Englewood High School in Chicago.
TP:Now, the famous high school is DuSable and Captain Walter Dyett...
HT:One of the famous high schools. Englewood was famous... [laughs]
TP:I was leading up to ask you to tell us about the music program at Englewood High School.
HT:It was like all the high school programs, pretty much. It was a band program, and sometimes there would be small group rehearsals to work on Dance Band music or Jazz Band music. We called it Stage Band, besides being in the concert band... In other words, the concert band, the marching band, and then the stage band where we would play big band arrangements. There were a lot of great players at that school when I got there. Roscoe Mitchell, a great saxophone player Donald Myrick, Steve McCall had gone there, Oscar Brown, Jr., Satterfield, the trombone player. There were a lot of good players there.
TP:Who were some of the people who connected you into extending your research into music? Was Roscoe Mitchell one...
HT:No, I met Roscoe very late. The first saxophone player around that I really was influenced by that always was there with encouragement was Donald Myrick. Donald was older than I was, and he was a very fine saxophone player, very gifted when he was very young. There were band and solo city competitions, and he had won several of these for a couple of years. I was kind of following behind him to go to these contests, and play in the different groups. He would take me around to different sessions on Monday nights and Wednesday nights around the city.
TP:Were you listening to tenor players on records at the time? Were you starting to study different styles and approaches to the instrument?
HT:Well, I was listening to everything. But Chicago had a wealth of tenor saxophone players, and it was very difficult not to fall under the spell of Chicago tenor saxophone players, because they are very powerful players, very innovative players. John Gilmore, Eddie Williams, Eddie Harris, Clifford Jordan, Von Freeman, Gene Ammons, Jay Peters. There was just a list of them that went on and on, so many fine tenor saxophone players. But I never did hear too many alto saxophone players. It was mainly tenor saxophone players that I would go around to hear you always.
TP:Were there any you tried to emulate?
HT:Oh, sure. When you're learning there's always people you try to emulate. Gene Ammons was one of my favorites. I always went every place Gene Ammons would play; I'd always turn up there if I could. Gene Ammons and Eddie Williams in particular, and also John Gilmore. John Gilmore, Eddie Williams and Gene Ammons, and then later Von Freeman. Those were like the strong tenor saxophone players around Chicago. Later I was very much an admirer of Clifford Jordan, who became one of my favorite people also.
TP:The first group that you mentioned were all playing around Chicago when you were in high school?
HT:Yes.
TP:Which would have '58, '59, '60 or so?
HT:Yeah, '58, '59, '60.
TP:Were you working at all on little neighborhood gigs at this time, or doing things outside school?
HT:Yeah, we would get a job every now and then.
TP:What type of job would it be?
HT:In a bar, in a club. We would get a chance to play in a bar somewhere every now and then. But mostly we would play at somebody's house or in the basement of school or in the band-room. We would find someplace to work out our ideas.
TP:What sort of things would you work out on? Would you take tunes sort of in general currency?
HT:Yeah, right. The general repertoire that you heard, the popular jazz pieces, the contemporary pieces of Charlie Parker. That's what everybody was playing, learning how to play it. If they couldn't play it, they were learning how to play it...
TP:So learning the harmonic language of Charlie...
HT:The technical language, harmonic language and melodic language, and the whole musical aesthetic attitude of that music.
TP:Now, there were a lot of venues to play music on the South Side of Chicago at that particular time.
HT:Oh, sure.
TP:That legacy went back many years, and it was kind of the end of that very fertile period of being able to hear a lot of music on the South Side of Chicago.
HT:Yeah, Chicago was like... It was just one place after the other on 63rd street on the South Side from Martin Luther King Drive (which was named South Park) to the lake [Michigan], which was I don't know how many miles. There was just one place after another where you could hear music nightly, every night, where great musicians played. You'd get to 63rd and Cottage Grove, there were really big places, big dance halls where Duke and Count and people like that would play - the Trianon, the Pershing Ballroom and places like that. The Pershing Ballroom had a ballroom and a bar where Ahmad Jamal worked, and later Sun Ra worked there. Dexter Gordon and these people would come, and you'd hear them in places like Basin Street. There were so many places there.
TP:I take it you were underage to get in, but you would have been able to soak up the whole environment.
HT:Sure, you could get in if you were playing music. We used to carry our instrument around, so they would let you in. They knew you were trying to learn, so they would let you in. They'd serve you Coca-Cola or whatever soft drink they had.
TP:Were you also playing the blues at that time?
