Henry Threadgill

Composer, multi-instrumentalist, and 2021 NEA Jazz Master
Headshot of a man.

Photo by Nhumi Threadgill

Music Credits:

"Melin" from the album When Was That?  Composed by Henry Threadgill, performed by The Henry Threadgill Sextet.

Zooid. "In for a Penny, In for a Pound," from the album In for a Penny, In for a Pound. Composed by Henry Threadgill and performed by Zooid.

“Untitled Tango” from the album Air Song, Composed by Henry Threadgill and performed by Air.

"NY" from the album Soul Sand. Free Music Archive, 2015.


You’re listening to an excerpt from “In for a Penny, In for a Pound” performed by Zooid and composed by 2021 NEA Jazz Master, Henry Threadgill and this is Artworks, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Henry Threadgill is a groundbreaking composer, musician and band leader on the leading edge of avant-garde jazz since the 1960s. Born on the South Side of Chicago, he came up in a musically varied world where the sounds of gospel, blues and marching bands all blended comfortably together. A multi-instrumentalist who focused on the alto sax, clarinet and later the flute, Threadgill was 19 when he met Muhal Richard Abrams and he played in Abrams’ experimental band which evolved into the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians or AACM, a collective that encouraged musicians to compose and play their own music. Henry Threadgill formed the group Air with Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall releasing albums that explored the edges of improvisation. He then went on to work with ensembles of varying sizes composing new work and experimenting with instrumentation including instruments like cello, tuba and multiple guitars to play his complicated compositions. His groups include but are not limited to the Henry Threadgill Sextett, Very Very Circus, Make a Move and Zooid. Threadgill is a sought after composer whose work is premiered nationally and internationally at venues like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Carnegie Hall and the Venice Biennale. He received an NEA Jazz Composition Fellowship in 1974 and went onto to receive any number of awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship and Doris Duke Artist Award. In 2016, he became only the third jazz artist to receive the Pulitzer Prize for music for his album “In for a Penny, In for a Pound” and now Henry Threadgill has been named a 2021 NEA Jazz master. I have the opportunity recently to speak with Henry via Zoom and I began our conversation by asking him about his earliest musical influences.

Henry Threadgill: Well, there was no television. Radio had all the music that you were going to hear inside the house wherever you lived. The only music that you heard outside was if you went to a church or you were standing at a parade. I can remember the music from the time I was three years old listening to the radio and that music was classical European music of Serbian music because the largest Serbian community is in Chicago and it was Polish music because also that’s the largest Polish community and then you had rhythm and blues and blues and jazz and gospel music on the radio. So that was something that I would listen to on a daily basis. This is before I started grammar school and then I would hear music at my two different grandmother’s churches. One church was a Baptist church and this was a very sophisticated choir that read music and sang a lot of anthems and it was the church that my father’s mother belonged to. My other grandmother, my mother’s mother, that’s where the music I loved the most. This was a Church of God and Christ. They had a singing minister there named Singing Sammy Lewis. He was a minister and he sang and there was something about singing ministers. There was something about them, their ability to deliver words in song was exceptional. So I was influenced and captive by all these things when I was three and four years old.

And when did you begin to play an instrument yourself and what was it?

Henry Threadgill: The first instrument I played was the piano. I started playing the piano when I was about three and a half years old. What happened was this, the music that was famous at that time was Boogie-woogie, Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, this was the music that was being played all across America. It was kind of like Scott Joplin’s music, kind of like rags in a way. Boogie-woogie took over and I heard that music on the radio and I didn’t even know that there was a piano in the house <laughs> till that music came on the radio. I discovered this piano in the hallway and I would sit at the piano all day with the radio on waiting for that music to come on. I started to learn how to play that music. I taught myself to play the piano by sitting and waiting every day for Boogie-woogie to be played. My hands were so small at that time, I was very frustrated. I remember I used to be very upset. That was the beginning of my whole musical life. I learned how to play Boogie-woogie when I was about three, three and half years old. Later when I was in grammar school and I began to take lessons, I wasn’t very happy with the music teacher I had at that time. So I really didn’t pay much attention. I would still play at the piano on my own. When I graduated from grammar school, I went to Englewood High School. The first concert, jazz concert, I went to was at the high school. My best friend played trumpet and that I would begin to play to the saxophone and he told me that there was going to be a concert on a Tuesday night and that we should go and hear it. I went to that concert and it was Stan Getz, I think it was Chet Baker, it was about 25 cents to go hear Stan Getz at my high school on a Tuesday night. So by the time I got to my second year, I was playing the tenor saxophone.

