Interview with Henry Threadgill (Part 3)

Part one is about music.

Part two is about Vietnam, and features audio:  You’ve got to hear him tell these war stories himself.

Part three is about music.

“Four Hits and the Ultramodern Blues” discusses five favorite tunes.

EI:  Did you know Albert Ayler?

HT:  No, I didn’t know him. I never got a chance to see Albert Ayler.  I knew Trane:  he was really something.  I met Trane when I was a kid in Chicago, just about 16.  A highly spiritual man, a bit of an enigma, and just kind of wide open.  I could listen to him, but it was hard to understand him sometimes. He was acting like I was his peer or something.  I said, “Are you crazy? I’m 16, 17, what are you talking about, you know?”  The guy’s asking me what am I practicing.  “What’s wrong with you?  Don’t you think I’m standing here to find out from you?”

[He’d say:] “Who do you like, what do you listen to?”

I mean, that’s my department. That’s what I’m supposed to be asking. What the fuck is the problem here? This guy’s taking over all my questions, you know.

EI:  Dewey Redman told me something similar about hanging out with Coltrane.

HT:  It was real.  That’s just the type of person that he was.  He would just pry you open:  “Why do you like Ornette, why are you here, what’s going on?  What are you practicing?”

What could I be practicing?  [sarcastically:]  “You know, the universal book, Trane!  The rulebook, Trane!  The fakebook, Trane!”

But Albert, I wish I had met him.  Because you said something about how live music is it.  Live music is it.  I was thinking yesterday about these peoples’ blogs, you know, and reviews and stuff talking about records, records, records.  When’s the last time you saw something about a live performance?  I’m not just talking about jazz, I’m talking about all music.  The most powerful experience you ever have in your life is a live experience.

I used to sit up in front of the Chicago Symphony, man, on the first row there.  That shit would destroy me.  I mean, that orchestra was hip.  I had to sit on the edge of the Edgewater Beach Hotel, on the ground floor.   Fritz Reiner was right there, I was right here.

You stand up in front of Coltrane, the sweat would get on you.  Gene Ammons right in front of you. Arthur Rubinstein sitting right there, playing in front of you.  You know, that ain’t records.  Records have their role, but live music man, nothing will transform you like a live music experience.   Most of the young musicians have never had the exposure to live music that I was able to have, you know? It’s kind of sad, because I heard so much live music, man.  I can’t tell you how much.  I’m talking about jazz and classical music.

Here’s a good story:  I had an assignment to go hear some music when I was 18, any classical music. So I went down to Roosevelt University, where they had one o’clock concerts on Friday afternoon.  And I didn’t know who was playing or anything, I just had to write a report, and I couldn’t get in this auditorium, some of the doors were closing.  I was panicking:  you don’t just go on in there.  And this guy saw me, he said, “What is it?  What’s wrong?”  I said, “I’m trying to get into this concert.  He said, “Well, why don’t you just come on with me and hear some music with me?”  I said, “Well, OK — You gonna hear some music?”  He said, “Yes.”  We’re talking and walking along.  I said, “Wow, you know your way around back here.”  He said, “Yeah, I’ve been here.”  And we come in backstage.  It’s a small room, auditorium, and he says, “Go down here, have a seat.”  I’m coming back, I was gonna say, “Well, ain’t you gonna come, too?”  I turn around, I’m just about in the first seat, and I turn around and I see him going toward the piano.  It’s Arthur Rubinstein.

So I heard Rubinstein and all of them at the University of Chicago right on the spot.  I met Hindemith and Varese…

EI:  What was Hindemith like?

HT:  Ah, Hindemith, he really didn’t like Americans.  He thought we were the stupidest people on earth.

EI:  Did you like his music?