HT:Not at that time. I was playing in marching bands. I was playing in a host of marching bands, all types of marching bands, marching bands that were playing (for lack of a better term) something close to like Dixie, similar to the style of marching bands that you'd hear in New Orleans. That was one type of marching band. Another played military tunes...not military tunes, but tunes that were written for military bands - John Philip Sousa and pieces like that. then there were some things that were just arrangements by people for these different aggregations. But there were quite a few of these things on the South Side. Veteran organizations that had bands. Post bands. You could make money playing parades. That's what I did.
It was a while before I started playing in blues bands. That was in the late '60s, when I started playing in blues bands in Chicago.
TP:Nonetheless, for purposes of our Musician Show chronology, we're going to start with Howlin' Wolf and "Smokestack Lightning".
HT:For me, Howlin' Wolf is the greatest. Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters are two of the greatest people I ever heard. It had nothing to do with the Blues; they were just great, period, when you hear what they do and how they do it.
MUSIC:Howlin' Wolf, "Smokestack Lighting" (1956); Muddy Waters, "Mean Mistreater" (1959); Rev. James Cleveland, "I'll Do His Will"
TP:Any general comments on the blues and gospel music in reference to what we just heard?
HT:The idea about the blues that's sometimes put forth in institutions and situations similar to what institutions put out, that the Blues has some kind of strict formal structure - it does not. The blues is an internal thing. If one ever really heard the blues, blues had no type of structure until the Blues existed. That is, each piece presented its own development and own structure. It had nothing to do with patterns that's often put forth, that the blues is some 12-bar form or something like that. That's really not true. Not this type of blues. Maybe some type of blues that's gotten to be popular among certain type of musicians. But the blues that I heard that was played on the streets of Chicago and probably played in the country, in the Delta, that blues could take any direction and any form at any time.
Gospel music was the same way. It was music that was improvised music. It had a starting point, but you never knew exactly what was going to happen with this music. The blues was the same way. You never knew what was going to happen with it. It was a spirit music, and the spirit was the strongest part of the music. It had the direction of the music. The direction was through the spirit, not so much through a lot of mental calculations and things of that nature. They would more or less play it by the spirit of what they were doing.
TP:If I'm not mistaken, you were out a couple of years on the road with a band for a traveling preacher.
HT:Yes, I used to play with Horace Shephard, out of Philadelphia. It was a great experience. He was a traveling evangelist, so we got a chance to go to a lot of places, a lot of camp meetings and different churches where they would have him for a week. It was a large entourage of music people that traveled, similar to what Billy Graham has, but it was all gospel and sanctified people - singers, musicians that played instruments, pianists, organists, everything. Highly skilled musicians. The level of musicianship was really quite incredible.
It was a great experience because the music would just go off. It almost free. It was free because there was no expectation level. You couldn't learn some patterns and do these patterns and think that was it. It didn't work that way at all. You just had a place where you started, and where it ended up depended on what would happen in the emotional of church services.
TP:Did you travel the country?
HT:Yes.
TP:Did you go East to West, North to South with Horace Shephard?
HT:Oh, yeah. We went to California, the South, the Midwest, the East Coast.
TP:Was that your first extensive experience on the road?
HT:Yes. That happened in 1963-64. It was a very new and very eye-opening experience, because I came in contact with people all around the country for the first time, and I got to see what America looked like outside of a geography book and newspaper clippings, and see real people and see what their attitudes and dispositions were.
TP:At the time you joined Horace Shephard, the traveling evangelist, talk about where you were musically.
HT:I was playing with the AACM, but it wasn't the AACM at that time; it was the Experimental Band. Muhal Richard Abrams and all the different people that were associated with the Experimental Band, like Fred Anderson, Steve McCall, Donald Myrick.
TP:For people who don't know, what was the Experimental Band?
HT:The Experimental Band was a large or small orchestra at a place called C&C's Lounge, when I came in touch with Muhal and the group. Muhal invited me over there to play and write a piece at that time, which was I guess about '62.
TP:Was that the first time you'd written, or was it an interest of yours before?
HT:I started writing about that time. Prior to that I started writing, about 1961.
TP:You were still in high school when you began writing.
HT:Yes.
TP:What was your impetus for that? Did you have some sort of rudimentary composition class?
HT:No, it was just a natural thing. It was something that I knew I could do, and I just started doing it without any kind of formal instruction or formal information. It was just something that I knew I could do, and I just started doing it.
TP:How did you come to the Experimental Band? Was it something in the air...?
