Courtesy of Henry Threadgill


I have 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.

FRED JUNG: You have always been one to stand in the face of the mother's milk of current jazz, imitation, and be visionary.

HENRY 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.

HENRY 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?

HENRY 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.

HENRY 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.

FJ: What are the challenges you face as a bandleader and as a composer?

HENRY 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.


FJ: Then why not do a solo album and forgo the headaches.

HENRY 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 in tradition.

HENRY 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 you're doing.

FJ: So no limits.

HENRY THREADGILL: I only put limitations on myself when I am writing.

FJ: Why?

HENRY 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 in error.

HENRY 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.

FJ: The various projects you have had through the years have very hip names, your latest is no different, ZOOID.

HENRY THREADGILL: Do you know what that word means?

FJ: I have to pled ignorance here.

HENRY 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).

HENRY 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.

HENRY 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.

FJ: Will you be documenting this group on record?

HENRY 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.

FJ: There are more silly people out there than I care to imagine.

HENRY 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 within you?

HENRY 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.

HENRY 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.

FJ: Your pace is pretty impressive.

HENRY THREADGILL: My pace is all right.

FJ: I don't think many can hold a candle to your work.

HENRY 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