You said when you first heard Charlie Parker, he opened a door for you. What did you hear and how did that door open?

Henry Threadgill: When I first heard Charlie Parker, yes a door did open. The door to improvise music. I heard improvised music in a different way. Let me back up before Charlie Parker. My influence in terms of music was blues, Muddy Waters and Harlan Wolff, Jimmy Reed, this is what the music that I grew up on and this was the music that had the most impact in my life. I don’t know of anyone that had more impact on me than Harlan Wolff. <music playing> And then gospel music was born in Chicago. I grew up on this music. Mahalia Jackson is in Chicago. I heard her sing live I don’t know how many times and I heard Clay Evans and James Cleveland and all of these other great singers, but that music was not a improvised music. Of course, they had some variations that they would execute in this music, but Charlie Parker had stretched the boundaries. The music I had heard prior to Charlie Parker, the swing era music, it just had not opened up to that complex degree. That’s why I said when I heard Charlie Parker, a door opened. It opened up your ears as to what can you actually hear and what can you actually do.

When did you meet Muhal Richard Abrams?

Henry Threadgill: Well, I graduated from high school in 1962 and went to Wilson Junior College. This was a liberal arts two year college and they had an incredible music department. All of the art departments were incredible and the school was loaded with artists. I just can’t begin to tell you. Jack DeJohnette, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph John and Melacap [ph?], they was Eddie Harris, Bunky Green. This was just some of the people that were there and we had a music club. We were charged with putting up different concerts. We would have classical concerts and we would have jazz concerts and I don’t know who it was. It could have been Melacap Favors [ph?] that suggested getting Muhal to play, but I didn’t know Muhal at that time. So he came with a quintet and that’s when I met him. We talked after the concert and he invited me to come to the Experimental Band which was rehearsing at that time at a place called C and C’s Lounge. This is where the Experimental Band started. This is the prelude to the AACM, Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. So I went there and played for a bit and then he told me I could bring in some music. I brought in some music. It was very short period because it was in 1966 at this point and I had gotten drafted at this point. So I left. Right before I left the ACM had been on its way to being formed.

You were drafted into the Army. Is that what happened?

Henry Threadgill: I wasn’t exactly drafted. I was working at the University of Chicago Hospital trying to make some money so that I could go to the American Conservatory of Music in the fall and I was going to school part-time which was not allowed. If you didn’t have a full course then you didn’t have a deferment. The draft board in my neighborhood called me up, told me to come down and said “Mr. Threadgill, I got good news and bad news.” I said <laughs> “What do you mean by that?” He said “You’ve been caught working and not going <laughs> to school full-time. So they’re about to draft you.” He said “They haven’t, but they’re getting ready to draft you because they discovered that you weren’t in school.” So he said “What you can do is this.” He said “You’re a professional musician.” I said “I guess so.” He said “Well, join the draft as a professional musician just like doctors, all other professional people.” I said “What does that mean?” He said “A doctor can only practice medicine, a musician can only practice music. If you join the draft then that’s the only thing you can do in the service and if they violate that they have to discharge you with an honorable discharge.” I said “Okay.” He said “The only thing is you’ll have to stay one year longer.” The draft was two years. He said “That means that you’ll have to be in there for three years.” He said “But that can be adjusted, too. If any musical organization or institution call for your services, you can do two and a half years,” and that’s when the ACM wrote while I still in the service and said that they wanted me to come and teach at the school. So I was only in the service for two and a half years. <laughs>

I think the AACM is such an important organization in modern music. I’d like if you would talk about the vision that propelled the AACM and the philosophy that knitted all of you together.