HT:No, Muhal Richard Abrams. He came and played at the school I was in, Wilson Junior College. We had a music club there.
TP:That later became Kennedy-King Junior College, I believe, and that's where Malachi Favors and Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman and Jack de Johnette were all attending at that time.
HT:Right, and Eddie Harris, Bunky Green, Betty Dupree, they were all up there. There were a lot of musicians there at that time. But we had a music club, and we invited Muhal there to play with a group. That's when I first met him. and we talked and everything. I don't know what transpired, but I saw him again, and he invited me to come over there and play with the orchestra at C&C's, to sit in the section and read the different charts they had.
TP:What was your impression of the music they were playing? Was it different than what you...?
HT:Oh yeah, because it was all original. They weren't doing standards, and they weren't doing the popular Bebop music at all. These were people who were writing music, coming from their own directions who were looking for a new direction in music.
TP:Had you heard any music up to this point, 1962, that gave you some kind of reference point to playing this music?
HT:Not really. Well, I would say Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra. For playing the music, that was one thing; for writing the music, that was a different experience altogether. For playing the music, yes, I would say Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor.
TP:You were already familiar with their recordings.
HT:Oh, yes. We were quite aware. They made a big impression on musicians all across America, all around the world, the step that had been made by them. Bill Dixon, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor. That move was a very significant move in improvised music in the Western world.
TP:Why so?
HT:Because it was the next move from Charlie Parker and Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, people of that school - that move. Once that move had been made, it was like everyone began to learn this music and they began to formalize this music. It became formalized, the way polyphony in Western music had become formalized by Bach. Then it had fallen into more or less a set of known patterns and predictable outcomes, and consequently it was becoming stylistic and into periodicy, I would say.
TP:What do you mean by that?
HT:That it stayed within itself within that period and style, and it advanced as far as it was going to advance, and that was it. There were refinements and arrangements and beautiful solos, but the evolution had stopped. So with these other people we were speaking of, like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Bill Dixon and others, the doors opened up again, and a number of artists around the country, like the AACM in Chicago were greatly influenced by this music. The later works of John Coltrane, which were in that direction, Eric Dolphy, they had a great influence on the players in the circles I was in.
TP:The next set will start with the only recording by Wilbur Ware, a bassist who was one of great spirit musicians of Jazz, who might start out from a point and take it wherever.
HT:Wilbur had a great influence on all the players I knew around Chicago, and here in New York, too.
TP:When did you first meet him?
HT:Oh God, I don't even remember what age I was. He and my uncle Nevin Wilson used to run together. I've been knowing Wilbur Ware since I was a kid. I don't even remember.
TP:He was a bassist and a drummer at one point. He lived with the great Chicago drummer Ike Day, and was I gather a very good dancer as well.
HT:Yes, exactly.
MUSIC:Wilbur Ware, "The Man I Love" (1957); Gilmore-A. Hill-Hutcherson-Davis-J. Chambers "Le Serpent Qui Danse" (1964); Gene Ammons, "The Happy Blues" (1956)
TP:I seem to recollect a conversation with you, Henry, some years ago, where you remembered Gene Ammons coming into McKie's while Sonny Rollins was playing, or vice-versa...
HT:Yes, they played together a week on the same at McKie's, in the Strand Hotel, the Sonny Rollins Quartet with Gene Ammons. It was quite incredible. I mean, I was a great fan of Sonny Rollins when I was growing up; he was one of my idols besides Gene Ammons. Now, you can often hear things live that will never get on record. I remember the last night that the played, the Sunday night, McKie's locked the doors of the club around 2:30 or 3 o'clock, and they wouldn't let anybody else in. They played until the next morning, and Gene Ammons was really... I had no idea he could play like that. He was playing pieces up in the harmonic section of the saxophone, the altissimo of the tenor saxophone, and never played below that. Very high notes, played all of these melodies like an octave higher than Sonny Rollins. It was really quite impressive. I didn't even know he played up there on the saxophone! It was quite a lesson.
TP:Which goes to show that no artist is giving away all their secrets on any given performance.
HT:That's right. But those two players were two totally different styles. Sonny Rollins had some Chicago roots, too, because he had a lot of family there and had spent a lot of time, so he knew quite a bit about the Chicago style of playing. I'm sure he was struck with Gene Ammons' playing. There were very tenor players of that age who were not struck by Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon coming out of the Billy Eckstine Orchestra.
TP:A few impressions on Gene Ammons' style and individuality on the saxophone?
