FIRESIDE CHAT WITH HENRY THREADGILL
an album that I have been listening to for years now on a dead label,
Novus, called You Know the Number. It features Frank Lacy burning on bone,
Pheeroan akLaff on drums, the departed Fred Hopkins on bass, and the little
known Rasul Sadik on trumpet (why he never got popular after his killing
contribution to this album is a mystery). The leader of this would be
classic is Henry Threadgill, who along with Muhal Richard Abrams, has
been one of the perennial composers of my time. Threadgill isn't keen
on giving interviews and it took me months to get this together. But he
sat down with the Roadshow to talk about his new band (a new album on
Pi) and give me the word firsthand. It is an honor to present Mr. Henry
Threadgill, unedited and in his own words.
You have always been one to stand in the face of the mother's milk of
current jazz, imitation, and be visionary.
THREADGILL: That is why we have the polio vaccine. People are blazing
their own trial. That is what seems to be important. I don't care to follow
and to do what the mass is doing. That is not doing anything, to be doing
what everyone else is doing. Everybody is unique. The funny thing about
people now is that people don't really understand or really appreciate
how unique each individual on earth is. You see, Fred, I understand that
uniqueness and I worship that uniqueness. People short-change themselves
thinking that I am not as good as so and so. Yes, you are. You just have
to discover what you're about and what it is that you do and what you
are good at, what you love to do. If it is sweeping the street, making
an omelet, writing poems, whatever it is, rather than try to be like everybody
else and do what other people are doing. That is not important. Do we
really pay attention to people that try to be like Michael Jackson? Or
try to be like Beethoven? Do we really?
FJ: You are a cover band or an imitator if you do.
THREADGILL: Yeah, but that is what we have, Fred. We have a whole cover
society. A cover society that is grounded in basically, organized ignorance.
Ignorance of themselves and not appreciating how important they are as
single individuals. Their contribution is what is inside of them. It is
like, "I can be successful if I go into the internet business like
everybody else. I will just go and take business courses." And just
bypass everything that you would possibly be about because I can do this.
I can go to business school and I can get a degree in so and so. I am
good at this. I understand the pressure of why people do it, but you really
shouldn't do it because later in life, you will understand why. You will
end up very unhappy. Myself and a lot of other artists, we always are,
"Oh, man, I wish I had such and such and such and such." Years
have past, I know a lot of people, extremely unhappy people, that have
a hell of a lot of material things and a hell of a lot of money.
FJ: You are one of the preeminent living composers of our time and yet
you are severely under-recorded, does that bother you?
THREADGILL: Yeah, it bothers me, but it doesn't bug me (laughing). It
doesn't bug me. It bothers me. You just have to move on. You can't fret
with anything that is not happening for you at the time because the recording
industry is a frivolous industry anyway. It is totally frivolous. Today,
they could tell you to go to hell and tomorrow, they would be at your
door. And when they are at your door, they will come with a wedding ring
and an engagement ring. At the same time, they will make you sign something.
FJ: Probably a lawyer with divorce papers behind them.
THREADGILL: Exactly. Divorce papers would all be part of the package.
That is just the record industry and I think I do understand the record
industry and so it doesn't really affect me emotionally as it did when
I did not understand it.
What are the challenges you face as a bandleader and as a composer?
THREADGILL: The same difficulties that I have always found. People have
their own interests and they want to play a certain kind of music. People
want to play in orchestras. They want to play on Broadway. Those that
want to play traditional jazz and have no interests in the ideas of improvisation.
So in spit of the fact that there are fifty violin players, you might
only narrow it down to ten and within those ten, there might only be three
who have the right kind of background and credentials to deal with what
you need to deal with. Everybody's got their own special thing that they
are after and a lot of times you don't have time to be training people.
FJ: Sounds like a good deal of babysitting is involved.
THREADGILL: That is true.
Then why not do a solo album and forgo the headaches.
THREADGILL: No, I don't care for solo for myself. No, I really don't like
that. No, I like interaction. Playing solo is a very, very difficult and
very special thing to do. I mean, anybody that has been a soloist, piano
soloist, any kind, the first soloists were mostly violinists and pianists.
These are very difficult things to do. It has expanded into just about
any instrument now, but these are like specialized areas. I just don't
have the time nor the inclination to do anything like that.