Henry Threadgill: It was really Muhal’s singular vision concerning writing your own music and presenting your own music and developing and studying music, not jazz. The agenda was music. He believed deeply in that and we all picked that up. You can’t really say there was such a thing as a AACM school. Each one of us was school in our own. We had our different ideas and different approaches and it required a great deal of discipline in terms of the concept of democracy. Let me tell you what I mean by that. To complete you serve another person and to keep your ideas off the table and not to critique, to be completely at their service regardless of what they ask you to do. The idea is to let those people realize whatever their concepts are without any interference from anyone and interjected any kind of critiques whatsoever. Our job was to serve one another 100 percent. That was the basis of everything.

You know, what I find just so extraordinary about the AACM is that, well, so many things, but originality, personal vision was really stressed, but so was respect for other traditions and having a grounding in so many other musics and that’s really been a constant for your throughout your career.

Henry Threadgill: You’re absolutely right. The idea that all music from humanity is really what we were looking at and one great thing at the time, Chicago was so rich in terms of the blues and gospel music. We had that and the other thing that we had at the same time was the University of Chicago Contemporary Players Orchestra. They played the most advanced and the most difficult contemporary music from America and Europe. This is where I first heard and met The Rez, Paul Hindemith, oh, I can’t say. I met a number of great composers at these. We actually worked two or three blocks apart in the same area of the city. The first time I heard the live recording of Tia Lenore by Shermberg, [ph?] I heard it there. The first electronic music I heard was there that I heard The Rezes’ Electronique. The piece I heard that there and then the Chicago Symphony under Fritz Reiner at that time when I studied conductor. I was studying conducting in college and Fritz Reiner was playing some very interesting music and Mark Danun who followed him had a extremely contemporary repertory and it was on the margin that he actually commissioned Muhal to write a piece for the Symphony and he had something like 10 saxophones in the orchestra.

This period in Chicago was crazy because wasn’t Sun Ra playing then, too?

Henry Threadgill: I started going to Sun Ra’s rehearsal when I was about 15 years old, I guess, something like that. Sun Ra was rehearsing in the neighborhood right where I lived in Englewood. He rehearsed in the back of a meat market which sold wild game. So there was raccoons and bears.

Are you kidding?

Henry Threadgill: And possums hanging from the ceiling. No, I’m not. It was a Greek wild game market and the owner of it liked Sun Ra’s music and so at night in the back of the market he would let Sun Ra rehearse in the back of the market and it was extremely cold back there. That was the only downside. I used to go there with my friend just about two or three nights a week and sit there and listen to him rehearse and try to follow the music.

As we said, AACM, that approach to music, it’s finding your voice and a personal vision and I’m wondering what that process was like for you of finding a voice. I mean, it’s one thing to just say it, but then you have to trust your voice, develop that voice, learn to express it.

Henry Threadgill: Yes, that’s true to find a voice. The Midwest, Chicago, it was not New York. The fast pace of New York and New York is the marketplace. You go to New York with a finished product. It’s hard to go to New York and start putting groups together. That takes a lot of time and energy. So we had time on our hand and it was a cheaper way of living, too. We didn’t pay so much. So we had time and we took advantage of it. I tried different things. I tried all kinds of combinations of groups before I got to Air, the trio Air which everything started by Steve McCall and Fred Hopkins and then my whole life changed. <music playing> Steve had come back from Paris because remember in the ‘60s, Paris was it. New York was not it. The music world was in Paris. Everybody was in Paris. The track back in the ‘70s, there was a change. People started to return from Paris and New York all of a sudden became a new migration center. New York got reenergized. So we came in about ’70, I think, ’74. I think ’75, ’75, Air. We played a concert. It was in January-February and it was really cold and it was a lot of snow. It looked like Chicago. The snow was up to your knees and we play La MaMa, at La MaMa Annex and some people said nobody’s coming to hear you all because nobody ever heard of you people from Chicago named Air. We said “That’s okay. We’re going to play anyway.” It was cold in the place. They didn’t have any heat. We had three nights, Friday, Saturday and Sunday night in this place. The people that came Friday night they went out and spread the word. Saturday night there was a line down the street and Sunday night it was a line down the street. Some of the people kind of like philanthropists type of supporters came in and heard us and the next thing you know we were playing at Carnegie Hall in April. <laughs> That’s how fast they turned around. <laughs>

