The trouble with ‘jazz’: Ahead of a weekend at Jazz Gallery, Henry Threadgill talks about the limitations (and racial coding) of the term

Henry Threadgill. (via Pi Recordings)
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Front-rank American composer and legendary improvising musician Henry Threadgill's latest band comes to the Jazz Gallery tonight and through the weekend, playing two sets an evening.

In some quarters, that's the only news here. All that’s left is to visit the venue’s website and order some of the $25 tickets. (Do that here.)

But they're small quarters.

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Here’s how the 2008 Penguin Guide to Jazz, which only reviews recordings that are in print, described Threadgill’s then-current position in the corporate music world: "a musician who has been fairly disastrously neglected by American labels and currently has scandalously little in the catalogues."

That neglect amounts to a full-on aesthetic injustice when we’re talking about an avant-garde musician who can satisfy the likes of both Stanley Crouch (no consistent cheerleader for the experimental) as well as Robert Christgau (no dedicated chronicler of jazz or classical styles). Here’s the latter, the self-proclaimed Dean of American Rock Critics, writing about Threadgill’s playing on the 1987 record You Know the Number: “His avant gets over on force of personality. And he can play the blues.”

That is correct, if a bit of an understatement.

Pianist Vijay Iyer, who is no longer a “rising star” in jazz circles, but an actual star in his own right, covers a Threadgill tune from the 90s on his new album, Accelerando, which is out this week. The sprawling large-ensemble tune Iyer selected, “Little Pocket Sized Demons,” comes from a classic album by Threadgill’s Very Very Circus band, entitled Too Much Sugar for a Dime. While the Iyer cover, arranged for his piano trio, got prime placement on NPR Music—well, that Threadgill album remains out of print.

“More people should know about Threadgill, that’s for sure,” Iyer told me during a recent phone interview. “I’m indebted to him and I wanted to pay my respects. And, thankfully, he’s around to help us! … I transcribed the piece for the recording, trying to capture all the different moving parts … [and] he came to a rehearsal and just checked it out. He was just very supportive of us taking on the challenge. I honestly don’t know that it’s happened many times, that people have taken on his music and tried to put it in another context.”

If there’s one constant in Threadgill’s music over the years, it’s an ambition to provoke a wide range of possible reactions. His first group to attain widespread notoriety, Air, could toy with R&B grooves, Scott Joplin tunes, and also experiment with homemade percussive instruments built from hubcaps. Different Threadgill bands have featured writing for mostly wind instruments, while others have featured multiple percussionists, tubas, and screaming electric guitars. His current band, called Zooid, has always featured three string parts. At first these were played by an oud, a cello, and an acoustic guitar—though the band that comes to the Jazz Gallery this weekend will feature a lineup of cello, acoustic guitar, and acoustic bass guitar. (At other junctures, two string players have had to cover all three parts.)

Like many of the composers and musicians who came up in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (or AACM), on Chicago’s South Side in the late 1960s, Threadgill’s music slips amongst and between so many schools that it can sometimes fail to cross the radar of casual listeners, or of those who are aesthetically doctrinaire.

Taken as a multi-decade discography, all this variety in Threadgill’s writing can be a challenging (though thrilling) body of work to process. It's a big part of why Threadgill's music is so hard to find; he's never stayed still long enough, stylistically, to allow himself to be canonized.

There's no question that Threadgill is deeply concerned with ongoing developments in the tradition of jazz. But talking to the lanky, intense and steely-eyed 68-year-old earlier this week at De Robertis Pasticceria, one of the East Village resident's favorite neighborhood haunts, it was clear that he finds the term problematic, and when used by the wrong people, limiting.

Asked about what's caught his ear of late, he identifies some recent Elliott Carter music for piano, as well a Beyoncé song that his daughter brought into his life. (He blanks for a minute on the exact title, but when I ask if it’s “the one with all the modulations at the end,” the single “Love on Top,” Threadgill’s face brightens. “That’s the one!”)

But when it comes to the topic of the jazz tradition, and the importance he places on both honoring the tradition and working outside of it,the lights are on him. He's off on an inspired conversational solo that it would be foolish to edit very heavily.

“Yeah I only want to get away from it, because it’s been misrepresented, distorted; and it’s been it’s confusing to people,” Threadgill told me. “Everything is lumped under ‘jazz’ and people trying to define it. When you define jazz, you're basically defining black people, too. You can’t talk about one without talking about the other. Now when I say ‘black people,’ that does not exclude other people. But this is a music that came from black people and continues to come from black people—because they have been the innovators. So what is jazz really, in terms of black people. What does it reflect? It reflects the fact that here’s a people that had to put themselves back together—that’s been in a state of putting themselves together—from zero. From zero. Now when does this start?