HT:Well, I can't say too much about Gene Ammons' style, but his sound and the way... I used to run around behind him and watch him and listen very closely to how he would produce the sound on the instrument. It had to do with his physicality also, but he had a way of putting air through the instrument that was important for the production of the type of sound that he had. He had such a massive sound. It wasn't so much loud as it was big. It was a huge sound that would permeate everything. He would play in a room without a microphone, and just fill up the entire room with sound. Then he played with such depth of feeling, too. He was a great balladeer. He really knew how to play a ballad. He could bleed you to death with his ballads! He was a type of minimalist player, I would say. He didn't play a whole lot of information, the way Thelonious Monk played. He was an economy player.
TP:A few words about John Gilmore? Did you listen to the Sun Ra Band in the '50s?
HT:Yeah, I used to be at their rehearsals. They used to rehearse on 63rd Street in Englewood, 63rd and Morgan. Ronnie Boykins lived in the area I lived, and they had a rehearsal space in a supermarket. Absholom Bensholomo and I used to be at the rehearsals every night when they would practice, so we would be back under Pat, Marshall and John on a nightly basis at the rehearsals - then also going to all the performances they'd play.
TP:So this was when you were 14 or 15..
HT:13-14-15.
TP:What did the music sound like to you at 13, 14 or 15?
HT:It was very different. It was quite radical from anything on disk that we had been listening to. It was really quite radical. The music and the way that they improvised was really quite radical. I hadn't heard anything like that. I heard Sun Ra before I heard Ornette Coleman or any of these people, and it was really beyond anything that was recorded that we knew of.
TP:Where would you see them perform?
HT:They played every week at the Pershing Lounge, and we'd go there every week. When they left for New York, they left from the Pershing Lounge. They finished at the Pershing, and they got in their cars and drove here to New York around 1961.
TP:A few words about the dynamics of John Gilmore's style and individuality.
HT:His sound and his style, the information that he was playing was some very advanced harmonic and rhythmic information. His rhythmic approach was really quite amazing. John used to tell me about practicing out of drum books, when we used to go to the rehearsals, listening to them as kids, so I went out and bought a whole bunch of drum books, and I'd play with different drummers. Arlington "Butch" Davis and I used to practice together, and we'd only practice out of drum books. That gives you a grounding in certain drum rhythmics that you wouldn't ordinarily have in your playing, playing a melodic instrument. Gilmore's playing was very rhythmic playing. I don't mean necessarily always busy. It could be busy, but very unusual rhythmic patterns in his playing. And also his harmonic language was extremely advanced. He and Coltrane used to consult a lot. and Coltrane used to come and listen to him play. Eddie Harris, Clifford Jordan, a lot of people knew about his musical thinking. He was a very sophisticated player, and totally original.
TP:Did you ever get to speak with Sun Ra as a teenager, or was it just from afar?
HT:Just a few words here and there. Not too much. I never had any long conversations with Sun Ra, not really.
TP:You mentioned Eddie Harris just now. Were you enamored of his sound and style at this time?
HT:Oh, of course. He was playing at C&C's Lounge, a great group, with Sleepy Anderson on organ. They had a great band at C&C's Lounge, with Doug Freeman, a trumpet player, I believe, and I think Ajaramu was the drummer. It was a fantastic band. It first had been Eddie Williams, a fabulous tenor saxophone player in Chicago, then Eddie Harris. That's when I first met Eddie Harris. He was fascinating, the amount of information that was in him musically.
TP:He was also a pianist. I believe he played Mondays and Tuesdays at the Pershing when Ahmad Jamal was off.
HT:Oh, yes. He played a lot of piano. He was an all-around musician.
TP:Was Johnny Griffin around Chicago a lot at that point?
HT:No, he was pretty much gone by that time. But he used to come in there and play engagements at different clubs and play the theaters. The theaters at that time would have shows after the movie, and he and Jay Peters (another great saxophone player in Chicago) used to front a big band at the Regal Theater.
TP:Both went to DuSable High School. I believe Johnny Griffin succeeded Jay Peters in the Lionel Hampton band.
HT:Right. And they used to play together a lot, duelling tenors with a big band.
TP:A Chicago institution.
HT:Mmm-hmm!
TP:Was that something you'd engage in as a young saxophonist? Part of the Chicago musical ritual, as it were?
HT:Well, it wasn't any formal ritual. But you had to fall up under the influence of these people because they were all original. They were very original. We were hearing a lot of the music disk coming from who was being recorded in New York, and it was a striking difference, the approach for tenor saxophone players that were out of Chicago.
