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Henry Threadgill’s Life in Music

A new jazz memoir subverts a familiar genre

Easily Slip into Another World: A Life in Music by Henry Threadgill and Brent Hayes Edwards. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 416 pages. 2023.

The assumptions surrounding a music memoir differ from almost any other kind of autobiographical writing. For the most part, books about musicians tend toward hagiographic, third-person arguments for why their subject should be more respected, or first-person tell-alls by artists who, after we enjoy the perversity of their stories, have convinced us to respect them a little less. Within the subgenre of jazz writing, there is yet another expectation: that the author will let us in on the “magic trick.” Improvised music is often seen as an inborn mysticism, and we readers may believe that simply learning the origin story of someone with a particularly powerful “magic” will provide us with an epiphany about something we love but don’t fully understand.

Visionary saxophonist, composer, and theorist Henry Threadgill is an iconic figure in contemporary music, and his book Easily Slip into Another World has been buzzed about by musicians and fans for months. It is unusual for the memoir of an important musical figure on the fringe of the mainstream to be released by a major publisher. Information about the musicians who led the revolutionary, improvisation-based music of the later twentieth century, whether it’s those from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Black Artists Group, or any number of similar movements in the United States or Europe, is rare. And any such book usually comes out on a small press with questionable veracity and readability. Easily Slip into Another World, on the other hand, is well-researched and cleanly written by Threadgill and the scholar Brent Hayes Edwards. Its wide release, and the reputation of its authors, has led to much excited speculation.

In a meta moment near the end of the memoir, Threadgill acknowledges the weight of these presumptions. “There is an expectation that an artist’s autobiography will function as a primer, providing ‘explanations’ of the art,” he writes. “But this book is not a listening guide. If anything, it is an extended defiance of that expectation.” Any preconceived ideas we may have had about the book, its subject, or music memoirs as a genre are gleefully subverted from the first sentence—much in the same way that Threadgill’s music has made us rethink the limits of jazz for fifty-plus years.

Born in 1944, Henry Threadgill came of age in postwar Chicago. His early interest in music grew from a fortuitous proximity to the record collection of a “precociously hip” aunt, an elementary school teacher with a propensity for playing Tchaikovsky during nap time, and the speakers outside a local record store that played the newest jazz in order to lure potential buyers inside. Threadgill was definitely lured, especially to the sound of Chicago legend Gene Ammons. The saxophonist’s integration of bebop and swing styles drew a young Threadgill to commit himself to a life with the horn.

Despite this resolve, his teenage years were dissolute. He was expelled for drinking, then tried to transfer to Chicago’s famous DuSable High in order to take advantage of the instruction of Captain Walter Dyett, who had taught Ammons and pianist Nat “King” Cole, among others. But Dyett rejected him for being too “incorrigible.” After, Threadgill made his way back to his original school, retaining his mischievous spirit but dedicating himself to music.

Years of intense study followed at Wilson Junior College and the American Conservatory of Music. At Wilson, he met future Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) saxophonists Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell, and Anthony Braxton. And by the time he was at the American Conservatory, Threadgill was balancing the abstraction of his composition studies with real-life performance experience, the latter with bands associated with the sanctified church. It was a Reverend Morris of the Langley Church of God who, through a trial-by-fire test of Threadgill’s power to musically move an audience of believers, convinced the tenor saxophonist to switch to alto, a horn that seemed to reach out and grab people, and the one he is most associated with today. He also traveled through the United States with the well-known evangelist Horace Sheppard, who provided the young musician with his first taste, sweet and sour, of what the rest of American society at that time had to offer a young, Black artist.

Any preconceived ideas we may have had about the book, its subject, or music memoirs as a genre are gleefully subverted from the first sentence.

A tour of duty in Vietnam followed. Initially drafted into the safety of a stateside commission with a military band, Threadgill’s Stravinsky-soaked arrangements of military favorites angered an archbishop with ties to the Army. The next day, word of the blasphemous concert had already worked its way through Threadgill’s higher-ups, and the military clarinetist (he played little saxophone during his enlistment) found himself as a convoy “shotgun” in Pleiku. His years at war were colorful and terrifying—stories of night-time jungle encounters with tigers and black-market operations that would make Jeff Bezos blush—almost unbelievable if you hadn’t heard so many other similarly agonizing, and amazing, stories from other veterans.

After returning from the war, Threadgill’s life became peripatetic: Missouri—featuring some early cross-pollination with the Black Artists Group or BAG (a St. Louis-based collective similar to the AACM)—Amsterdam, New York, Goa: all are places that Threadgill has lived, worked, or explored. But, regardless of this constant movement, there has been no break in the consistently high level of music that has issued from his horn and pen since returning from the war in the late sixties.

