Since the early 1970s, saxophonist/flutist/composer Henry Threadgill has been creating challenging music with some of the most influential musicians in modern jazz. Born in Chicago, he started getting noticed as a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). His trio Air became one of the most acclaimed of its era. Since then, Threadgill has been at the forefront of free jazz. One hallmark remains the distinctive instrumentation found in groups such as Sextet/Sextett, Very Very Circus and the group he's bringing to the Guelph Jazz Festival, Zooid.
What prompted you to start composing?
I don't know. You start writing music because you've got music in you. I started writing music as a kid.
I thought you started by playing other people's music.
I did, but I wrote music, too. I was making up music when I was a kid, but I started writing music by the time I was in high school.
Were you writing for a group?
Not in particular. I was just writing music, hoping to get it played. I would play it with the people I put together, you know?
Were you writing in any particular style?
Yeah, I guess so. I was sort writing what was going on at the time, some of the newer things with people like Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, people like that.
Did you write modal music?
Modal music? I know a lot of people writing about writing modal music, but they don't really know what they're talking about. They just talk, they don't really analyze. You can't understand something unless you go into it seriously.
You mean because so-called modal tunes had tonal changes?
It's thrown around a lot. Anything you're throwing around a lot, it's usually getting played. It becomes a catchall term. Any term can be an inefficiency in the area, anywhere. It just seems to make its way over there. But they never really look really seriously. They're just talking off the top of their heads, saying this and that. And it's really not true most of the time.
Many jazz musicians write "tunes" ― melodies with chord progressions ― but you write full-blown compositions.
Yeah, right. I don't write tunes as such, you know.
How did you decide that you were going to reach beyond the usual jazz format?
It's in the tradition. From the beginning, with people like King Oliver: that's how he started out. He wasn't doing what other people were doing. He took the thing much further out. Those are the people I was playing attention to. People like Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, the people in that aspect of the music. I'm only talking about them. But I listen to and study music from all over the world. You learn art from a lot of places. But I'm referring to this music. You know, Ornette Coleman, Andrew Hill, Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, Waddada Leo Smith. All of these people had a great impact in terms of the tradition. The tradition is one of going forward. It's not like something in terms of a repertory body of music that's reinterpreted and reinterpreted and reinterpreted. That's my understanding of the tradition that I'm a part of. It's one that goes forward. It's one that keeps extending itself. And it was just in my nature as a human being, you know. I wasn't going go over and over the same thing.
Why do think it is that so many jazz musicians are content to just play within the tradition?
When you say "so many jazz musicians," you're speaking about musicians right now, right? Because now they have a serious problem. They've got a problem because, first of all, they've been affected the wrong way by music schools and universities that interfere with the black music process. Just like the Chinese music process, the Balinese music process, the Indian music process: there's process by which art comes about. See, they've taken a European music process ― and there's nothing wrong with the European music process, the European music process was good for European music ― but European music process isn't good for the Indian music or the black music or any other kind of music.
The process is all about how you get to the art, and what you've got is these universities are running like Ford factories. See, everybody's learning the same thing. All you have to do is review music history. You can't find any evidence of music coming about as a result of that. And why do you have these problems now with all these musicians now sounding the same, playing the same, not interested in anything different. They don't even know who's playing music. People who are 40 or 50 years older than them, they don't even know who they are. The schools are telling them everything. You set up in front of 30 people and tell them how to get from A to B, so everybody knows how to get from A to B the same way. If you sit down and listen how Dexter Gordon gets from A to B, or Eddie Lockjaw Davis gets from A to B, or Coleman Hawkins gets from A to B, or Sonny Rollins gets from A to B, or John Coltrane gets from A to B, well, they all get from A to B a totally different way. And that's because it's an individual thing; you've got to work these things out individually. That is the real method for jazz or improvised black music. It's an individual process that has to be maintained.
You're not supposed to showing people how to do anything. What you're supposed to do is assist people on where they are in their own development, to move forward, to clarify what they're doing. You don't need to be telling how to do anything. You don't need to be telling kids how to add two plus five plus six, you know. Let them figure it out for themselves. Let each one of them do it their own way. That's how [the jazz tradition] came about. That's why all of these people sound so different and had a different way of making the music. And I'm not making this up.
