Clifford was born in Philadelphia; birth-years are variously reported from as early as 1934 to as late as 1939. He grew up in that city, and attended Temple University. His family appears to have had a musical bent (drummer J.C. Moses is a cousin) and Clifford began piano lessons at seven years. It is reported that Clifford studied with trumpeter Donald Byrd during 1957 (after Byrd had left Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers), and also that he worked with then 17-year old Ray Draper. After a late 50's stint in the U.S. Army band, Thornton moved to New York City.
Through the early 1960s, Clifford lived in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn in an apartment building with a number of other musicians, including Rashied Ali, Marion Brown, and Don Cherry. He performed with numerous avant-garde jazz bands, appearing as a sideman on records by notable artists Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra, and Sam Rivers. His musical network provided him with a variety of perspectives on ideas such as lengthy performance forms, "outside playing", and textural rhythm; it also gave him access to performers who would provide the unique abilities some of his later compositions required.
Freedom & Unity
Thornton's interest in composition eventually became the focus of his career. His first album, 1967's Freedom & Unity, was recorded the day after John Coltrane's funeral. It included established Coltrane associate Jimmy Garrison and also marked the first recorded appearance of Joe McPhee. Of the ten pieces recorded, only the 20-second "Kevin (the theme)" is credited to Thornton, but Clifford placed his stamp on all the works. In the AllMusic review of the album, Rob Ferrier says: "As Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp hearkened back to field hollers and very basic folk forms, musicians like Clifford Thornton went in the opposite direction, building on the music of the sophisticates and expanding the possibilities for jazz."
Africa & Europe
Thornton was invited along with Shepp to perform in Algiers for the 1969 Pan-African Cultural Festival of the Organization for African Unity. This visit had an important impact on his political thought, and he subsequently claimed that it helped to integrate his musical and political aims. The next month he was in Paris and - over an eleven-day period at BYG Actuel - recorded five albums with performers who had shared the Algerian stage with him. Among them was Ketchaoua, his second album as leader and first with all his own compositions. In October a Thornton-led group performed at the Actuel Festival in Amougies, Belgium. (This early European pop/jazz festival claimed Woodstock as an inspiration, included performances by Pink Floyd and a jam-session with Frank Zappa and Archie Shepp.) In November he was back in Paris as a sideman on Archie Shepp records Black Gypsy and Pitchin' Can. He continued to work in France through the next year, recording in July 1970 with Shepp, and completing his own album The Panther and the Lash in early November. During this two-year period, Thornton worked with many of the European free jazz exponents, as well as growing his network of contacts to include many Americans who had not been in the early-'60s New York scene (such as Chicago musicians Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors, and Anthony Braxton). Thornton also established connections to avant-garde artists and musicians, such as Frederic Rzewski, Phillip Glass, and Richard Teitelbaum. During that period he also commenced a relationship with Cristine Jakob.
In 1968, music instructor Ken McIntyre recommended Thornton as a candidate for Assistant Professor in World Music at Wesleyan University. He was hired in 1969; this position gave him the security to travel to Africa and France. His tenure ran through 1975; during that period he brought many of his network of jazz musicians as Artists-in-Residence on campus, giving the academic world-music world more exposure to current American music. Among those artists were Sam Rivers, Jimmy Garrison, Eddie Blackwell, and Marion Brown. He arranged performances at Wesleyan by Rashied Ali, Horace Silver, and many other jazz musicians. In addition, he included other artists from the world music program on his recordings (such as Milton Cardona, Abraham Konbena Adzenyah, Pandit Laxmi Ganesh Tewari and Lakshminarayana Shankar)
Thornton as Composer
Most of the works recorded under his own name as leader were large-form compositions. He used as many as eight performers on the ten recordings, and their length runs from the 8-minute sound-scene "Pan-African Festival" to the 25-minute "Festivals and Funerals" on 1972's Communications Network. He included shorter pieces by his collaborators on the albums, as well as his arrangements of traditional African pieces. In speaking of his 1970's masterwork The Gardens of Harlem Clifford wrote: "The challenge of writing for and working with large, ensembles has always interested me. My first influences in this direction as a child were the big bands of Basie, Eckstine, Gillespie, Machito and Puente. Later, I had the good fortune of working with the orchestras of Sun Ra, Bill Dixon, Sam Rivers, Archie Shepp and the JCOA. The spiritual and psychological fulfillment resulting from re-establishing the relationship with the traditional ethos...serves chiefly as a balance between the inner-self and the environment. This is, in part, the role and function of music in traditional African societies and among peoples of primarily African derivation. In this connection, music is vital to both religious and secular life for the same reasons and is manifested in the same ways. It is the core and foundation, the language of both religious and philosophic thought."
