"Threadgill’s way to the forefront of contemporary creative music has always been oblique and circuitous; he’s a collector of musical styles," appraised Kevin Lynch in Down Beat, "and an explorer who constantly stops to observe the surrounding world." Mandel conjectured, "Threadgill’s originality of sound seems to render him" too contemporary "for regular employment in taverns that showcase jazz, though his music is based in gospel, the blues, and parade marches, as well as his serious research into what’s beyond." The unconventional composer, who includes funeral dirges in his repertoire, envisions a workplace in any of life’s settings. He told Gene Santoro in The Nation, "I’d like to put a band in a funeral parlor and work there."
Henry Threadgill was born on February 15, 1944, in Chicago, where his extended family included an aunt who studied classical piano and voice, and an uncle, Nevin Wilson, who played bass in pianist Ahmad Jamal's trio, and was a close friend of bassist Wilbur Ware.
The checkerboard of ethnic groups in Chicago's city blocks provided Threadgill encounters with the music of Poland, Yugoslavia, Mexico, and country-and-western music. He encountered classical music on the radio and at school, and remembers finding himself absorbed in Tchaikovsky. He heard gospel music at church, and was impressed by the theatricality of religion. He also heard the blues and other black music at the Maxwell Street flea market.
He attended Chicago's Englewood High School. Other Englewood alumni include AACM members Steve McCall and Roscoe Mitchell, bassist and trombonist Louis Satterfield, and saxophonist Donald Myrick, who would later gain fame as a member of the Phenix Horns, the permanent horn section of Earth, Wind, and Fire.
In the early 1980s, Threadgill created his first critically acclaimed ensemble as a leader, Henry Threadgill Sextet (actually a septet; he counted the two drummers as a single percussion unit), which released three LPs on About Time Records. After a hiatus, during which Threadgill formed New Air with Pheeroan akLaff replacing Steve McCall on drums, Threadgill re-formed the Henry Threadgill Sextett (with two t's at the end). The six albums the group recorded feature some of his most accessible work, notably on the album You Know the Number.
The group's unorthodox instrumentation included two drummers, bass, cello, trumpet and trombone, in addition to Threadgill's alto and flute. Among the players who filled these roles were drummers akLaff, John Betsch, Reggie Nicholson and Newman Baker; bassist Fred Hopkins; cellist Diedre Murray; trumpeters Rasul Siddik and Ted Daniels; cornetist Olu Dara; and trombonists Ray Anderson, Frank Lacy, Bill Lowe and Craig Harris.
During the 1990s, Threadgill pushed the musical boundaries even further with his ensemble Very Very Circus. In addition to Threadgill, the group's core consisted of two tubas, two electric guitars, a trombone or french horn, and drums. With this group he explored more complex and highly structured forms of composition, augmenting the group with everything from latin percussion to French horn to violin to accordion and an array of exotic instruments and vocalists.
Threadgill composed and recorded with other unusual instrumentations, such as a flute quartet (Flute Force Four, a one-time project from 1990); and combinations of four cellos and four acoustic guitars (on Makin' a Move).
By this time Threadgill's place in the upper echelon of the avant-garde was secured, and he was signed by Columbia Records for three albums (a rarity for musicians of his kind). Since the dissolution of Very Very Circus, Threadgill has continued in his iconoclastic ways with ensembles such as Make a Move and Zooid. Zooid, currently a sextet with tuba (Jose Davila), acoustic guitar (Liberty Ellman), cello (Christopher Hoffman), drums (Elliot Kavee) and bass guitar (Stomu Takeishi), has been the primary vehicle for Threadgill's most current compositions throughout the 2000s (decade).