This is the history. I'm only quoting what is in the history. I'm not making up anything. What's happening now is things are being made up. People are practicing people's solos and things like that. What for? It has nothing to do with them. It's like a musician, I don't want to call his name, came up to Dizzy Gillespie and told him how much he appreciated his playing and that he had been practicing all his solos. And Dizzy Gillespie told him, "That's a monumental waste of time." (laughter) It is! What are you practicing someone else's solo for? It's got nothing to do with you. Absolutely nothing. Now, I'm not saying you're not supposed to study music, all the music that came in the generation before you and the generation before that, as much as possible. But that is what it is for: it is something to study. Something for you to learn something from. But it is not necessarily something for you to do.
Because music is related in time. Music and all art is related to the period in which it occurs. To the social circumstances, the spiritual circumstances, the scientific circumstances and all those other pertinent circumstances that exist at a certain. That's why art reflects and speaks so much of a time. We got a lot of your people now, they sitting up playing music, they're playing very well on these instruments, because that's one thing they've taught them very well, because there's been a lot of information disseminated about how best to reproduce sounds, and things like that, on the instruments. But they're sitting up trying to become great at some music that's older than me. (laughter) There's no basis for doing anything like that, you know? In my lifetime, why would I want to hear some young people stand up in front of me and playing something that I heard the original people play in front of me? (laughter) Why would I waste my time listening to that when I stood up in front of Dexter Gordon and Coltrane and all these other people, and Oscar Peterson? And people played this stuff right in front of you when I was growing up. And then I'm going to listen to some students and people play the same music? They can't even begin to get where these people were. Because that music represented their life. It represented the time. And all art ― I don't like to just speak about music ― all art is like that.
You use two bottom-end instruments in your current group, Zooid. That certainly doesn't let you go cliché-ish, does it?
I don't think that way. I've never thought that there was any standard way of doing anything. So I'm not using anything unusual, as far as I'm concerned, because I never believed that there was a format. I've never believed that there was a format.
The one thing I've always understood was the aim. The aim is to make music. How? That question is open. With what? And that question has always been open. So I've never subscribed to that. I know people write these things, because musicians had trios, that had this in and that in it and had quartets with this and that. But like, I've never really thought that way, from the very beginning. The only thing that I knew from the time I was a little kid was that the idea was that you had to make music. And I don't care what the music was or where it was from. It didn't matter if it was Mozart or Balinese orchestra or whatever it was. The idea is to make music. And how you do it, nobody really cares, basically. I don't think the listeners care. It becomes a conversation for academics and things like that.
When somebody brings you a dish of food, you taste it. And you say, "My God! This is delicious. This is wonderful." You're not interested in what's in it. Now somebody could come up to with a dish of food and say, "You know, I had this underground for one week. I picked this cinnamon and grew it organically and I made the pesto myself and I use such and such a machine" and all this stuff. And then you taste and it don't taste like anything. (laughter)
You know, I remember when I was a kid in school, in literature, you had to get up and read a poem that you had written. And I'll never forget this when the teacher told us. A kid said, "Well, this poem is going to be about so and so and so and so." The teacher said, "Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Don't tell us what it's going to be about. Read it." (laughter) So, it's like, eat it. Don't tell me what all you did to it, how you marinated it, and this came from this." Let me taste it.
That's the whole thing about making art, about making music. How you do it is not important. If you blow a horn out your ear, it really doesn't matter. It does not matter. Those things become conversations for, like I said, maybe journalists and academics. But for the public and people who are really receiving art and not analyzing art, they don't really care how you did it. They're not looking at that, and that's the important thing.
When I have the chance to assist some younger musicians or composers, I always remind them. I say, "What is the object of what you're doing?" You can get off on different tangents. You're forgetting what the main object is. It is not to make this difficult, to make these chord changes… What is the end object? That is to make music. Because when you think about that, then you keep everything balanced. You don't let things get out of proportion, you know what I'm saying? And you don't get carried away with like, "Oh, I just love the notes in this melody!" Well, those notes in the melody might need to be killed, in order for the bigger picture, in order for the music to happen, you know what I'm saying?
Stravinsky said that you need to be able to "kill your babies" because you write those notes and then you need to take them out.
Exactly. And what he was saying was that the bigger picture is music. See, because things can start to get away from you, for a lot of different reasons. You have to remember what the object of this whole thing is. It's to make music. And when you lose sight of that, that's when you do all these weird things, you know. And that's how you end up following tradition all the time. When you decide things based on music, well, you drop some ice cubes in a bucket and you say, "I like the way that sounds." See, that's the way I thought, and I didn't think there was anything unusual about the way I was thinking.