The 1974 recording of the suite The Gardens of Harlem is considered the acme of Clifford's recording career. It was developed as a project of the Jazz Composer's Orchestra during the period 1972-74, and was revised twice before the ultimate 25-person recording was done in April 1974. It was finally released in 1975.
Thornton was perceived as possessing radical political leanings and connections with leading figures of the Black Panther Party; he is supposed to have met Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver during the Pan-African Cultural Festival in 1969, and claims have been made that he was a BPP Minister for Art. He was denied entry into France in 1970, reportedly for a speech he made at that year's Juan-les-Pins Jazz Festival; the ban was lifted in 1971,. Because of this interruption, Thornton was unable to continue his fruitful performance/recording work in Paris.
In 1976, Clifford accepted a position with UNESCO's International Bureau of Education to be an educational counselor on African-American education; he spent the remainder of his life in Geneva, Switzerland. He did two recordings in Austria with Anthony Braxton in 1977 and 78, and a 1980 record with South African exile Joe Malinga.
Like his birth date, the date of his death is also uncertain; it has been reported to have occurred as early as 1983 or as late as 1989. He has two children living in France, the oldest is musician/producer Layan Clifford Thornton.
- 1967: Freedom & Unity (Unheard Music Series) with Karl Berger, Jimmy Garrison, John McCortney, Joe McPhee, Don Moore
- 1969: Ketchaoua (BYG Actuel) with Dave Burrell, Claude Delcloo, Earl Freeman, Beb Guérin, Arthur Jones, Grachan Moncur III, Sunny Murray, Archie Shepp
- 1970: The Panther and the Lash with François Tusques, Beb Guérin, Noel McGhie
- 1972: Communications Network (Third World Records) with Jerome Cooper, Jayne Cortez, Nathan Davis, Jerry Gonzalez, Jay Hoggard, L. Shankar, Sirone
- 1974: The Gardens of Harlem (JCOA) with Roland Alexander, Carla Bley, Pat Patrick, Marvin Peterson, Dewey Redman, Wadada Leo Smith, Bob Stewart, Carlos Ward
As a Contributor
With Sun Ra
With Marzette Watts
- Marzette Watts & Company (1966)
With Dave Burrell
- Echo (1969)
With Claude Delcloo & Arthur Jones
- Africanasia (1969)
With Sunny Murray
- Homage to Africa (1969)
With Archie Shepp
- Live at the Pan-African Festival (1969)
- Yasmina, a Black Woman (1969)
- Coral Rock (1969)
- Pitchin Can (1969)
- Attica Blues (1970)
- Black Gipsy (1970)
- Archie Shepp and the Full Moon Ensemble (1972)
With Joe McPhee
- Joe McPhee & Survival Unit II with Clifford Thornton (1971)
With Anthony Braxton
- Reform Art Unit (1977)
- Three Motions With Soloists From Chicago, New York And Vienna - Impressions (1978)
With Joe Malinga's Mandala
- Tears For The Children Of Soweto (1980)
Jason Guthartz's discography, compiled through 2008, is the most complete on-line listing of Clifford on record.
- Valerie Wilmer "As Serious As Your Life", 1977; LOC 99-63595
- Robert Anasi, The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, ISBN 978-0-374-53331-1
- Atavistic Worldwide: Freedom & Unity Notes
- Point of Departure
- "France Bars Thornton As Panther 'Suspect'", Down Beat April 29, 1971