“You understand? Here’s people learning how to speak the language in this country. The folkways, mores and every other kinda way—and ‘ism’—and it’s all the way to the end of the Civil War before instruments even appear in the hands of black people. By that time, it was an even shorter length of time [before] we had the appearance of Scott Joplin. And James Scott and other people. And this has been going on in my lifetime. … My grandmother and grandfather had a house that they couldn’t even own the mortgage to. They didn’t even give mortgages to black people. This is in 1958. That’s Chicago! Yeah, that’s a town. Big country town! As far down south as you can get up north.

“So what I’m trying to say about people describing [jazz]: It’s like saying, suppose we stopped short and we never got around to seeing Jackie Robinson or Obama or Jesse or anybody. This is all about becoming—people are still becoming. Black people are still becoming. People act like everything’s been attained. Nothing’s been attained yet. You come out of [hundreds of] years of pure slavery and then you enter a period of Jim Crow where people still can’t become anything. There’s no such thing as really integrating into America—it’s still a struggle, so people are still finding out who they are, how they exist in this country. So the art they produce—the art is parallel. That’s being put together as the people are being put together.

“So it’s an insult as far as I’m concerned—to say ‘oh this is jazz’ like there’s one black group, one concept, or conception of black people. No other group has this other kind of small definition! So as I said these ideas about ‘jazz,’ the word, is confusing, is misleading, and is really not informing. It had, in the past, a more informative [role]. Because we were looking at basically one river, but now we’ve split into so many tributaries. That’s because of black people being able to advance in this environment.”

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that Threadgill resents the conservatory-academic turn in jazz instruction: “They’ve turned jazz into a course!”

But there is a generation of younger musicians he admires for their approach to the tradition, including the young Vijay Iyer, who was so successful with that Threadgill cover.

“People didn’t go to Duke Ellington or Monk and say ‘give me a score of your music.’ If Monk hired you, you got to know Monk’s music!

“You gotta remember, look how long it was taken before they even allowed black people to publish anything. … So the musicians listened to the music, learned the music by listening to it. That’s what Vijay did! And he had it right. I only came to listen to what they were doing with it. He asked me about some ideas, a couple of things—could I give him a roadmap. I said sure, you’re on the right track, you can keep going along that track. But basically, I don’t want anybody to know my music as an end in itself. That’s a European approach. What do you hear? That’s always been a part of this tradition. But [Iyer’s] a very interesting one of the new talented people … along with Craig [Taborn] and Jason Moran. And Matthew Shipp, in a whole ‘nother direction.

“They’re in the right tradition of the music. They come up to it. Even some of them have been to schools, but they didn’t come out here like ‘I went to school’ and that’s it. Nobody cares! Matter of fact, look: not only in this music! In classical music, nobody cares. You don’t get in the fucking symphony in Paris or Chicago because you got a damn degree! Oh I have a bachelor’s or a master’s or a doctorate in trumpet. That gets you nothing.” Here, as if coming toward the end of a solo, Threadgill senses his closing punctuation mark. “Showing up: ‘I got a jazz degree.’ No you don’t!”

This weekend offers one opportunity to get to come up to Threadgill's music. And more are on the way.

The Mosaic label—home to massive (and expensive) box sets—brought out an eight-C.D. traversal of Threadgill’s pioneering work for the Novus and Columbia labels, in 2010. Spanning decades of the composer’s work with radically different ensembles, the Mosaic box included choice albums from his Sextett (really a septet, which featured two drummers and a cellist, in addition to trombone, trumpet, bass and Threadgill himself).

Even better news is that the Threadgill discography is set to expand again, later this summer, when the Pi Recordings label—which has stood resolutely behind Threadgill since its formation in 2001—will bring out the next disc by the Zooid group, entitled “Tomorrow Sunny / The Revelry, Spp.” The musical language of the Zooid group is as mysterious as any Threadgill has ever devised. While existing outside the major/minor system, and instead derived from a quasi-serial approach to intervals, the music also feels as though constantly shifting and roiling, from bar to bar. But Zooid still has the blues, too.

“It’s not just notes on a page,” Iyer said during our conversation about the composer. “Threadgill really reaches out and grabs you by the lapels. Someone else described it to me as ‘every time Threadgill enters, it’s like the curtains just parted.’ He has this way of cutting right through the texture of the music.”

It's that cutting through textures, both social and musical, that makes Threadgill's work essential. And seeing it performed live is transformative.

“I play music for people," Threadgill told me at De Robertis. "Not at people, not down to people, but up to people. What happens in live performance: the audience is part of what happens."