That’s amazing. I know you had said you don’t like the word jazz and you don’t consider yourself a jazz musician anymore. Can you explain why and what your thinking is about that?

Henry Threadgill: The word jazz had been abused and misused. That’s why I don’t like it. It’s became like a pot that people throw everything and it’s lost its distinction. Just put something or put that over there, soft jazz, hard jazz, this kind of jazz, that jazz. So that’s why I don’t like it and that’s why I don’t use it. I prefer the word creative music. Creative improvised music and would say improvised music.

You’ve also said that live music is the way to hear music and you never made a record with the society’s situation dance band. You only performed live with them.

Henry Threadgill: I never wanted to make a record with that. I grew up going to dances when I was kid, right, and there would be live music, great bands would be playing. We would go to dances and so I didn’t want to record this. This was just for people to react to it and dance. Studios have a way of becoming self-conscious and you don’t have an audience. How do you go into a studio and play dance music if there’s nobody dancing? <laughs> You know what I mean? You can’t even tell if you’re doing a good job. <laughs>

Your work encompasses such a wide range of music with a wide range of compositional techniques and a wide range of groups. In fact, many groups throughout your career.

Henry Threadgill: I’m going to just give a little quick overview history of the groups that I’ve had. The first group I had was Air. Air, the compositional techniques that I was developing were mostly in the major minor world and a chromatic world. Chromatic world sometimes sound like you’re sound like you’re doing something that’s free. I never did play free music. After that I came to Sextett and I was still doing writing music in the same kind of way and I also had a second group that I never recorded which was a great group called the Wind String Ensemble. That was tuba, cello, violin, viola and I played alto and flute. Now, the Sextett which I thought of as a reduced orchestra, it had a wind section, a brass section, a string section and percussion section. That’s how I thought of it. The percussion section had two drummers. I considered it one part. It just had two people playing different things the way you would have in a orchestra. It would be one person on the snare drum, another person be on temp and another person be on tambourine. You could have four people playing and it’s still one part. It’s the percussion part. Then I had the strings which was the cello and base and then the trombone and the trumpet was the brass and then I covered the reeds. <music playing> But the music I was writing at that time was still within the major minor system of music. Major scales, minor scales and combinations thereof. After that group came Very Very Circus. Very Very Circus, again, I was still stretching the boundaries of the major minor system and then when I got to Make a Move, I got as far as I could actually go in terms of this major minor idea and in this period that I made major discoveries about new was to write music and that led to the group Zooid and the system of music that started with Make a Move, but I worked everything out with Zooid. So every group that I had it had something to do with how far I had made it compositionally. I would change groups because the compositional ideas had changed. When I got everything I could out of something then I would change. I would never just change for novelty. I never even thought of doing anything like that. After I completely exhausted the orchestrational and compositional techniques that involved that particular ensemble then I would start to move to the next level and I’ve been fortunate that I could do that that I saw something beyond the horizon to move to.

You mentioned Zooid and how long for, what, 18 years.

Henry Threadgill: At least 15-16 years now.

How did that band start and what were you looking for?

