Although Threadgill's musical roots are in jazz, the blues and gospel music, he is considered to be one of the premiere “creative” or avant-garde composers in music today. His compositions are truly American, often representing a melting pot of musical genres; at any given time you may hear cleverly mixed elements of traditional African music, Latin music, folk music, New Orleans brass and opera in addition to his more obvious influences. His compositions can be a very complex affair, with textures so dense and intricate (and in later years so strictly scored) as to border upon being through composed. While this seems to be in contrast to the loose, improvisatory feel of much jazz, his best compositions still bring that feeling to the forefront.
Threadgill has recorded or performed with many of the legends of the jazz avant-garde, including Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, David Murray and Bill Laswell.
Born on February 15, 1944, in Chicago, Illinois, Henry Threadgill was raised in the bleak atmosphere of the ghetto, but music brightened his household and surroundings. Exposed to country music on the radio and to classical music by an aunt who studied to become an opera singer, Threadgill developed eclectic tastes at an early age. "My grandmother took me to churches where there was music, record shops had speakers outside so you walked down the street hearing music, bands played, and still play, at the Maxwell Street flea market," he related to Mandel. "Even at grammar school, teachers played records during rest periods, good music we would cool out and sleep to."
While in grade school, Threadgill studied piano and marched in street bands as a percussionist. Jazz great Charlie Parker’s recordings inspired him to learn to play the saxophone. In high school, he played tenor and baritone sax in the marching band. Threadgill mastered alto saxophone, clarinet, and flute while he performed with local rhythm and blues groups in his spare time. After a stint in the Army, he spent 11 years taking university courses, including flute, piano, and composition at the American Conservatory of Music and at Governors State University. "I was never interested in a degree," Threadgill confessed to Mandel, "I was interested in the catalog."
Playing gospel music while traveling the gospel circuit with church musicians and evangelists, Threadgill procured his first professional experience. He alternated his education with blues sessions on Sundays and jazz sessions on Mondays and performed in any mix of gigs—V.F.W. bands, marching bands, polka bands, and light classical orchestras—to earn his daily bread. Disenchanted with bebop, the prevalent jazz form of the early 1960s, Threadgill commented to Santoro, "Bebop couldn’t service me: it didn’t have anything to do with people standing up for their rights, it didn’t have anything to do with the Vietnam War, didn’t have anything to do with the Gray Panthers, the Black Panthers." The musician thus joined the free jazz movement, performing in a sextet with Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman as well as Phil Cohran’s Heritage Ensemble and Muhal Richard Abrams’s Experimental Band.
Threadgill has had numerous commissions and awards throughout. He has composed music for theatre, orchestra, solo instruments, and chamber ensembles. His works for large orchestras, such as "Run Silent, Run Deep, Run Loud, Run High" (conducted by Hale Smith) and "Mix for Orchestra" (conducted by Dennis Russell Davies), were both premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1987 and 1993 respectively. He has had commissions from Mordine & Company in 1971 and 1989, from Carnegie Hall for "Quintet for Strings and Woodwinds" in 1983 and 1985, the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1985, Bang on a Can All-Stars in 1995, "Peroxide" commissioned by the Miller Theatre Columbia University in 2003 for "Aggregation Orb", a commission from the Talujon Percussion Ensemble in 2008, a piece "Fly Fliegen Volar" commissioned and premiered at the Saalfelden Jazz Festival with the Junge Philharmonie Salzburg Orchestra in 2007, a premier of the piece "Mc Guffins" with Zooid at the Biennale Festival in Italy in 2004 to name some.
Threadgill, aside from being a remarkable alto saxophone player, is one of the most imaginative of jazz composers today. “He seems to be deliberately challenging the audience: My lyricism and mastery come complete with thorns and spikes, and I promise to yank the props out from under you,” quoted John Litweiler, longtime Down Beat jazz critic, in an article he wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times. Threadgill was one of the founding members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a Chicago group that was free-form, you might say, in its philosophy and approach. Peter Watrous of the New York Times described Threadgill as “perhaps the most important jazz composer of his generation.” Recent concerts in Chicago have led the local critics to speak of him as a revolutionary figure, altering the manner in which jazz itself is going. Said Howard Reich, jazz critic of the Chicago Tribune, “It would be difficult to overestimate Henry Threagill’s role in perpetually altering the meaning of jazz..…He has changed our underlying assumptions of what jazz can and should be.” – An excerpt from a chapter on Henry Threadgill in And They All Sang (2005) by Pulitzer-winning author and disc jockey Studs Terkel, a book about “forty of the greatest and most deeply human musical figures of our time”.
First part of Henry Threadgill and the Society Situation Dance Band.