FJ: As modern as people perceive your music to be, it is still rooted
THREADGILL: Yeah, it is rooted in tradition, Fred, but I am not doing
traditional jazz. Everything is rooted. Anybody that is doing anything
has got to be rooted in something. Things just don't pop out of the sky.
I consider what I am doing world music anyway. It is music for the world.
I don't consider it jazz because I don't know what that means anymore.
That has been lost for over twenty years. The whole idea of what jazz
is has been lost years ago. I would actually say since the Sixties, I
haven't understood what is meant by jazz. It is a limited, fixed thing
that should be in a museum I guess, some dusty relic basically. It is
imitation. It has been described as what it should be. Once you describe
something as to what it should be, you have already stopped it right there.
I remember reading when I was very young about a conversation between
Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and he said that
they should let people call what they were doing bebop because once you
describe it and call it something, that is the end of it right there.
If this is what it is, then you are not playing music anymore and before
they start questioning what you are doing. It puts limitations on what
FJ: So no limits.
THREADGILL: I only put limitations on myself when I am writing.
THREADGILL: Well, it is like anything else. If you were writing a book,
especially when you are writing a novel, you have to have characters and
you have got to go back and develop these characters and so you have some
kind of parameters and limitations on it. You write something and you
only want the theme to go so far. All music has some kind of limitations
built in when it is being constructed. It is just not running rampant.
You have to have some kind of controls that you are working with because
your ideas will go all over the place. When your ideas are flowing, they
just go wild. You have to basically constraint them. It is like a wild
horse. Once you get on it, you have to kind of control it because it will
run you over a cliff. It won't stop running. I limit myself to the context
of what the implications of the music is about.
FJ: So people who compartmentalize your music as free or avant-garde are
THREADGILL: I have never done anything free. Writers, they haven't a clue.
Those people basically throw words around and lift words from other writers
and just keep repeating information that gets circulated. They don't have
a clue as to what goes on on a serious level in music. As a matter of
fact, Fred, they don't even know that people like myself know anything
seriously about music. They take us as being some kind of jazz musicians.
I don't describe myself as that. In the first place, I am a musician.
I am a composer. And I compose music for everything. I have as much orchestral
music and music for theater and dance as I have for anything else. It
just so happens that they know nothing about it. They are just, it is
like, you are writing something, Fred, and they will read something that
you write about me and they will lift it and put it in what they say.
They won't even check to see if the facts are write. They won't even question
whether the facts are right. They won't even ask themselves whether or
not the facts are right. They will just assume that he wrote it in his
publication, he must be write. They are just looking to pad their article
with as much material and do as much less real research as they can to
repeat things over and over and over. I have never done anything free.
Free, that is totally ridiculous. That is an ignorant idea. First of all,
Fred, these people can't really have an intelligent conversation with
me or an intellectual conversation about music because you have to know
something about music. I mean you seriously have to know something about
the entire history about composition, especially composition in the Western
world from Bach on through Bartok. You have to seriously not only know
about this piece, but all the mechanisms of composition, how they were
used, and how to do it, and know what that language is about. These people
can't have a conversation with me about that. Then they start talking
about jazz just because jazz has got improvisation in it, they seem to
think that they have a grip on that idea. They can't get a grip on it
especially when you have it in a limited concept of improvisation in terms
of improvising on chords in a major and minor. I don't do anything in
a major or minor. I haven't done anything like that in a number of years,
since Very Very Circus. I never wrote music in a major and minor system
for a so-called jazz group that I've had. My music has harmony, but my
music does not have chords. It does not have traditional chords. It has
harmonies. The real definition of harmony, you can't equate harmony with
chords. Anything that is three notes is harmony. A chord happens to have
three notes and it is structured in thirds, and fifths, and fourths, and
sixths, but that description of a chord is not the larger description
of what harmony is. Harmony is the greater definition. Chord is a sub-definition
of harmony. Any three notes creates harmony. That is what I subscribe
to. I subscribe to the larger definition of harmony, not the limited definition
that has been used. There has been a lot of great music written with chords,
but I am passed that and a lot of people have been passed that and people
before me were passed that.
The various projects you have had through the years have very hip names,
your latest is no different, ZOOID.
THREADGILL: Do you know what that word means?