TP:Presumably mature improvisers are individual in one manner or another. What was the nature of the Chicago individuality?
HT:It took a lot of chances and played a lot of information that was outside of what was being played in New York. Also the concept of sound was different, from what I was hearing on records - what people thought about sound.
TP:Different in what way?
HT:The aerodynamics of sound! The way they put the air in the instrument and what kind of sound came out. There didn't seem to be a unison thought on that in terms of the Chicago school of players. There were so many people that was far to the left and far to the right in how they approached sound.
TP:So if you're talking about Chicago players dealing with, say, the same tune that someone in New York was playing, it would come out in as many different ways as there were people to do it.
HT:Yes. Two of the greatest sound masters on the saxophone, in my opinion, are Johnny Hodges and Eddie Lockjaw Davis. But the Chicago school of people was operating on that same level. Von Freeman, John Gilmore, Gene Ammons, these are people that worked with sound in the same kind of way. It was a very sophisticated level of dealing with the sound.
TP:Von Freeman says that Ben Webster, one of the great sound masters, was around a lot during the early and mid '50s.
HT:Mmm-hmm. So was Don Byas. He lived in Chicago. He stayed on 55th Street in Chicago for a long time. [TP: I think Henry means Coleman Hawkins, who lived there in the early to mid '40s, on Garfield by the north-south el.
TP:Next up is music by Ahmad Jamal, who by 1961 was an institution in Chicago. At what point did your uncle, Nevin Wilson perform with Ahmad Jamal?
HT:Oh, this was in Rockford, Illinois... Late '50s, I believe. Somewhere in there. I don't remember the years. But I had just fallen under the spell of Ahmad Jamal, who was not only a great pianist, but an incredible orchestrater and arranger at the keyboard. He's still that way. He does what he absolutely wants to do at any time. He'll play anything as long as he wants to play it. He'll play one note for a minute if he feels like it. And his orchestrational thinking in terms of what the drums should be doing melodically and rhythmically, the tunings between the drums, the bass and the piano, has been so sophisticated over the years... It's just incredible how still there's not a lot of information written about Ahmad Jamal and what he's done for music, American music. You can't think about playing music on the trio level and bypass that. If you bypass that, you're going to really miss some serious vitamins in your diet! I mean, you could fall dead if you don't have that kind of information.
TP:I guess one of the reasons there's such a dynamic interaction between he and his drummer was who his drummer was, the great Vernell Fournier from New Orleans, and inheritor of the drum traditions of New Orleans.
HT:Mmm-hmm. But those traditions were all up and down the Mississippi River. Those traditions were not unique to New Orleans at all. They were prevalent up and down that river, coming up to Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago - straight on up. It's a misconception that a lot of things was just in New Orleans. Not at all. It was up and down that river. The only time there was a lot of information in New Orleans was in the days there was mostly pianists operating in New Orleans. You know, Jelly Roll. After that, not really.
TP:Well, Jelly Roll came up to Chicago which gave it a different flavor.
HT:Louis Armstrong came to Chicago, too.
TP:It seems to me that one of the things about Chicago music is that the New Orleans musicians had such an impact there from moving there to work in the 1910's and '20s.
HT:Well, they did make an impact. They had to come up. That was the only way to come. You had to come to Chicago. The stockyards was in Chicago, and it was also the center of the railroads. It was like 42nd Street. You had to go to 42nd Street here to make changes to go all over town. So the only way you could get to any part of America was you had to come to Chicago. They came to Chicago because the logistics of transportation made it impossible for them to go any other way. If you wanted to go west or you wanted to go east, you still had to come to Chicago.
TP:I guess you could go to California to New Orleans in a different way...
HT:No, you couldn't.
TP:Sure, by the Southern Pacific railroad.
HT:No. They all came to the center of the country, through the shipping routes. The shipping routes is the way people traveled. The shipping routes had to do with the way America was being fed, which was around the stockyards, and where all the trains came through. That was the best way to travel. Also people tended to come to Chicago because of work. There was a lot of work on all kinds of levels. You've got to remember, people came from the south to the northern states via Chicago. Some went on to other places, Detroit, Cincinnati, etcetera. Others never left Chicago. That's why you have such a large community of Southern people in Chicago.
TP:Some people call Chicago the northernmost southern city.
HT:Yeah, they say "as far down South as you can get up North." [laughs]
TP:Any ideas on the impact of that phenomenon on the music of Chicago?