HT:  Yeah.  I only met him just a little bit at the contemporary music center.  This was at basically same time as Ralph Shapey, as the Contemporary Chamber Players, so I got to see everything.  I heard Berio, all of the contemporary guys.  I heard all that music live.  Schoenberg, you know I heard all his stuff played live by probably best players in that world at that time, because that orchestra was hip.  That Contemporary Chamber Players orchestra, they played only the most advanced stuff.

EI:  Shapey’s own music was great.

HT:  Yeah!  So the AACM was existing side by side with them in the University of Chicago area.  We were listening to them, and they were listening to us, too, but they wouldn’t admit it.  Shapey would.  Yeah, they would listen to what we were doing, but we were listening to everything that was going on then.  So I heard all of this music while other guys were practicing out of fake books and how to play Coltrane.  They weren’t at those concerts.

I was in touch with Joseph Schillinger’s wife a long time.  She used to be up on the Upper East Side.  I used to invite her to things, and she’d say, “Oh, Henry, I’m too old.”   Schillinger wrote a book on how to choreograph. It never got printed.  Lincoln Center got it, the library there, and they wouldn’t let me see it.  I come across it, and I wanted to see what he had come up with.  They wouldn’t let me see it, so I called her and said, “Well, who do you know?”  She called them and said, “Mr. Threadgill there has my permission to see anything that you have in your possession.”  They wouldn’t let me copy it.  I kept going there every so often, and I did copy it.

EI:  So that’s a system that’s been valuable for you.

HT:  Well, I was into dance.  I’ve always been into dance and theater, too.  I made my living in dance and theater before I left Chicago, because jazz musicians didn’t hire me.  They didn’t think I knew anything about music.  Much to my benefit.

EI:  Sounds like you got the last laugh on that one.

HT:  Oh, you know, the best thing that can happen to you sometimes is to be rejected, if you have the ability to think laterally!   When people close the door on you they’ve actually opened up more doors.  That never bothered me.  Chicago was like, “Oh, he can’t play,” so the dance community hired me and the theater community hired me and I was playing in the blues band with Left Hand Frank and all those people.  I was playing in real blues bands.  I was in the house band at the Blue Flame.  And I played in polka bands on clarinet.  And I played in parade bands.  I didn’t really meet those people who were trying to play tunes or like Sonny Rollins or whoever.  Actually, I was getting the bigger and better musical education, playing in polka bands, parade bands, mariachi bands, Latin bands, church bands.

I was really getting a musical education.  Because otherwise I would just be playing [scats “Scrapple from the Apple” and “Donna Lee”] or whatever that scoobie-doobie shit that they were doing.   Those guys didn’t know who the fuck Berio was.  Or they didn’t even know about Strauss, basically.  “Oh, he writes waltzes?” [Sarcastically:] “Yeah, he writes waltzes.”  Stravinsky or Messiaen, who were they?  I never saw the jazz crowd at the concert hall, checking out music.

It was a longer process becoming a musician.  I was shut out of the traditional people’s world, the jazz players, and forced into a bigger world that takes up a lot more time.  The first time an orchestra set up in front of me I was so transformed I didn’t know what to do. Then when the kabuki came in front of me, I was destroyed.  So it’s a longer journey now than when I started out being impressed with Sonny Rollins and Lester Young, that narrow world I started out in.  Not only me, but these other people who ended up in the AACM, like Wadada and Roscoe Mitchell, we all came in like this  [indicates “small”].  Next thing you know, the picture’s that big.  That’s one thing that you’ll see in all of our backgrounds.

I was a Sonny Rollins fanatic when I came in here, 15 years old.  But, all of a sudden, the whole picture changed when Ornette and Cecil appeared.  I always knew I wasn’t going to play that other music, because I couldn’t play that music in the first place.  Nobody could play that music but the people that lived it.  Music comes out of a social context.

EI:  Right.

