Henry Threadgill

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Henry Threadgill
Birth name Henry Luther Threadgill
Born (1944-02-15) February 15, 1944 (age 72)
Origin Chicago, Illinois, US
Genres Jazz, avant-garde jazz
Occupation(s) Musician, bandleader, composer, sideman
Instruments Alto saxophone, flute
Years active 1960s–present
Labels Arista/Novus, About Time, Black Saint, Columbia, Pi Recordings
Associated acts Air, AACM, Muhal Richard Abrams, Billy Bang, Anthony Braxton, Craig Harris, Leroy Jenkins, Roscoe Mitchell
Notable instruments
Alto Saxophone

Henry Threadgill (born February 15, 1944) is a Pulitzer Prize winning American composer, saxophonist and flautist,[1] who came to prominence in the 1970s leading ensembles with unusual instrumentation and often incorporating a range of non-jazz genres. He studied at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago co-majoring in piano and flute, along with composition. He studied piano with Gail Quillman and composition with Stella Roberts (1899-1988). He has had a music career for over forty years as both a leader and as a composer. He was awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his composition In for a Penny, In for a Pound, [2]which premiered at Roulette Intermedium on December 4, 2014 [3]

Threadgill's music has been performed by many of his long-lasting instrumental ensembles, including the trio Air with Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall, the seven-piece Sextet, Very Very Circus, the twenty-piece Society Situation Dance Band, X-75, Make a Move, Aggregation Orb, and his current group Zooid. He has recorded many critically acclaimed albums as a leader of these ensembles with various record labels namely Arista/Novus, About Time, Axiom, Black Saint, Columbia and Pi Recordings.

Threadgill has had numerous commissions and awards throughout. He has composed music for theatre, orchestra, solo instruments, and chamber ensembles. His works for large orchestras, such as "Run Silent, Run Deep, Run Loud, Run High" (conducted by Hale Smith) and "Mix for Orchestra" (conducted by Dennis Russell Davies), were both premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1987 and 1993 respectively. He has had commissions from Mordine & Company in 1971 and 1989, from Carnegie Hall for "Quintet for Strings and Woodwinds" in 1983 and 1985, the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1985, Bang on a Can All-Stars in 1995, "Peroxide" commissioned by the Miller Theatre Columbia University in 2003 for "Aggregation Orb", a commission from the Talujon Percussion Ensemble in 2008, a piece "Fly Fliegen Volar" commissioned and premiered at the Saalfelden Jazz Festival with the Junge Philharmonie Salzburg Orchestra in 2007, a premier of the piece "Mc Guffins" with Zooid at the Biennale Festival in Italy in 2004 to name some.

Threadgill, aside from being a remarkable alto saxophone player, is one of the most imaginative of jazz composers today. "He seems to be deliberately challenging the audience: My lyricism and mastery come complete with thorns and spikes, and I promise to yank the props out from under you,” quoted John Litweiler, longtime Down Beat jazz critic, in an article he wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times. Threadgill was one of the founding members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a Chicago group that was free-form, you might say, in its philosophy and approach. Peter Watrous of the New York Times described Threadgill as "perhaps the most important jazz composer of his generation." Recent concerts in Chicago have led the local critics to speak of him as a revolutionary figure, altering the manner in which jazz itself is going. Said Howard Reich, jazz critic of the Chicago Tribune, "It would be difficult to overestimate Henry Threadgill's role in perpetually altering the meaning of jazz..…He has changed our underlying assumptions of what jazz can and should be." – An excerpt from a chapter on Henry Threadgill in And They All Sang (2005) by Pulitzer-winning author and disc jockey Studs Terkel, a book about "forty of the greatest and most deeply human musical figures of our time".


Early life and career[edit]

Threadgill first performed as a percussionist in his high-school marching band before taking up the baritone saxophone and later a large portion of the woodwind instrument family. He soon settled upon the alto saxophone and the flute as his main instruments.

He was an original member of the legendary AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) in his hometown of Chicago and worked under the guidance of Muhal Richard Abrams before leaving to tour with a gospel band. In 1967, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, playing with a Rock band in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968. He was discharged in 1969.

Upon his return to Chicago he rejoined fellow AACM members bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall, forming a trio which would eventually become the group Air, one of the most celebrated and critically acclaimed avant-garde jazz groups of the 1970s and 1980s. In the meantime, Threadgill had moved to New York City to begin pursuing his own musical visions, which explored musical genres in innovative ways thanks to his daringly unique group collaborations. His first group, X-75, was a nonet consisting of four reed players, four bass players and a vocalist.