HT:Well, the delta blues and the gospel was very strong in Chicago, which led into the whole rhythm and blues period. That music was pervasive, and people really responded to it. So it was a part of a musician's background. If you became a musician, that was naturally a part of your background. It was hard to get around that. Mahalia Jackson was there, Clay Evans, James Cleveland and people like that would come through, Sam Cooke was there. You had to be struck by the artistry of these people. Howlin' Wolf. It was incredible.
MUSIC:Jamal-Crosby-Fournier, "Raincheck" (1960); Sun Ra-Gilmore, "Images" (1958); Von Freeman, "I'll Remember April" (1992)
HT:Von Freeman's rhythmic and sound approach is very distinctive. It's almost Eastern, what happens with the sound. Johnny Hodges often worked with the sound like that. It's different from what a lot of players think... They have this idea about a just intonation, what's in tune. What's in tune is what's in tune in your mind; not what is tune physically, but what is internally in tune. That's really an unusual approach for a saxophonist, because in so much of the tradition of the music everyone is trying to sound so much in classical unison. It's a wider sound band that he's playing in.
TP:Now, in Blues situations that's not necessarily the case. You're in tune in a different way.
HT:Exactly. I believe a lot of it is coming from there, because he comes right out of that Blues environment in Chicago. That's the kind of foundation that these older saxophone players out of Chicago had, how they would play variants with the sound, which is something that I think kind of goes back to Africa possibly; it might have its roots there in terms of sound.
TP:That quality of working with sound is one of the characteristic of the new music of the 1960's that inspired you as a young saxophone player.
HT:Yes.
TP:People like you and Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman and Kalaparusha...
HT:Roscoe named his first album Sound.
TP:Roscoe Mitchell has mentioned a great debt to Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. There's a phrase to describe the music that happened in Chicago post-Ayler Music, which it may or may not be. But I'd like to talk with you a little about those years. We spoke before about your introduction to the Experimental Band, and you were at Wilson Junior college in 1962 before going out on the road with Horace Shephard, the traveling evangelist, which is where you met Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell...
HT:Joseph and I were there in school together playing prior to Roscoe coming there. I think Roscoe had come out of the service or something like that at that time. He came out of the service, and then we started playing together. The three of us started playing together, rehearsing together after he came out of the service.
TP:What sorts of things would you work out at these rehearsals?
HT:We started off with traditional things, Art Blakey or Horace Silver arrangements, and then we started to go into things - some of Ornette's music and Coltrane's music; basically those two.
TP:Were you with a rhythm section?
HT:Yes. That was Dracir(?) Smith on drums, Eddie Chappell(?) on bass, another bassist who played with us, and a pianist named Byron. There were about two or three pianists who used to try to work in that context, which was very difficult because the music had changed so much. We weren't really doing anything with Muhal yet, who was quite qualified to work in that area, and Andrew Hill wasn't around, so he wasn't available! So it was some younger pianists who were working in that direction. Christopher Gaddy ended up being important in that circle.
TP:Was that a workshop band, or were you working...?
HT:Yeah, I guess you would call it a workshop situation. It was just a weekly thing that we did all the time.
TP:So you were doing that, there was the Experimental Band, and you were making forays at writing music.
HT:Right.
TP:This goes until 1963, when you go on the road with the evangelist minister Horace Shephard, and you came back to Chicago when?
HT:I was in and out of Chicago. I wasn't gone completely. Then I left Chicago in '66 for a couple of years when I went in the service, and came back in '68. That's when I started playing mostly blues.
TP:Did you join the AACM when it was incorporated in 1965?
HT:I wasn't there.
TP:But you kept your association.
HT:Yeah, I had some association. I really wasn't playing too much music outside of the music I was playing with Horace Shepherd. That's the only music I was playing at that time. I wasn't playing jazz or anything like that.
TP:So you went in a whole different direction in the middle part of the '60s.
HT:Right.
TP:In the service were you playing music?
HT:In the service I was playing music.
TP:You were part of a band?
HT:Right.
TP:What was that experience like?
HT:Oh, it was a very good experience, because they had great bands, great musicians in these bands, large concert bands. A lot of great players I met in these bands in the States and overseas, fantastic musicians.
TP:Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman had very positive experiences in these bands as well.
HT:Many musicians. Wayne Shorter, Coltrane, Clark Terry, Lester Bowie, all these people were in bands. You name it! That was one way people used to go. It was a place where you could work out your ideas, and only work on music, for one thing.
TP:What was the scene like when you returned to Chicago in 1968? Did you immediately go back to the AACM type situations?
