Over the decades, avant-garde jazz musical Henry Threadgill has not only enriched but remade the musical landscape.
By Michael Ullman
Seventy-two-year-old Henry Threadgill found out in a telephone call from his record company that he had won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Music for his 2015 two-disc album In For a Penny, In For a Pound. He was surprised and, of course, delighted. So are the fans, critics, and commentators who have followed his impressive career since his first recording session in 1969 and his creation in the seventies of the trio Air, which charmed admirers with its lithe improvisations, range, and wit. Air recorded updated versions of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton tunes as well as original pieces such as “Through a Keyhole Darkly.” (Threadgill’s literate titles are often impishly entertaining: “Noisy Flowers,” “Keep Right on Playing Thru the Mirror Above the Water,” “Little Pocket Size Demons,” among others. I’ve always wanted to meet “Extremely Sweet William.”)
As accomplished as Threadgill has been for decades, his receiving this honor is a bit of a surprise. The Pulitzer Prize wasn’t originally intended to pay homage to improvisational music, let alone jazz. In truth, it wasn’t originally intended to be a prize. Joseph Pulitzer’s will called for the recognition of music scholarship. But it evolved into an award for music, the most prestigious in American composition. To some, the annual prize, chosen by a jury and approved by the Pulitzer board, has become predictable. A gift handed out to the usual suspects. Composer Donald Martino, who won in 1974, said: “If you write music long enough, sooner or later, someone is going to take pity on you and give you the damn thing.”
For most of the Pulitzer’s existence, there were no expressions of this special kind of pity for jazz musicians. In 1965, the question arose of how, or whether, to honor Duke Ellington. There was no new, especially worthy, longer piece of his to focus on. So, instead of giving him the prize for a new composition, the jury suggested a special citation — but the Pulitzer board rejected the idea. The ensuing uproar probably changed the prize forever. Wynton Marsalis’s award in 1997 for Blood on the Fields broke the mold and also, inadvertently, the rules, given that it was written and performed the year before it received the award. In 2007, a feisty committee skirted its own procedures, by-passed the initial recommendations, and honored Ornette Coleman’s recording Sound Grammar. Wadada Leo Smith was most recently a finalist for his three-disc work Ten Freedom Summers.
Like Marsalis and Smith, Threadgill is being recognized for a multi-disc work notable for its ambition as well as its considerable accomplishment. (Size matters when it comes to the Pulitzer.) Four of the six pieces that make up In For a Penny, In For a Pound have “epic” embedded in the title, but that describes their musical expansiveness — there is no sense of self-importance here. Threadgill’s band, Zooid, has previously made a series of recordings with slightly varied personnel: on this album, Threadgill is on alto saxophone and flutes, Jose Davila is on trombone and tuba, Liberty Ellman plays guitar, Christopher Hoffman is on cello and the drummer is Elliot Humberto Kavee.
The title composition on In For a Penny, In For a Pound is Threadgill’s tribute to the dedication of the members of his bass-less band to their music. In gratitude to their loyalty, he features each member in a movement. (Threadgill excludes himself, rightly thinking that his presence is felt everywhere.) The composition is a bouncy, yet rhythmically complex piece introduced by Threadgill’s flute, an immediate and jaunty demonstration of the intimacy of Zooid’s playing. Rather than move into a long-lined solo, Threadgill plays mostly short phrases and listens while the other members make their commentary. The result resembles an excited dinner table, where everyone is happily talking (and listening) at once. Eventually one member or another … early on it is first Liberty Ellman … dominates, but the textures change in quicksilver fashion.
On “Ceroepic (for Drums and Percussion),” one hears a playful conversation between bowed cello and plucked guitar with occasional bells butting in like an impatient three year old. But the piece then moves by way of a solo cello interlude into a group improvisation. Threadgill’s role throughout seems to be to introduce the main subject and then step back to hear how his friends interact. Like other pieces on the disc, “Ceroepic” comes in various parts: it includes playful group improvisations and solos, such as a lengthy drum excursion by Kavee. Threadgill intervenes to signal new sections within each piece.
Both discs are filled with little wonders. Everywhere one feels Threadgill’s imaginative presence, and those who have followed his career will recognize his distinctive compositional style. Just as palpable (and admirable) is his enormous generosity, the open-hearted way in which he both controls his musicians and releases them to do their own thing within his guidelines. In recognizing Threadgill, the Pulitzer committee is also wisely honoring what might be called a ‘new discipline’: the controlled improvisations devised by Threadgill’s generation of avant-garde jazz players. Over the decades, Threadgill and his peers have not only enriched but remade the musical landscape. It is a cause for celebration that the Pulitzer Prize for Music has finally recognized the lay of the land.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.