The Sextet/Sextett[edit]

In the early 1980s, Threadgill created his first critically acclaimed ensemble as a leader, Henry Threadgill Sextet (actually a septet; he counted the two drummers as a single percussion unit),[4] which released three LPs on About Time Records. After a hiatus, during which Threadgill formed New Air with Pheeroan akLaff replacing Steve McCall on drums, Threadgill re-formed the Henry Threadgill Sextett (with two t's at the end). The six albums the group recorded feature some of his most accessible work, notably on the album You Know the Number.

The group's unorthodox instrumentation included two drummers, bass, cello, trumpet and trombone, in addition to Threadgill's alto and flute. Among the players who filled these roles were drummers akLaff, John Betsch, Reggie Nicholson and Newman Baker; bassist Fred Hopkins; cellist Diedre Murray; trumpeters Rasul Siddik and Ted Daniels; cornetist Olu Dara; and trombonists Ray Anderson, Frank Lacy, Bill Lowe and Craig Harris.

Very Very Circus and beyond[edit]

The CD Live at Koncepts captured the Very Very Circus group live during its earliest days, in 1991

During the 1990s, Threadgill pushed the musical boundaries even further with his ensemble Very Very Circus. In addition to Threadgill, the group's core consisted of two tubas, two electric guitars, a trombone or french horn, and drums. With this group he explored more complex and highly structured forms of composition, augmenting the group with everything from latin percussion to French horn to violin to accordion and an array of exotic instruments and vocalists.

Threadgill composed and recorded with other unusual instrumentations, such as a flute quartet (Flute Force Four, a one-time project from 1990); and combinations of four cellos and four acoustic guitars (on Makin' a Move).

By this time Threadgill's place in the upper echelon of the avant-garde was secured, and he was signed by Columbia Records for three albums (a rarity for musicians of his kind). Since the dissolution of Very Very Circus, Threadgill has continued in his iconoclastic ways with ensembles such as Make a Move and Zooid. Zooid, currently a sextet with tuba (Jose Davila), acoustic guitar (Liberty Ellman), cello (Christopher Hoffman), drums (Elliot Kavee) and bass guitar (Stomu Takeishi), has been the primary vehicle for Threadgill's most current compositions throughout the 2000s (decade).

In 2016, Threadgill's composition In for a Penny, In for a Pound was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music.


As leader[edit]

With Air[edit]

As sideman[edit]

With Muhal Richard Abrams

With Anthony Braxton

With Chico Freeman

With Roscoe Mitchell

With Frank Walton

  • Reality (1978)

With David Murray

With Material / Bill Laswell

With Sly & Robbie / Bill Laswell

With Carlinhos Brown / Bill Laswell

  • Bahia Black: Ritual Beating System (1991)

With Leroy Jenkins

  • Themes & Improvisations on the Blues (1992)

With Kip Hanrahan

  • Darn It! (1992) with Paul Haines
  • A Thousand Nights and a Night (Shadow Night – 1) (1996)

With Billy Bang

With Sola

  • Blues in the East (1994)

With Abiodun Oyewole

  • 25 Years (1996)

With Flute Force Four

  • Flutistry (1990, released 1997)

With Douglas Ewart

  • Angles of Entrance (1998)

With Jean-Paul Bourelly

  • Boom Bop (2000)
  • Trance Atlantic – Boom Bop II (2001)

With Ejigayehu "Gigi" Shibabaw

  • Gigi (2001)

With Lucky Peterson

  • Black Midnight Sun (2002)

With Dafnis Prieto

  • Absolute Quintet (2006)

With Wadada Leo Smith

  • The Great Lakes Suites (2012, released 2014)

With Jack DeJohnette

  • Made in Chicago (2013, Released 2015)


  1. ^ Allmusic
  2. ^ Chinen, Nate (18 April 2016). "At Last, a Box Henry Threadgill Fits Nicely Into: Pulitzer Winner". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 April 2016. 
  3. ^ "Henry Threadgill's Zooid performs the Quintet Book—"In for a Penny, In for a Pound"". (retrieved May 2, 2016)
  4. ^ Giddins, Gary, and Scott DeVeaux (2009), New York: W.W. Norton & Co, ISBN 978-0-393-06861-0

External links[edit]