Threadgill formed the first group to bring him international attention as a saxophonist and composer in 1971. The trio featured Fred Hopkins on bass and Steve McCall on drums. After an incubatory period performing music for an experimental theater piece, the band—which had been calling themselves Reflections—changed their name to Air. They launched a decade-long recording career, with eleven releases throughout the seventies and eighties. Air was almost immediately popular, but their ongoing legacy is often eclipsed by other AACM ensembles of the time like the Art Ensemble of Chicago (with Jarman, Mitchell, bassist Malachi Favors and trumpeter Lester Bowie) and Anthony Braxton’s international quartet (featuring drummer Barry Altschul and two Brits: trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and bassist Dave Holland).

The Art Ensemble was entrancing audiences in and outside of jazz circles with a playful and powerful stage production that included hundreds of instruments, costumes and personas, text, movement, and face paint. Braxton and crew were defining his heretical—within the standards of the time—take on the history of American music from the smooth West-Coast sound of cool jazz to the marches of John Philip Sousa. Threadgill, Hopkins, and McCall, however, were quietly involved in the development of some of the most radical music of its time, beginning with the invention of the hubkaphone.

While it stemmed from Threadgill’s love for the Montagnard gong bands he heard during the war—Montagnard, a French term for “mountain dweller,” is used as a catch-all for the indigenous people of Vietnam—and was influenced by the homemade instruments of Harry Partch, the hubkaphone was ultimately a result of divine intervention on Chicago’s Dan Ryan Expressway. Sun glinting off a roadside hubcap sale caught the composer’s eye. Threadgill stopped to shop for something to snazz up his “big blue Chevy,” and as he was reaching across a table to check a hubcap of particular interest, it fell to the ground, producing not a noisy clang but a pure and timbrally interesting pitch. He tested the rest for similar qualities and loaded up a new musical scale into his trunk.

At the time, the AACM was already known for experimenting with what they called “small instruments.” Found sound-makers, bells, whistles, and other ready-mades were a large part of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s live performances; one of its member’s early compositional triumphs, Roscoe Mitchell’s The Maze, is scored for found and self-made percussion. But the hubkaphone is extraordinary for the central role it played in the pieces Threadgill was writing for Air. The instrument acts as a fourth member of the trio—sometimes as a second drummer, sometimes as a metallic melodic voice—rather than as a novel extension to the group’s “regular” instrumentation. Its sound gives the early records of the trio a sheen, dynamic and warm.

The trio’s first record, Air Song, was released in 1975. Over the next ten years, as the group split up and came back together—after McCall’s death, they also performed with drummers Andrew Cyrille and Pheeroan akLaff—Air developed a unique sound. In place of the era’s tendency for free-blowing energy sessions, Threadgill approached the group as a compositional challenge to work with a “minimal palette” of saxophone, hubkaphone, bass, and drums. Later records such as Open Air Suit and Montreux Suisse Air were almost completely through-composed—more structured and with less improvisation than other music of its genre. But even as Threadgill’s compositions grew more complex, Air remained collective in spirit and practice. Threadgill recognizes that “the major difference between Air and other great trios . . . [was our] radical commitment to the collective statement. . . . We didn’t simply want to support each other. We wanted to kill the idea of accompaniment all together.” The music does just that: any hierarchy of sound feels allowed through collective agreement.

This sense of commitment to the ensemble has remained central to the music made by Threadgill in the years after Air. With groups like the Henry Threadgill Sextett, Very Very Circus, Make A Move, and his current group, Zooid, every musical decision gives the impression of an act simultaneously spontaneous and rigorously scripted. This alchemy comes from the engagement of the musicians with Threadgill’s vision and the leader’s approach to each band as an opportunity to explore new possibilities. Each group contains its own musical material—similar to Pierrot Lunaire or The Quartet for the End of Time—a unique instrumentation that demands a new approach of the composer and performer. In Threadgill’s case, the orchestrations are as visionary as Schoenberg or Messiaen: the addition of cello and a second drummer to the Sextett; Very Very Circus’s two tubas and accordion; and Zooid’s cello, bass guitar, tuba, and acoustic guitar (all alongside the composer’s woodwinds) define broad sonic fields for the composer to shape.

Many readers of Easily Slip into Another World will hope for a linear history of Threadgill and the artistic worlds he has inhabited—from his early days in Chicago through the seventies New York loft era to the contemporary Brooklyn jazz scene—alongside thorough discographies and apocrypha about bandmates, rehearsal practices, and recording sessions. Others may want a clear explication of musical ideas, both the pragmatic how-I-did-its and the more philosophical why-I-did-its. Serious students of the music may be looking for a companion volume to George Lewis’s history of the AACM, A Power Stronger than Itself, seeking the “inside scoop” on the early days of the organization or providing anecdotal color that Lewis’s groundbreaking history didn’t have the space for. And collectors or discographers might hope for the play-by-play version of the saxophonist’s output—translating the depth and abstraction of experimental music through flat description of “how the sausage is made.”