HT:  And young musicians right now don’t understand that.  All you can do is practice something that’s not from your time.  You’re not able to do it.  Art has an emotional, social, psychological and spiritual content that’s tied to you being born in history at that time.  You’ll never be able to express what Bud Powell expressed.  You’ll never express what Lizst expressed when he sat down and played.  You can’t do it.  It’s tied to the times.  And young musicians waste their time practicing and practicing and practicing, thinking they’re going to get up there and play something that Dizzy GIllespie played.  You can’t do that.  He did it!  You’ve got to find something else.  You can only play that music you learned, but you’ll never be able to compete with Oscar Peterson or Bill Evans or anyone else who played that music.  I discovered that when I was young, you know?  I learned that I never can do that, not the way they did it.  I don’t care how much you learn about it.  You won’t be able to do it because it’s tied to a life.  Music is everything that you’ve learned in a life; it’s your family, your friends, your experiences, your hardships, your good days, your bad days – it’s tied into all of that.  All of that comes into play when you express something.  The integrity of it becomes a real reality when it becomes a part of your time.  Accept that what you are expressing is a product of your time.  You can’t bring to the product of another period the necessary investment in terms of the emotion and the psychology and the experience to lift it up to that level.  Only the people from that time can do that.

Now, people are just using young people in these schools, making them pay to learn jazz and stuff and to achieve a level of excellence; and they come out believing that they’re going to accomplish what these other people accomplished.  You’re not.  Not at that.  Maybe at something else you will be able to do, but not that.  If you think that performance with Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie in Paris can be topped, think again. They were the best of the players at that time, and they brought it up to a height.  It’s always that way.  Chopin brought it to a height, all these people bring these things to a height, you know, and it’s all about everything in your life, your family, your friends, your schooling, your ups and downs.  All of that is in the psyche of the artist.   And when you get into another period, that period has a requirement that you bring that in order to express something from that period.

Man, it’s just wonderful what the New School and Berklee can teach people about technique, but they’re still misleading them into giving up all their time into thinking that you’re going to play something that Coltrane played or that Lester Young or Wayne Shorter or somebody played – music that was particular to a particular time, you know, because there’s a cut off spot, like with the post-bop people.  I’m too young to be a part of that.  I’m on the far side of that.   So, what’s there for me?  Because this is kind of empty.

At that period, we were all playing music as kids, and I’ll never forget, man, we heard that Ornette shit and we said, “Man, there it is.”  There’s the voice of new possibility.  All of a sudden.  We were sitting up there practicing “Daahoud” and we knew in our hearts that wasn’t going nowhere.  Frank Strozier, Booker Little, and some of those people inherited that stuff, but we were too young for that.  When Trane went over to that last period and Ornette and Albert and them appeared, I’ll never forget. I’m telling you it was like a fire alarm going off.  We turned on the radio and I heard “Lonely Woman,” and I was like, “Uh oh.”  We was like 15 or 16: “Did you hear that, did you hear that radio?” We all said, “Did you hear that music – we got to go get that.”  All of a sudden. . .

EI:  The band, too.  Charlie Haden. . .

HT:  Oh, forget it, he was from another planet.   It was a brand new day, you know?  Sun Ra had already been there in Chicago and stuff, but he had left.  But this, man, this was like an anthem.  It’s almost like something that went off and we all heard it.  There was a bunch of kids that didn’t hear it, and those were the kids who were going to stay in that dream, that false dream as far as I was concerned.  Because they never went anywhere.  Not that most of them stopped playing music, but this was like a voice in the wilderness or something.  This was like possibilities.  Oh, wow, there it is.  And we didn’t know what it meant, but it was like this is the way, but what way is that way?  We just knew it was the new way that we could invest ourselves in completely.

You keep making replicas and variations of the same thing, and this is what’s been going on in the arts for a long time, you know.  But the people who suffer are the young musicians, at the hands of the people who teach them and the people who hire them to make a living – it can destroy your development.  It can take years to find yourself because of this.  You’ve got to get through all that mess, if you’re lucky, to find yourself.  Kids are practicing and learning Coltrane solos.  What do you want to learn Coltrane’s solo on “Giant Steps” for?  What are you supposed to find out?  To engage and look at it and study it, yes, but to engage in it physically is contaminating yourself.  You start practicing something, and practice don’t make perfect, practice makes permanent.  You start putting things in yourself, and it’s going to take time to get things out of yourself.  You might need a big enema for that.