Henry Threadgill: Well, first thing was I was looking for the players because I knew what the instruments I was hearing. So Tyreek Bemberdene, the oud player, who is now in Morocco. He’s a filmmaker, also a great filmmaker. Jose Davila, the trombonist, tuba player. He had been with me in Very Very Circus and other configurations and guitar player Liberty Ellman. Liberty Ellman recommended Elliott Kavee to trombone with us. The first Zooid record where Deaf [ph?] has appeared from Cuba, he was the first drummer with us and then I found Elliott. Dana Leone, the trombone and cello player, great artist. So I had cello, guitar and oud as the string section and tuba, drums and myself. That was the sound I was after. So we rehearsed for one year in New York City before we played. They had to learn a new language because, see, I had come up with another musical language and it wasn’t just you could just come in and read this music. You had to understand the language. We spent a year learning the language and how to work with it because we had to improvise in this language and after a little over a year and something we played our first engagement somewhere. I don’t even remember the first place, but these were special people. I don’t know how many people would have stayed with me for over a year just rehearsing with not the promise of a recording, not the promise of playing a concert or anything.

Again, you’re very deliberate in the way you create your compositions. So you create a composition that has room for the musicians you play with to improvise within that structure, that musical structure that you create. Is that a fair way of saying it?

Henry Threadgill: That’s correct. Yeah. There’s room for improvisation. Yeah. Most of the time the music appears more seamless. A lot of times you can’t tell whether we’re improvising or reading music. It’s a greater ideal is to go for something like that, something that’s more seamless.

When you’re composing, do you find yourself consumed by it as you’re working on it or do you leave it aside for a while, walk away, maybe leave it for a week, a month and then come back to it? I’m curious how that works with you?

Henry Threadgill: Composing is like going back to square one every time. <laughs> You don’t know what it’s going to be. You accomplish something and you say oh, wow. That was a nice step that I pulled back there, that step A and B. I think I’ll try that the next time. Next time there’s no room for A and B. <laughs> No place to execute A and B. So every time there’s a new experience and the music, see, the composition starts to dictate. You, the composer and writer, you have control, but you only have so much control. You ever heard of writer, I’m talking about literary writers, say that like they created this character. Now the character is in charge. You ever heard a writer say that?

Yes. Definitely.

Henry Threadgill: The same thing happens with the music. You have to let the music go where it’s going, stop trying to control it sometimes. I never know quite what it’s going to be. Sometimes like, say, I leave things intentionally so that I can get a fresh look at it because it does get consuming and sometimes you just need to step back.

And I’m assuming you’re hearing this in your head as you’re composing.

Henry Threadgill: Yeah.

When you go and you were actually giving the music to the musicians does it happen that you think oh, that sounded very differently in my head. This isn’t quite working when I’m hearing the musicians do it.

Henry Threadgill: You know, my philosophy is this for one thing. The object for me is to make music. So I write it down, I bring it and somebody make a mistake. I say oh, that’s wonderful. Let me change this and put the mistake in because that’s the object for me. I’m not stuck on what I did. Remember music means nothing until you lift it up off the paper. It has no meaning. That’s what a conductor is doing. When a conductor is standing up there with a score in front of it and the orchestra. I don’t care whose music it is, van Beethoven’s. What the conductor is doing is saying too many violins is playing right there. Let me have less second violins. Trumpets start doubling so and so over there. He basically said a half a teaspoon of salt and two teaspoons of pepper. The composition said a whole teaspoon of salt and three teaspoons of pepper. That’s what’s on the paper, but when you start to lift it up you find out it won’t bake. <laughs>

And is that what you mean when you said artistic process and product are inseparable?

Henry Threadgill: Yes. Yes. It’s exactly. Yeah. The process. You have to find out, you imagine something, you write a script and the writer, he sits in the audience and as actors come on stage and he laughs at this comedic lines. Well, he wrote it, didn’t he, but nobody else is laughing. <laughs> So you have to really look around and see if it’s working. You got to put it up. You have to play it live. That’s the other thing about live music, live art. You have to resurrect it to find out will it stand that it has to be put up and also the impact. I listen to records when a kid, but when I used to stand up as a kid in front Harlan Wolff and Muddy Waters, it was nothing like that. I wouldn’t even be in time anymore. I’d be standing there. It’d be just like I walked through some portal or something.

