From dodging bullets in Chicago to secretly jamming in Vietnam to redefining jazz around the world, Henry Threadgill’s story of negotiating a uniquely American chaos.
Easily Slip into Another World: A Life in Music, by Henry Threadgill and Brent Hayes Edwards, Knopf, 403 pages, $32.50
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One way to understand Henry Threadgill’s glorious American music is to think about how ensembles demand a background in the art of negotiation. The Chicago native and longtime East Villager plays saxophone and builds melodies and blocks of sound, of course, but what he really does is write bands. He thinks of combinations: puts them together, works with specific players, and induces the life-affirming clangor of certain people agreeing and disagreeing through music. I’ve been listening to Threadgill’s 1983 sextet album, Just the Facts and Pass the Bucket, for forty years, and even before I remember the drumless crawl of “Cremation,” I feel how Threadgill’s clarinet meshes with Olu Dara’s cornet and Craig Harris’s trombone, both of them pitched against the weave of Fred Hopkins’s bowed bass and Diedre Murray’s cello. I never expect any of it to be what it is. There are hints of Mingus and Debussy and Nino Rota, though nothing sounds entirely like jazz or classical or film music. An imperfect phrase that comes to mind is “saying music,” in that Threadgill wants to connect with listeners, as if he is leading a church service or directing a play.
A slower but more profitable way to understand Threadgill is to read his new memoir, Easily Slip into Another World, coauthored by the scholar Brent Hayes Edwards. As Threadgill tells it here, his story is social, a life of figuring out how to write songs even when they’re shipping you off to war. Though he’s lived in New York for almost fifty years, Threadgill still marinates his compositions in his early Chicago life. As a child, he heard the bells of the streetcars being worked by the feet of drivers and spent hours trying to master his mother’s player piano. One memory that lets you slip into his music is his description of the “hodgepodge” he heard on the radio in the ’40s. Young Threadgill was listening to “Mexican music, country music (which people used to call ‘hillbilly’ back then), jazz, rhythm and blues, boogie-woogie, plus regular programming including radio plays, detective shows, and science fiction” all at the same time. That junkyard faith is there in Threadgill’s newest album—just released in May—The Other One, a bit like Bartók and Schoenberg collaborating on a series of songs scored for piano, strings, horns, and drums. There are other Threadgill blends that speak to my hunger more directly, but The Other One gives you a sense of how many dissimilar ideas Threadgill is willing to lock in the same room until a winner is (or is not) declared.
Threadgill negotiates chaos of the most American stripe. His father ran a gambling house and his grandfather “drove liquor for the mob all across the country.” Easily Slip is full of sweet densities, like this list of generational habits: “That’s the way my father grew up: in the car with my grandfather, running hooch, a .45 on the seat.” This conversational book moves through a host of violences and tracks Threadgill distinguishing differences he has little control over. After attempting (and failing) some unnamed petty theft, Threadgill and his friends are pursued by cops, who open fire; a bullet tears through the heel of one buddy’s shoe. “But the police never pulled out their guns and shot at the white children for some minor nonsense,” Threadgill writes. Later, he and a friend pick up scrap wood and are hounded by “grown-ups screaming as they rushed down the street, throwing bricks at us.”
Threadgill’s musical education is less antagonistic, and he winds his way through a cross section of Chicago musicians, including long stints in the Church of God as a solo saxophonist and arranger. He also sits and listens (and only listens) to Sun Ra and his Arkestra rehearsing in a wild-game market that sells “deer, raccoons, possums, and bear,” among other goods. “This Greek guy liked Sun Ra for some reason, and he let him use the place at night.” Young Threadgill finds Sun Ra’s jazz “more esoteric and complex” but knows that “compared to the more conventional orchestras, this was a whole other world.” Arkestra member John Gilmore teaches him to practice saxophone by playing to drum rudiment books, a poetic transfer of knowledge.
Threadgill takes a calculated risk and volunteers for the draft in August of 1966, knowing that musicians with enough demonstrable skill could be assigned to Army bands that never leave the States. This works exactly as intended until he is stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas. He is asked to arrange some patriotic songs—“God Bless America” and the like—for a public ceremony involving military brass in Kansas City. Threadgill puts his back into it, and the band seems to dig his “sophisticated” ideas. “I’d been listening to a lot of Thelonious Monk and Stravinsky,” Threadgill writes, “and my arrangement had some of the same kinds of angularity and dissonance.” (This is true of almost all of Threadgill’s music, especially The Other One.) But the band gets no further than eight bars in before an archbishop shouts “Blasphemy!” and the performance is scuttled. Somebody narcs on Threadgill, who is busted down from arranger to mere clarinet player after wearing civilian clothes for months. This is not the real humiliation—that happens a month later when Threadgill is shipped out to Pleiku, all because he insulted an archbishop, though nobody ever connects the dots for him explicitly. “As though a musical peccadillo could merit the death sentence,” Threadgill observes. He doesn’t synthesize anything in such an obvious way, but the white folks are still throwing bricks at grown-up Henry. Sometimes, the only deal is no deal.
Then he’s in Vietnam, and everyone is coming at him all at once. This section of the book uses a literary device that initially threw me—interstitial scraps of dialogue about something that happened during Threadgill’s war, something involving eyes and decisions. It is, unexpectedly, something I could spoil, but won’t. With Threadgill as docent, Vietnam flies by, partly because he and Edwards have a light touch here, even though the stakes are repeatedly life or death or disfigurement. Amid all that, Threadgill joins a cover band in Saigon and gets hooked on pills and gets to know the Indigenous people of the Central Highlands.
The remaining half of the narrative is devoted to the period after he moved to New York in 1975, during which Threadgill recorded the lion’s share of his catalog. He puts together a series of bands that continue to redefine what jazz can be: Sextett (no typo), Very Very Circus, 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg (still no typo), Zooid, Make a Move, and a few variants, all of them testament to Threadgill’s mastery of “the backstage arts.” It makes sense that these arts got him through Vietnam and Chicago and, even worse, the world of European booking agents, and also enabled him to engage with so many of the twentieth century’s most significant musical strategies. There aren’t many people who can engage with New Orleans and Schoenberg and James Brown and Mingus and gamelan in the course of a single album, but for Threadgill? Easy.
Sasha Frere-Jones is a musician and writer from New York. His memoir, Earlier, will be published by Semiotext(e) in October of 2023.