You know what I’m saying?

You should only engage certain music on an intellectual level of looking at it and understanding it, but you shouldn’t put it in you.  You figure out a little bit about stuff to do, but don’t steal that stuff, because that stuff is powerful.  The people who you were listening to – that was some powerful stuff coming from them.  Your muscles don’t have anything to do with your mind.  They’ll take over.  There are information cells in your muscles. You’re going to put information in your muscles that you’re gonna have to pay to get rid of.

Remember, we evolved in time, we go through this period, a lot of stuff comes to us.  We condense it, we throw out what we don’t need.  Now you put some stuff in you that’s too powerful for you to expel, and it’s going to stay with you.  You put some stuff in there that you cannot reduce down, and it’s going to stay in you, it’s going to keep getting in your way for a long time. You’ve got to be careful in your training.

EI:  You never learned any solos?

HT:  Hell, no.

EI:  Did you sing any?

HT:  Yeah, you sing everything.

EI:  So singing is better than playing?

HT:  Don’t want to put them in your muscles.  You don’t want to imprint it that far.  You start imprinting that far, you ain’t got nothing to play, you know what’s going to come out.  You start falsifying and plagiarizing.  No, no, uh, uh. No, no.

When we were kids, anybody could sing any solo that anybody played.  People who were second line, third line, didn’t even have names hardly.  We listened to everybody’s part on every record, every bass part, drum part, everything.  And we knew who everybody was, and this is not the information that all the kids now can access with their laptops, iPods, iPads, Google me this, jingle me that, and I don’t even know. . .

Any kid who I was around when I grew up knew everyone in the Glenn Miller Orchestra, down to even Paul Whiteman’s fucking band with their square asses.  And everybody who was on the West Coast.   We everything Brubeck did…Chet Baker, Don Ellis, Paul Gonsalves, Paul Quinichette… We knew every fucking song and could sing every fucking part, that’s what we would do for entertainment.  We’d get together and say, “You do the bass, you do drums, I’ll do piano, you do the lead.”

We new every name, and I went to a music class at the New School recently where the kids didn’t know who I was and were up there telling me, “Yeah, I think I heard something about Cecil Taylor.”

Oh, really?  This is the information age?

But, see, they don’t have access to live music.  I was able to go and get it.  All I had to do was show up with my saxophone when I was 14.  At all the big jazz clubs I could walk right in, just sit down right there.  They said, “You can’t drink, but you can listen.”  I’m here to hear Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins, Coltrane, that’s all I’m here for with my saxophone.  I’m just sitting there with my saxophone case, right there beside me, I was 14, 15.  All I had to do was get there.

EI:  The community was different.

HT:  You know?

EI:  All you saw all the classical music, too!

HT:  Yeah, by the time I got to junior college man, I didn’t have no money.  We’d go down to the Orchestra Hall as ushers, right?  I forgot how much they was paying me.  It wasn’t shit.  I had my scores and studied conducting.  I’m 18. The Chicago Symphony’s at its fucking height, Fritz Reiner is conducting, and all I gotta do is sit people down, take out my flashlight, go sit in the back and open up my damn scores.  Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Hindemith, whatever.  “Oh, really, ah. Yeah, that’s interesting. Oh, look at the tempo. I didn’t see that.  Oh, that’s the balance. There’s nothing here that says you do it like that.”

I talked to these kids. They got money to do some of these things.  They tell me they did a workshop or something with Steve Coleman to get advice.

I said, “Well, did you see Boulez at Carnegie Hall a couple months ago?”

They say, “Who’s he?” “So how many people here know anything about the Sequenzas?”

“Oh what’s that?”