FJ: I have to pled ignorance here.
THREADGILL: It is about parts. It is about organisms and parts that operate
together. I would stretch it to, for me, it just kind of represents different
parts, different people of different places and cultural backgrounds doing
things as a unit. Operating as a single unit.
FJ: Let's touch on the unit's instrumentation, acoustic guitar (Liberty
Ellman), oud (Tariq Benbrahim), accordion (Tony Cedras), tuba (Jose Davilla),
and drums (Dafnes Prieto).
THREADGILL: I have basically used this instrumentation before, but it
has been more instruments than this involved. It was like Very Very Circus
Plus. It has that instrumentation. It had tubas, guitars, violin, and
oud. This is a small version of that. This is a reduction of Very Very
Circus Plus. Very Very Circus was two tubas and two guitars, drums, French
horn and myself. Very Very Circus Plus was two tubas, two guitars, drums,
French horn and myself, plus oud, accordion, and three more percussionists
and violin. This is just oud, acoustic guitar, accordion, and drums. It
is not an instrumentation that I haven't used. It is a smaller production
of it, a more concentrated version of it.
FJ: Your personnel selection is as diverse as the instrumentation.
THREADGILL: They all live here in New York. New York has pulled all of
these musicians from everywhere. It has always been like that for the
longest. Musicians from anywhere, you can just about find here, Algeria,
Morocco, China, India, Japan, Philippines, all parts of Africa, European
musicians, they are all up in here because this is a music center. It
is still not easy because it is not just the fact that there is a lot
of musicians here, it is like finding musicians that can do what I need
them to do and open to do the things that I am doing.
you be documenting this group on record?
THREADGILL: I always plan on recording, but if it happens or it don't
happening, I mean, I just keep moving. You see, Fred, if I get it recorded,
I will get it documented, one way or the other, for myself. Whether the
record industry takes it up, that is their problem. That is not my problem.
The bigger thing is for me is the audience, to be successful with people,
not with record companies. The biggest thing is people. If they see the
name at a concert hall, or festival, or club, they know that this group
will draw people. That is real reality because I could have a record,
that don't mean a thing. When you go to an entrepreneur that is going
to make money at the door, I don't care nothing about records. Records
don't mean a thing. It is about people with them because it is about money.
They want to know that you can fill a space or draw the amount of people
necessary. They don't care nothing about how many records you've got.
Sure, initially, people will ask you all these silly things about whether
you have a record, but these things don't mean anything. Nobody really
gets hired because you have a record. I can't imagine an entrepreneur
being so silly as to hire an individual simply because he has a record.
There are more silly people out there than I care to imagine.
THREADGILL: Yeah, Fred, but I think business people protect themselves.
They only ask you that as a form of credential. The people that buy records
are not necessarily the people that are going to come out and pay to see
you. You can't equate the two things. Some people might come see you and
some of them don't. A lot of people that come out and listen to live music
don't even necessarily buy music on disc. I don't think we have a study
that can clearly define or clearly tell us this type of information. So
for me, like I said, I am more interested in getting directly to people
because untimately, if I do make a record, those would be the people that
would go buy it because they heard it.
FJ: So do you perform as a service for the people or to satisfy a need
THREADGILL: I do it for something within me. I mean, the ultimate end
is for people to hear it, but that is not in my mind when I do it. That
is the second step or third step or something like that, to prepare it
for people, after I get it out of myself. That is not even in my head.
It is somewhere in my head. It is just that I need to get it out of myself,
on paper or on some form. Most of the music I write doesn't even get to
be performed where I can even say that I want it performed for people.
It is just something I want to get out just on paper.
FJ: I can just imagine the sheer wealth of music you must have.
THREADGILL: Yeah, I have a lot of music here, a couple of foot lockers,
some French trunks, those big French trunks that they used to make. Those
are packed. But I am not as prolific as a lot of other writers that I
know. I have not been writing for years as they have. I don't write as
much as some of them. Everybody moves at their own pace.
Your pace is pretty impressive.
THREADGILL: My pace is all right.
FJ: I don't think many can hold a candle to your work.
THREADGILL: No, no. I don't have anything to be ashamed of. It is not
how much you do, Fred. It is the quality of what you do.
Fred Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and is happy about the return of the
McRib. Comments? Email Him