HT:I was playing with the AACM, but I was playing with Phil Cohran also. Phil Cohran is a very important bandleader, composer, theoretician, historian, and also one of the people who founded the Afro-Arts Theater which was an important institution in Chicago, that presented a wealth of music-dance events. They had a lot of great musicians under his leadership. The original people from the Earth, Wind and Fire group were all there. There were a lot of great musicians in that particular camp. I worked with him, and I think Stubblefield was in the band with the guitarist Pete Cosey. Sonny Rollins' aunt or cousin I think was in that band. There was a tuba player who later became a bass player, Tyus Palmer. Phil Cohran was very important, and he's still very important in Chicago. He's still a great musical thinker and leader in Chicago.
TP:What were the nature of activities when you came back to Chicago with the AACM?
HT:Mostly playing with the big band at that time. I didn't do too many... I started doing some rehearsals with putting some small groups together, but basically playing with the AACM Big Band is what I was doing.
TP:What were some of the affiliations you started making in '68 and '69? I know in '69 the Art Ensemble left for Paris, and people like Braxton, Leroy Jenkins and Steve McCall as well, the configurations changed.
HT:Well, we kept doing things. We still had a big band, but people were making some moves around the world to try to take the music on the road and to try to get some working situations for themselves over and beyond what they could get in Chicago and around the States. I left briefly in '69 and came to New York, and I stayed for a while and played around here. Then I came back and started putting Air together, the trio that I had. After coming to New York I went back to Chicago and decided I was going to start another group. I had some groups I experimented with, but it was Air that took off.
TP:We're going to play "Lonely Woman," and I'd like you to say something about the impact of Ornette Coleman on the music that developed in the 1960's. I think we can speak about him very comfortably with the other saxophone players in terms of projection and use of sound.
HT:Yes. Also a kind of new melodic direction came from Ornette Coleman. He's such a great melodic thinker and lyrical player. They were such fresh new melodies that came out of what he was doing. They came out of the same place we were used to listening to in the traditional Jazz music. Also, the orchestrations within the framework of the instruments they had were very sophisticated, especially what Charlie Haden was playing. Where he would be playing in reference to where another instrument was playing was quite unique. It wasn't just a bass, it was a bass part that moved in terms of registers that were in relation to what the other instruments were playing, which gave the music a sound and made it jump out and cause certain acoustical connections to happen. Say Ornette would be playing on a certain range on his instruments; then the bass would be in a particular range that made the alto sound a certain way - it gave the whole ensemble a certain sound. This was quite new, because the bass playing we had heard previous to that was a walking type of bass that kind of went up and down. It didn't have these big register shifts like that, register shifts that had an ultimate orchestral effect on the music. So it was really a lot of new information that came out of this music which permeated all of my thinking and the thinking of all my peers.
TP:Well, certainly that sense of unifying sound or creating sounds in relation to each other was very evident in Air, which had a very spare instrumentation, where you were joined by two extremely resourceful instrumentalists and improvisers, Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall. I guess there's some element of the Ahmad Jamal concept of orchestration, too, with a minimum of elements.
HT:Yeah. Exactly.
MUSIC: Ornette, "Lonely Woman" (1959); Eddie Lockjaw Davis, "Whole Nelson" (1961)
HT:Eddie Lockjaw Davis, I have to say, is probably the most original saxophone player I ever heard in my life. I've listened to all the different saxophone players, but I've never heard anyone play the saxophone like that. It's the most convoluted style of playing that I ever heard in my life. You can hear a lot of players emulate Charlie Parker, Coltrane, all kinds of players. I've never heard anyone that can emulate this man, or anyone who can approach the saxophone in this way. It's a strange style of playing, and the harmonic language is very different. His way of formulating sound on the instrument is extremely different; I don't know what that was about. If you listen to Eddie Lockjaw Davis (most people haven't listened to him, I don't think), you will see that the notes don't come out of the saxophone the way they do when other people play the saxophone. It's very convoluted. It's the most original thing I ever heard in my life. The most original.
TP:People use the phrase upside-down to describe his patterns.
HT:I don't even know what he's doing, to tell the truth. Maybe he was playing upside-down, I don't know. Whatever it was, it was the most original thing I ever heard. Because it's not a linear way of playing. It's convoluted. It's a convoluted style, and I never heard anyone else play like that.
TP:You mentioned that you started as a tenor player and came to the alto saxophone last, a lot of the people we're listening to in the course of the show are tenor players. A lot of people take the opposite tack. Given the choice between the alto and tenor, they find it's easier to get an acceptable sound on the tenor, and move to that. You went in the opposite direction. What was it about the alto that appealed to you?