That’s a nice way of putting it. You’ve spent a lot of time in India, in Caracas and traveling throughout the world and, obviously, all these places have different musical rhythms and I wonder about immersing yourself in those cultures and the influence that has on your work.

Henry Threadgill: You know, it’s almost impossible for me to quantify in any kind of way what I learned from different cultures. When we say music, music is a part of some culture and if you emulate on the surface certain music it becomes obvious that you’re just like pandering to something or doing something that’s so obviously not very serious. Like you said in places like India and stuff, I mean, I listen to music there, but it’s not just listening to the music. It’s the way people walk. It’s the rhythm of the language. It’s the spices in the food. It’s all of those things. All of those things is what inform your creative process, not just the obviousness of like classical music or something. No, it’s far more than that. I think in dance, theater, all of these different mediums, we learn from other parts of humanity on the globe. As you reach out you get a bigger reward the further you reach out. <laughs>

Well, as listeners we get big rewards, too, from the work that comes out of it and you’ve received so many awards I can’t even begin to mentionable of them, but I do want to mention two and one was the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Music. Congratulations. I know you don’t like to call yourself a jazz musician, but you’re the third living jazz musician to receive that and it was for “In for a Penny, In for a Pound” which you recorded with Zooid. <music plays> That had to have been really gratifying for you.

Henry Threadgill: Oh, it was. It certainly was. I mean, I wasn’t expecting it. I remembered that the record company had asked my copyist for the score and a audio file on it, but that had been like a year back and I didn’t think about it. When they called me up, a matter of fact it was the record company called me and was telling me to see you won the Pulitzer Prize, but I said “For what?” <laughs> Did I do something right or did I do something wrong? <laughs> It was really something. It’s a level of recognition for what you do. There’s no words for it. It’s really great, a great honor, a great honor. That honor and the honors of being the Harlem Stage and the Welico [ph?] Arts Center where they have your work perform where the musicians came and played on my work to honor me. That’s another great honor. When people in your time play your music then you figure you must be doing something right. <laughs>

Well, you really must be doing something right because you have been named the 2021 NEA Jazz Master and I wonder if you can say what that means for you.

Henry Threadgill: Well, this honor is the highest honor that the country gives. The honor is not just to me. I didn’t get here on my own. All of these people that’s been in my life, all of the influences, so much I’ve learned, I can’t even articulate and give all the names of all of the teachers, friends, parents and even silent supporters. That’s who’s standing here that sitting here taking this award with me. It’s not just an award to Henry Threadgill, it’s that part of this community and this country that produced and nurtured Henry Threadgill is why I got that award. That’s what that award means. It means that you said something about not just me, but all those people that did something to make this a better place for everybody in this country through art.

And I think that is a great place to leave it. Henry, many congratulations and thank you for years of your beautiful, wonderful work.

Henry Threadgill: Thank you, Jo. My pleasure.

That was 2021 NEA Jazz Master Henry Threadgill. Henry and all the 2021 NEA Jazz Masters will be honored with a virtual tribute concert on April 22, 2021. The Arts Endowment will again collaborate with SF Jazz on this virtual event which will be free with no registrations or tickets required. For further details keep checking arts.gov or follow us on Twitter at NEA Arts. You’ve been listening to Artworks produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe and thanks for listening.


Henry Threadgill remains one of music’s great innovators—as a composer and as a musician. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2016 for his album In for a Penny, In for a Pound, becoming only the third jazz artist to receive the award.  A multi-instrumentalist, throughout his career he has led ensembles of varying sizes—experimenting with instrumentation and creating new compositional techniques. In this podcast, Threadgill reflects on the vast musical legacy he found in his hometown of Chicago and the early influence of Muhal Richard Abrams and The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians—a collective that encouraged musicians to compose and play their own music.  He looks back at his ensembles and the various musical languages he’s expressed with each as well as his overall philosophy of composing and making music—explaining why he believes the true test of music is in the live performance and why he eschews the word “jazz.”  Henry Threadgill is not just a musical seeker, he’s also a deeply thoughtful and funny storyteller.