Clifford Thornton

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For the drug policy reform advocate and Green Party politician, see Cliff Thornton.
Clifford Thornton
Genres Avant-garde jazz
Free jazz
Occupation(s) Composer
Instruments Trumpet
Valve Trombone

Clifford Edward Thornton III (September 6, 1936(?) - November 25, 1989(?)) was an American composer, instrumentalist, activist, and educator. His work (which is associated with Avant-garde music and Free Jazz of the 1960s and 1970s) intentionally abrogated established musical and political boundaries, and had significant effect on his contemporaries.


Early life[edit]

Clifford was born in Philadelphia; birth-years have been variously reported as early as 1934 or as late as 1939. He grew up in that city, but spent time in New York as well. He briefly attended Morgan State University and Temple University. His family appears to have had some musical notoriety (jazz pianist Jimmy Golden was his uncle,[1] while his cousin, drummer J.C. Moses had a jazz career that was cut short by failing health), and Clifford began piano lessons at seven years.[2] Several biographers report that Clifford studied with trumpeter Donald Byrd during 1957[3] (after Byrd had left Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers), and also that he worked with then 17-year-old tubaist Ray Draper and Webster Young.[4] Following a late 50's stint in the U.S. Army bands[5] and possibly a brief tenure at the San Francisco Conservatory, Thornton moved to New York City. He has been credited by several sources with degree work from Juilliard and the New York School of Music, but no verification has been found.

Clifford's political and musical motivation is epitomized by his statement: "For a lot of brothers like myself, we got no choice. What else can we do in this world that's not a slave job? Really, what are our options? We have to be creative musicians if we want to be somebody in this world."[6]

New York[edit]

Through the early 1960s, Clifford lived in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn in an apartment building with a number of other young musicians, including Rashied Ali, Marion Brown, and Don Cherry.[7] He performed with numerous avant-garde jazz bands, appearing as a sideman on records by notable artists Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, and Sam Rivers. In the January 1976 Black World/Negro Digest, Ron Welburne states that during this period Clifford had been active in the Black Arts Movement,[8] associated with Amiri Baraka and Jayne Cortez. This musical and artistic network provided him with a variety of perspectives on ideas such as black self-determination, 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. He also was included in the dialogue around the developing thought of political artists, including Shepp, Askia M. Touré and Nathan Hare and the journals Freedomways and Umbra.

Freedom & Unity[edit]

Thornton's interest in composition eventually became the focus of his musical career. His first album, 1967's Freedom & Unity, was recorded the day after John Coltrane's funeral.[3] The ensemble included established musicians - like Karl Berger and Coltrane associate Jimmy Garrison; it also marked the first recorded appearance of Joe McPhee.[9] It also included unknowns Edward and Harold 'Nunding' Avent (a black activist who a year later was suspected of being an informant and provocateur for the FBI[10]). 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. Archie Shepp and Ornette Coleman both wrote liner notes for the original release. 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.[11]"

Africa & Europe[edit]

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 developing political thought,[12] 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.[13] (This early European pop/jazz festival claimed Woodstock as an inspiration, included performances by Pink Floyd, MEV, and a jam-session which included Frank Zappa and Archie Shepp.[14]) 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 embrace 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 politial and intellectual connections to avant-garde artists and musicians, including Frederic Rzewski, Philip Glass, and Richard Teitelbaum. During that period he also commenced a relationship with Cristine Jakob.

Academic career[edit]

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 community 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), and introduced them to his fellow African-American performers.

While at Wesleyan, he recorded the 1972 pastiché album Communications Network (side one with Sirone and Shankar, side two backing Jayne Cortez, and both engineered by Marzette Watts). He also began writing for what eventuated as the Gardens of Harlem album.

Thornton as Composer[edit]

Thornton's earliest recorded efforts as a composer/arranger are found on Marzette Watts eponymous 1966 record.[4] Most works recorded with his own name as leader were large-form compositions.[15] 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. 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.[12] It was finally released in 1975. As a group, these recordings seem characterized by an emotive, un-anchored style, but the attentive listener comes to realize that careful thought is given to structure, and that there are political and musical agendas at work.