Henry, you're saying things that would make high school band teachers' hair fall out. So, here's a question that young people have to deal with: when you were young and you were taking this "unusual" approach to music, did people think you were weird?
No, because I wasn't that developed at that point. Nobody was paying that much attention to what I was doing at that point. (laughter) No, there weren't that many people trying to do that. The kids were just trying to play music. And I was struggling with them, too, trying to play music. But I was writing music, trying to figure out how music was put together, you know. I was always lifting music and then I would sit down and try to play a lot of the music that I heard on the radio and on records. Sit at the piano to see how it worked. That's the importance of music history, to understand how other people have made things work. You can learn something from how one man builds a house. Now you see how he builds it. But you go to a different house in a different place and there's no possibility of earthquakes. So you might want to be cognizant of some technical information that you might embody in your house that that person didn't have in theirs.
Who do you listen to nowadays?
Nobody in particular. I don't listen to anything, hardly. I have nothing I listen to in particular, [but] I listen to just about anything. I go out to listen to live music, mostly. Nothing on the radio, hardly. Radio isn't what it used to be. Radio was a treasure trove before. And I can't be buying CDs and CDs and CDs. I listen to a lot of music I've already collected. But mostly I look forward to going out to hear music. Music that's going on around. What I don't get in the mail, in terms of announcements, a couple of young musicians are always telling me I should go and hear this kid or that kid, you know. And that's what I do. And I'm not speaking of jazz. I'm talking about all music. Contemporary music people that are playing contemporary music, or pop people. It doesn't matter.
When you hang out with other composers, what do you talk about?
We don't really discuss anything too much. That's a changing situation. We're not always talking about music. It's not like there's an agenda, so it's hard to say. And that happens so rarely. There's only a few people that I can talk to about music in any depth. My friends like Wadada [Leo Smith] or Alvin Singleton or Muhal [Richard Abrams] or Butch Morris or somebody like that. We do have moments but it's nothing that I can really recount, not anything specific.
Do you get technical in your conversations?
Well, that can happen, yes. It can get technical. But, like I said, I couldn't really point out anything. Like, it's hard to say. It could get technical, but the biggest thing, though, is that it's good to have people you can discuss things with, on a compositional, creative level, what's going with music, who can share ideas on it. I may have a couple of younger musicians, too, that I talk to like David Virelles, one of my favourite people, a great musician. And Steve Coleman.
Do you talk about concepts? I'm not talking about "play these notes on this chord." I mean bigger issues? Do you talk about those kinds of things?
Yeah, some things come up. But I couldn't recall, specifically, any of these conversations in enough detail to make a lot of sense. Because these things kind of just happen, you know what I'm saying? These things just come about. It happens and that's it. And whatever musicians are working on, it's a private matter anyway. Because they're going to be working with it for some time. They might talk about it; they might not talk about it. But like I say, it's an individual thing anyway. You've got to figure these things out for yourself. That's the important thing. And that's the travesty that's affected this music, with all these young musicians doing the same thing and thinking the same way. And it's really extensive, you know. I've never seen anything like it. It's like we've got these factories. And they don't seem to be able to figure out for themselves the history. I mean, it's so simple. When I went to school and we read European music history… well, you looked and you saw how people did things. All you do is you go to another civilization or another culture, and you see how those people do things. And then it gets to you, and you don't seem to be able to figure out how to do it.
It's kind of crazy. How did the people in your musical culture do it? You follow what the course it lays down does. It's artificial to mess with the process. That's an important thing. You know, that's why you can't get anything done with American orchestras. (mutual laughter) That's right! (more laughter) I don't care how much good will and open-ended and open-hearted they want to be, you can't do a damn thing. Because it's "Oh, we'd love to do something for us, but you've got to do it our way." But that's the problem. It's your way, and your way is the problem. They haven't stopped to figure out that that way is only good for European music. That is not how you're going to do all music. So you can't do a damn thing with them.
I was surprised to see Ornette Coleman do "Skies of America" with a symphony orchestra at Lincoln Center. I thought that was an amazing accomplishment, because I thought the orchestra musicians just wouldn't put up with how he goes about things.
It was a lot of work, I know that. Look, the amount of work it takes to get contemporary so-called "classical" music... you can't even get that played, properly. These people can't even play Elliot Carter's music.
Sure, but that music's really hard though.
What's that got to do with it?
Wouldn't they have to rehearse that a lot?