HT:It was when I was playing with this church band. The minister of the Church, when I first went to play for this particular church, asked me to play this particular piece of music, "His Eye Is On The Sparrow." I played it that Sunday. Like I say, this was a sanctified church, and when I played it, the people were just polite; they just kind of looked up in the air. They usually just fell on the floor in front of my face! The minister told me, "I have an alto saxophone under the pulpit." He told me to go put it in the shop and he would pay to have it fixed. So I put it in the shop, got it fixed, and then he said to me, "Now, play that same piece of music next Sunday." I played it, and it was like a whole different reaction from the church when I played it. What I discovered was (I had been playing the tenor around there) that they just didn't hear the tenor. It was too low. The tenor is great in playing the Blues, but it really didn't work in the churches. And when I started coming across a couple of other people who were playing out there in that church circuit, they were all playing altos, too. So that's how I switched over to the alto.
TP:Then in the AACM, multi-instrumentalism was...
HT:When I came back to the AACM I was playing all of the saxophones, the baritone and tenor, but eventually...
TP:I recollect seeing you play twenty years ago, there would be a floor of instruments on the bandstand.
HT:Playing everything. I just worked it down to...I just play mostly these days alto, flute and bass flute.
TP:In what sense did being in the AACM and being in that environment expand your compositional horizons and visions and sense of the possibilities of music?
HT:Oh, because the players were all composers, and they were all looking for and developing their writing skills and compositional language. So you would find out what other people were constantly doing, which enhanced what you were doing. Also, people's general interest in world music. Somebody could tell you about listening to this person play music from some other country, or avail you of information to go hear concerts by the Chicago Symphony or the Chicago Chamber Players or anything of that nature. There was so much broad information now, all of a sudden. In that circle there was a broad resource of information being exchanged and previewed. It was not exclusively Jazz any more. It was music. The picture was music there. It was not a particular idiom any more.
TP:So it's as though the musical language of the world is on your plate to do with what you will.
HT:Yeah, to investigate and whatever. Whatever approach you wanted to take to it. But it was wide open. Before that, the places I would go and be around, people were exclusively just trying to deal with just Jazz, and not looking at the music of Varese or Hindemith or Schoenberg or Stockhausen, or listening to Bishmallah Kahn. That wasn't the case. Now in the AACM, there were a bunch of people that were aware of a lot of different music, were working within the context of different musics, and integrating it into what they were doing. The same had been done before. That's the way it's always done. That's how advances are made, by infusing and accepting other things into what you're doing until you come up with something that allows you to evolve in evolutionary terms.
TP:When you came to New York in the mid-'70s, Air continued, and then you focused on the Henry Threadgill Sextett, with two drummers, making it a 7-musician ensemble. We'll hear a track from the last Sextett recording, Rag, Bush and All on RCA-Novus.
MUSIC:"The Devil Is On the Loose And Dancing With A Monkey" (1988); "Just The Facts And Pass The Bucket" (1983); Varese, "Ionization"
TP:A few words about the current organization. I asked you before if you recycle compositions, or better put, rework them and re-orchestrate for different bands, and you said it's almost entirely new music for new orchestras. You have a new group after Very Very Circus, which doubled the guitars and tubas.
HT:The new group is a five-piece group, Make A Move.
TP:In your writing are you hearing sounds and finding people to match the sounds, or are you hearing people's sounds and finding ways to structure them within an ensemble? Is that a clear question?
HT:It's a clear question, but I don't know if my answer would be the answer you want. The answer is, no, I hear a totally different situation, and it's about finding the right people for the situation. They bring a lot of new possibilities within that situation. I have a general idea of where I want to go and what I want to do, and then when somebody comes in, you see how much information they have, so it enriches your information as to what's possible within this new framework that you put yourself in. That's basically what happens.
TP:Well, I don't think I wanted one answer or the other. I just wanted to know what the deal actually was, Henry!
HT:What the deal is. I don't actually know what the deal is until the deal is done! It's like that. You've got to know when to hold it and know when to fold it and know when the deal is done!
MUSIC:Very, Very Circus, "Vivjanrondirski"


C o m m e n t s

tenor saxophonist Jay Peters 1 of 2
Jay Peters III, the son of Jay Peters June 17, 03

First, I would like to tell you that I enjoyed the interview, and I was wondering if you could help me in getting more information on my father's early and mid musical career. He died on Jan. 19, 1974. I was only 8 years old. Any information would be helpful. Thank You.

[<<] [<]