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.[12]"

Later career[edit]

Thornton was widely perceived in the media as owning 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[16] for a speech he made - either at that year's Juan-les-Pins Jazz Festival or at Paris' Mutualite Hall;[17] the ban was lifted in 1971.[18][19] 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;[3] he spent the remainder of his life in Geneva, Switzerland. He remained active musically; he led a performance in 1977 at Willisau, Lucerne, Switzerland, did two recordings in Austria with Anthony Braxton in 1977 and '78,[20] and was featured on a 1980 record with a group led by former Dollar Brand reedman and 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 (New Groves Dictionary of Jazz) or as late as 1989 (The Penguin Jazz Guide). He has two children living in France, the oldest is musician/producer Layan Clifford Thornton.

Influence and Legacy[edit]

Because the musical milieu in which he worked was entirely participatory, there is no denying that Clifford's musical and political thought had a marked effect on his fellow-performers. Several of Thornton's musician contemporaries claim his music as an important influence on their own creative careers; the most notable are Joe McPhee (who presently owns Thornton's valve trombone) and Bill Cole. Younger musicians/composers affected by Clifford's musical thought include Fred Ho, Hajj Daoud Haroon,[21] George Starks,[22] Ras Moshe Burnett,[23] Peter Zummo, and Marie Incontrera. A number of musicians and educators also directly benefitted from being part of Thornton's network, among them Marion Brown, Ed Blackwell, Rashied Ali, Jimmy Garrison, Sam Rivers, and Lakshminarayana Shankar.

Thornton's work is often designated "free-jazz", and because of that (or his race and political assiciations) some critics and historians assign it the status of a musical dead-end. He can be heard on only a small number of recordings that are now difficult to find. Still, thirty (or perhaps thirty-five) years after his demise, Clifford's work remains highly regarded by critics such as Thurston Moore,[24] author Philippe Carles, and's Sean Singer.[3]

If Clifford's work is considered as a part of the re-thinking of serious creative music undertaken in the mid-20th-century, however, it must be classed with the efforts of Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacey and other artists who pushed beyond existing boundaries of art. At the same time, he is classes with Frederic Rzewski and Amiri Baraka in bringing and keeping a high degree of political consciousness in his music.


Jason Guthartz's discography, compiled through 2008, is likely the most complete on-line listing of Clifford on record.[25] The AllMusic Credits tab for Clifford tracks and lists a number of posthumous re-releases.

As leader[edit]

As a Contributor[edit]

With Sun Ra

With Marzette Watts

  • Marzette Watts & Company (1966)

With Dave Burrell

With Claude Delcloo & Arthur Jones

  • Africanasia (1969)

With Sunny Murray

  • Homage to Africa (1969)

With Archie Shepp

With Joe McPhee

With Sam Rivers

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) and re-released 1990 on Ithi Gqi


  1. ^ Feather & Gitler "The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies" page 325, New York 1976
  2. ^ Valerie Wilmer "As Serious As Your Life", 1977; LOC 99-63595
  3. ^ a b c d "Thornton, Clifford". 
  4. ^ a b
  5. ^ states Thornton was a lieutenant but the claim is not supported by US military records: "Thornton, Clifford E." Who's Who Among African Americans. (November 4, 2014).
  6. ^ "Clifford Thornton". organissimo forums. 
  7. ^ Robert Anasi, The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, ISBN 978-0-374-53331-1
  8. ^[Black World/Negro Digest Volume 25, No 3, page 33]
  9. ^ Atavistic Worldwide: Freedom & Unity Notes
  10. ^
  11. ^ Rob Ferrier. "Freedom & Unity". AllMusic. 
  12. ^ a b c swiss-jazz. "Un message de mon ami musicien Clifford Thornton". 
  13. ^ fr:Festival d'Amougies
  14. ^ "archie shepp". 
  15. ^ "Page One". 
  16. ^ Ecosocialist Horizons. "Red Black and Green Revolutionary Eco-Music Tour!". 
  17. ^ Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, by George E. Lewis, page 241
  18. ^ "France Bars Thornton As Panther 'Suspect'", Down Beat April 29, 1971
  19. ^ "Layan Clifford Thornton, chercheur de sons - Le Journal de Saint-Denis". 
  20. ^ "History and Discography of the Reform Art Unit". 
  21. ^ "Daoud Haroon
    USA Lowe Fellow
    Music — 2014 United States Artists Fellows"
    . 2014 United States Artists Fellows.
  22. ^ "George Starks". Drexel University - Home. 
  23. ^ "Interview: Ras Moshe". 21st Century Improvised Music on the New York Scene. 
  24. ^ "Thurston Moore's Top Ten Free Jazz Underground - Root Blog". 
  25. ^ "Clifford Thornton Discography". 

External links[edit]