Composing the Future: A Talk With Jazz Titan Henry Threadgill

Henry Threadgill. (Photo: Maurice Montoya)

As a young musician coming up in Chicago’s vibrant mid-1960s arts scene, Henry Threadgill helped found the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, or AACM, a forward-thinking collective that embraced a vast continuum of black music. He’s been a creative force ever since, a dauntingly prolific composer and bandleader whose output is far too vast and varied to summarize.

In a rare Bay Area appearance, Threadgill kicks off Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ New Frequencies Fest on Thursday, Feb. 5, with the West Coast debut of Double Up, a new ensemble he created to perform his homage to a kindred spirit in musical exploration, the late Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris. In keeping with Threadgill’s longtime use of unusual instrumentation, Double Up features pianist David Virelles, alto saxophonists Curtis Macdonald and Roman Filiu, drummer Craig Weinrib, tuba player Jose Davila, and cellist Christopher Hoffman.

While Threadgill himself is a formidable alto saxophonist and flutist, he doesn’t play in the new band. He’s quick to point out that he’s not using Double Up as a vehicle for “conduction,” a semaphoric system of graphics and gestures that Morris devised to spontaneously steer an improvising ensemble. Rather, Threadgill sees himself as the musical director who can step in to provide guidance as necessary.

“I keep track of things in case I might need to respond in the moment, but I’m not doing a conduction,” says Threadgill, now 70. “Butch and I didn’t do the same thing, but we shared a lot of the same aesthetics. We had a real natural kind of relationship and hit off from the very beginning. We lived in the same neighborhood, so it was easy to have a coffee together and discuss musical issues or anything.”

Pianist Myra Melford, a professor of music at UC Berkeley, a YBCA artist-in-residence and the New Frequencies Fest curator, studied with Threadgill when she moved to New York in the mid-1980s, and still considers him a primary influence. “Ninety percent of the way I compose comes from the instruction I got from Henry years ago,” she says. “I gradually realized that many of his ideas aren’t unique to him, but because he’s self-taught and came to them on his own, they’re filtered through the AACM sensibility of experimentation and making it your own.”

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Part of what makes Threadgill such a fascinating artist is that he continually discovers new ways to investigate musical problems. From the celebrated 1970s trio Air, a band that was equally at home navigating Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton tunes as engaging in free but tuneful improvisation, to the sonic density of Very Very Circus, a brass-heavy combo with two tubas, trombone and French horn, he’s crafted music that draws on sources far beyond jazz.

“From the time I started teaching myself to play the piano as a child, trying to learn to play boogie-woogie, I was always thinking as a composer,” Threadgill says. “I wanted to know, 'How do you do something like this?' Not play something like this, but create something like this. It’s the same for my interest in other art forms. How do you write that piece of poetry, make a film like that? Where does all the information come from? I wasn’t just interested in the execution.”

Threadgill's impact within the jazz world has waxed and waned over the decades, but today it seems more pervasive than ever, especially when looking at the most celebrated left-of-center jazz musicians in their thirties and forties. Drummer Dafnis Prieto, pianist Vijay Iyer, and pianist Jason Moran—all recipients of MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships—cite Threadgill as a primary influence. Last September, Moran staged Very Very Threadgill, a sold-out, two-day festival in Harlem focusing on his music.

Double Up pianist David Virelles moved from Toronto to New York in 2007 to study with Threadgill, joining a coterie of brilliant Cuban players who have gravitated to his music. Not only is Threadgill generous with information, Virelles says, he’s also always eager to hear artists looking for something new.

“Henry is a very open person,” says Virelles, who returns to the Bay Area on March 29 for an SFJAZZ performance by Polish trumpet great Tomasz Stanko. “He’s a very curious person, always looking to expand himself and learn. You see him out at shows in New York, meeting people and staying in the loop. I think he does that to stay fresh and keep an ear to the ground, to stay connected to what’s happening.”

Virelles himself is a perfect example of how Threadgill draws inspiration from the contemporary scene. Tuba player Davilla and cellist Hoffman are carryovers from Threadgill’s previous band Zooid, but in a striking departure, Double Up is his first combo ever to feature a pianist. He’s been thinking about writing for the instrument for quite a few years, and “all the sudden I had the right musicians around me, people I admire like Matthew Shipp, Jason Moran, Craig Taborn, Vijay Iyer, and David,” Threadgill says.

“That’s five young pianists right there. All these cats knew a lot about what I do. They were available and working in such a broad range. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, but you have to wait until the conditions are right. You try to launch something at the wrong time, and it’ll fail because of the weather, or there aren’t enough tuba players available.”

When Threadgill talks about a “broad range,” he’s using his own restless curiosity as a measure. Over the years he’s composed for dance, theater, orchestras, chamber ensembles and solo instruments. When he describes growing up in Chicago, what’s striking is how even as a teenager he was open to all art forms. He studied piano, flute, and composition at the American Conservatory of Music, and haunted the Chicago Symphony, following scores as Fritz Reiner conducted. When straight-ahead jazz musicians shut him out because of his unorthodox ideas, he found work playing in blues, gospel, polka, and Latin dance bands.

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“When people close one door, you look around to see how many other doors exist,” Threadgill says. “That’s the door I want to go through, that I live for. When they close it in your face, once you get over the fact that all is not lost, you start to see all the other options.”

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