“Berio, you know anything about Berio? Anybody know anything about Berio or Herbie Nichols here? Oh, let’s just talk about Puccini and writing for the voice. Or, yes, anybody here read Ulysses? Or who knows anything about dancing and theater in here? Or ballet?”

I start talking about ballet, and they say, “Ballet?”

I say, “Yeah. Don’t you know that ballet came from composers and not from dancers?”  Stravinsky and all the people who composed ballet:  They brought the whole story and everything.

And I say, “What are they teaching you at these schools and what is in your own private development that you don’t go see Beckett or you don’t go see the dance company from Cambodia when they come here?”  What is wrong with you, you know?

“Oh, you don’t listen to music before the Grand Ole Opry?”  Are you a fucking idiot, you know?  You don’t know anything about real hillbilly music?

I can be a bad idea to teach jazz, because it puts everybody on the same diet. That can’t produce diversity.  Everything we like about Mozart, everything we like about Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson, is because they all had a different diet.  You can’t have the same diet and produce all of this diversity.  Johnny Griffin sounded the way he sounded because he developed that sound, and Paul Gonsalves on that sound, Paul Desmond that sound.  If they all had the same person teaching them how to manufacture and think about sound, it’d have been disastrous.  The good news is what they learned about how to make sound physically – it’s an advance.  But they all got the same kind of mouthpiece.  I’m looking at them, and they all got the same fucking pieces, same kind of saxophone, saying, “I got a Mark VI.”  I wouldn’t even go near something like that.

EI:  Sure.

HT:  They say, “What is that you got, what’s that?”

It’s a Herbert Couf, that’s what I play. I been playing that for years. “Never heard of it.”

I said, “I’m sure you haven’t.”

The magazines put in there the setup that you use so all the kids replicate it, and that’s not good. You’re supposed to find out what’s comfortable for you, what works for you.  Not looking at me because you’re impressed with me and I got a name or something, and you get somebody else’s equipment to match yours.  What kind of foot pedal you use, what kind of drums you use?  Find out what fits your body and your thinking and mind.  No, but see that’s anti-commercialism.

I think they should invest in really teaching people music, just like the way medicine is done.  You learn generally.  You have to be a general practitioner, then you specialize.  You want to be a podiatrist, you want to be an ear doctor, you want to be a neurologist, but first you’ve got to be a general practitioner.  I sit up in front of some kids at a jazz school and start talking about music, and I say, “So how much Bach did you have to play and what other instruments did you have to study?”  I was a viola player, you know.  I said, “You know you’re supposed to learn about music. You want to play rock and roll or whatever the fuck you want to do, but you’re supposed to know the general.”  As much general Western and now, world music.

You see Paquito and them, when they come out of Cuba, they all met together when they first came out of Europe, you know.  Now, these young players coming out of Cuba, they know far more about world music.  They know all these players in India and Wales.  Paquito didn’t know about that.  They knew who the jazz guys were, yeah, and the classical names, yeah, but they didn’t know who these world players were in Bali and the Philippines and all over the world.  The guys that come out of there, out of Cuba, they know who they are, see?  Here in this country, we should have the same sort of information base in music and leave people alone in terms of being specific about it.  Don’t be helping people with being no jazz musician or anything else.  Don’t help them with that.  Help them with the knowledge of how to use science to the best of their ability to reproduce sound, how to research information and these types of things.   Keep them in a neutral zone so that they can become whoever they will be.

EI:  Thank you for all the music.

HT:  That’s the most important thing, man, is playing music for people.  That is, I really play music for people. I don’t play down to people, I play up to people.  That’s the greatest thing in life, to be able to do something, to have something, and to be able to survive.  Because you know America and the arts, it’s not a great appreciation.  You know that.

EI:  It seems to have gotten worse instead of better.

HT:  Yeah, it’s not easy.

[End of interview. Go on to essay “Four Hits and the Ultramodern Blues.”]