Look, hard. Ives was hard. Wagner was hard. They were all hard. You think the problem we're dealing with is hard? (laughter) Look, if it's not hard, it's not nothing anyway. Not likely. (laughter) Ever think you could take a walk through the park and be done with it? No. Art takes penetration. It takes work. And it speaks to society to tell you about the importance of hard work and staying at something. And seeing the surface and below the surface. All of these lessons are embodied in dealing with art.
And now we've got it down to this routine where there's nothing to learn and people take things for granted. Aw, that's going to be too hard, so now we're not supposed to do it, because it's too hard. Because we want fast food, a computer in our hands, some stuff stuck in our ears. Quick, quick, quick, quick. Oh, no, I don't want to play the oboe. I certainly can't play the violin. Gimme a guitar.
We're kind of missing the boat here on what we should have learned already from European art. Now we're losing that. We've lost it because the people in that tradition, in orchestras, they don't even want to touch anything new, anything different. They just play the same thing over and over and over and over again, and then get upset with a conductor that's supposed to do something different with old material. "Oh, we know how this goes. We know what to do with this. We don't need the conductor telling us how to do this." (laughter)
When you're rehearsing your band, do you conduct?
There's no conducting to do. We work this out together. Everybody's conducting. Conducting… I mean, we're exploring. I forgot the German word for "rehearse." [proben] Certainly not the English concept of rehearse. I don't really rehearse, I explore. I go back to the German word. Germans use a word that means something like "explore." Rehearse only means to go over something. If you think you can do it from left to right, then get up and leave. (laughter) You got the right moves. You did it from left to right: go home. (laughter) Exactly. That's rehearsal. We just played it left to right. Nobody made a mistake. End of story. Done. That's the rehearsal method. I already get that method. Because musicians should be able to read from left to right. That's a given. So you've done nothing by doing that. That's like, "I know my times tables." Well, good for you.
Have you written any new pieces that you're going to play at the Guelph Jazz Festival in September?
I hope to. That's what I'm doing right now. It's what I'm in the middle of. Well, they've never heard anything [of my music] live there. They've only things on two records, which is just a small part of what we do. And even those things, we don't do them like that. I never do the same arrangement. But, yeah, we will be working on new music. I don't how much of it will be played there, because we'll be basically getting it ready for a long tour in November in Europe. We'll be trying to have it ready for that tour. Hopefully, we'll be able to preview some of it there [in Guelph]. Everything we play there will be a premiere.
Could you talk a bit about your interval concept of composition?
Oh, man. That's a whole other conversation for another time. I don't a have book written on anything like that. So everything would take a long time to explain. I don't have a chronological or layout method to explain that. The musicians who play with me understand by having worked on it for years. But if you listen to the music, you could probably figure out some of it, more than likely.
It took us a year to be able to play the music. It doesn't matter about how long it takes, you know. Finally, you get there, that's the important thing. And we've got a thing in the Western world, especially on this continent, about everything happening so fast. And everything is promoted, like American Idol. All this success, overnight, overnight, success, success. Musicians don't want to spend time on anything. Kids don't want to spend time working on anything. There's nothing wrong spending time with anything. Important things. All the important things in your life was the result of you spending time. That's why those things remain with you. That's why they have significance at all, when you think about it. Everything that's made a difference in your life and that's important is something that you had to stay with. Fly-by-night stuff just don't mean anything. It has its place. But certainly doesn't have any lasting place.
Artists have to keep their mind straight on these kind of issues. Because it's different from the rest of society what these people do. You have to settle for [the life of the artist] and realize that this is what it's going to be. That this is the lifestyle. Art is a lifestyle. That's how you obtain it. You asked me at the very beginning about staying focused. It's because I maintain a lifestyle. It's a lifestyle now. I don't worry about it. I know where I'm going to be, where my mind's going to be. I know I can have two days to try to make a move on something. If you stay at it, it might make a move, it might not make a move in two days. So I'm not discouraged. Because I've been doing this all along, see. You don't in and out of this kind of head. It's an artistic head, you know. You know what it's going to be. It's like the guy that's in the infantry. When the general says, "We got a forced march. We got to go up that hill." "I didn't think we were required to do that." If you have to say, "Well, aren't you in the infantry?" (laughter)
That's what you're here for.
That's right. Exactly. That's what you're here for. And that's what the artist is here for. I mean, you look how long some people worked on certain ideas and concepts in the arts and sciences, you know. And you get rewarded for that. When you're working on one problem, you're learning a lot of things. You're learning a lot of things when you're working on something and trying to make something fit. When it's all over, you've learned a lot of things.