Though there is a wonderfully transparent—if somewhat technical to the layperson—description of the system Threadgill has used in his music from Very Very Circus to the present, all of these readers may be disappointed at first. In fact, Easily Slip into Another World does exactly what its author says it should, deftly sidestepping any promise to fully sate any of the above desires while sneakily giving the reader something greater instead. For those looking for an AACM study, Threadgill admits he wasn’t in Chicago for the group’s founding—he was on the road with Horace Sheppard—and the major players in the organization’s origin story, such as founder and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams; saxophonists Braxton, Mitchell, and Jarman; and trumpeters Bowie and Smith, are casually treated as loved and respected peers, not as giants walking the earth. Fan favorite releases such as Air Song, Too Much Sugar for a Dime, and Where’s Your Cup? may only get a passing mention, and there’s hardly a sentence in the entire memoir dealing with the rehearsal or recording process of any of Threadgill’s dozens of releases. What is offered instead is an intimate view of the most important element of making music: the people. Pages are dedicated to McCall and Hopkins of Air, speaking less about their musical abilities than where they grew up, how they met, and what they tried to achieve.

Any book like this contains the possibility of becoming a Rosetta stone for jazz fans and performers; we read them all, good or bad, in hopes of finding a new way of understanding what we’re hearing. But every reader—from the committed student to those finding out about Threadgill for the first time—will finds bits of profundity presented as asides or embedded in harrowing tales of the author’s tour in Vietnam, or his globetrotting career. In one of those hidden gems, Threadgill admits that the reason for talking about his music, and perhaps for writing about his life, is “not [for] promotion, not commercial exploitation, not sensationalism, but instead [to provide] honest and accurate information about who we were and what we were trying to do as serious artists.” In general, humility remains slightly heavier on the balance throughout—he cracks a joke about wanting to subtitle the book “failure is everything”—making the moments where the author celebrates himself that much more impactful.

What is it in this particular life in music drives our fascination as listeners, and as readers, with Threadgill?

Before I played my first gig as a jazz trumpet player, I was an initiate into one of the more interesting and abstract social aspects of being an improviser: the art of telling a story. Musician friends of my dad’s, from failed tenor players from the sticks to famous bandleaders, would stop by the house to gather around the bar he had built out of church pews, drink whatever was offered, smoke Tareyton cigarettes, and spread bullshit. It’s still shocking to me that I was allowed to be present for this from early childhood, and that the musicians accepted me as a teetotaling, silent part of the gang. I loved their stories. Each tale would light itself off of the previous one, to be passed around the group, often growing more audacious, and less believable, as the night progressed (until my mom finally had had enough and collected me for bed).

Easily Slip into Another World conjures much the same feeling, although there’s no bullshitting here. Threadgill is intimate and transparent, which makes the narrative that much more engaging. For me, the nostalgia comes in the form of his telling; there are ellipses, asides, and non sequiturs whose significance only become apparent later. Every individual story could easily be read like a Joy Williams microtale, and they reward the reader twice: first in their initial presentation and then later as each story fits into its specific place in the whole. A five-paragraph arc about the author noticing a vine’s growth outside Aaron Copland’s home expands itself in memory later as he talks about his harmonic system, leading to a deeper understanding of his philosophy on creativity, and prompting you to reexamine your own.

Yes, Henry Threadgill is bigger than life (and has flawless taste in hats). But this isn’t mythologizing or a nostalgic look back to an American musical and artistic renaissance. Nor is it a primer or a discography. It is writing that delivers exactly what its author promises: the story, plainly and perfectly told, of a life in music. So what is it in this particular life in music drives our fascination as listeners, and as readers, with Threadgill?

The music should speak for itself: to try and encapsulate such an arresting oeuvre in words, instead of by experiencing it, would do it a great disservice. As a reader, however, it’s a bit easier to articulate the attraction. On a narrative level, Threadgill’s life in music is fairly straightforward: he has experienced the joy of discovering his life path, explored the world as a creative musician, come up against great adversity and overcome it. But the power of Easily Slip breezes in as the reader intuits the deeper, human qualities that underly these stories: a joyous, deep, and single-minded commitment to an art form at the fringes of economic success and cultural acceptance; a child-like, playful mind that remains open to new sounds even as it approaches its eightieth year; and the humility and strength to continue the search for a new way of expressing his ideas well after another artist with a Pulitzer and Threadgill’s reputation might be willing to relax and reproduce their hits. Threadgill’s example acts as a reminder for all of us, whether we play music or not, of why we do what we love. Because we love it.