RIDE IT, OR GO UNDER
HENRY THREADGILL AND JASON MORAN with George Grella and Raymond Foye
Jazz, at its best and most essential, is a way of making music that is embodied in the musicians, in what they are imagining and playing in the moment. A fundamentally oral tradition, and one of the most sophisticated of its kind, jazz is far less ably served by written and recorded documents than almost any other kind of creative human activity. Jazz is the players; know jazz by following them, seeing them, hearing them.
Jazz is also young enough still that the music’s family tree, and musical and historical memories, are embodied in children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren—by playing jazz, these generations are all related. And the music is related to America in the way we all are, in the rich, fraught, tragic, and hopeful history of slavery, migration, and expansion. We are all jazz people.
Two different generations of jazz musicians came into the Rail offices the day before Thanksgiving to speak with guest editor Raymond Foye and music editor George Grella: Henry Threadgill (born 1944) and Jason Moran (born 1975). Cumulatively, they have something like 75 years of making music, but their values and ideas hint at centuries more.
Threadgill—saxophonist, flutist, composer, and an original member of the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (A.A.C.M.)—has been exploring the 19th-century roots of American popular music, and transforming them into cutting-edge jazz thinking, through a series of ensembles: the avant-garde ragtime group Air, with bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall; the seven-member Sextett, with it’s colors of the blues and gospel; the electric Very Very Circus; the sadly obscure Society Situation Dance Band; the melodic, funky music he made with Make a Move; and his current ensemble Zooid, which plays his extraordinarily sophisticated and propulsive re-conception of counterpoint. His career is a realization of the motto of fellow A.A.C.M. members the Art Ensemble of Chicago, “Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future.” And he also holds the distinction of being the only avant-garde jazz musician to be featured in a national ad campaign, endorsing Dewar’s Scotch in print in the late 1980s.
The same is true for pianist Moran. Since his debut recording as leader, Soundtrack to Human Motion (1999), Moran has been recontextualizing ragtime, stride, and the blues by seamlessly and effortlessly mixing them with hip-hop and other contemporary pop music, classic pieces from Ellington and Monk, and Brahms and Schumann. His primary vehicle is his fantastic trio, The Bandwagon, with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, but he is also a frequent collaborator with musicians such as Greg Osby, Don Byron, Charles Lloyd, the late Paul Motian, and Dave Holland, and this fall releases his ninth Blue Note recording, ALL RISE: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller.
Moran first heard Threadgill’s music when his father brought home the Very Very Circus record, Too Much Sugar for a Dime (1993). More than just a listener and a fan, he has lately been collaborating with Threadgill, first as one of two pianists in Threadgill’s Double Up band, which debuted at the 2014 NYC Winter JazzFest with Threadgill’s large-scale piece in remembrance of Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris: Old Locks and Irregular Verbs, and as curator of Very Very Threadgill, a two-day festival presented at Harlem Stage in September: featured were new configurations of Air, the Sextett, Very Very Circus, and the Society Situation Dance Band.
George Grella (Rail): I was thinking, especially in light of the country we live in and things that have happened in the past couple days, I want to ask you first, what do you think about the idea of progress?
Henry Threadgill: In terms of like, music—
Rail: Social, cultural, historical.
Threadgill: Well, this incident in Missouri and this incident that just occurred in New York, in Brooklyn, where this young man was going down the stairs in a building and the lights were out—the thing is, that guy could have been any age and he could have been any ethnicity, but he was just a man in the dark. That could have been anybody. He could have been a woman, he could have been a cripple, it could have been anything, you know. But, the police department in terms of progress, when I put on the news and there are kids and adults in the streets in New Jersey and New York and in California marching about what took place, marching and crying and petitioning: It only works among protesters and the public, it has no effect on the police department. The police department has been working as police and not as servants to part of the community, to part of the ethnic community. In the white community the police are like public servants, but for everybody else, Chinese, Latinos, blacks, that’s not the case, and they have never addressed this issue. This has always been the problem, this has been going on for years and years and years. When you go back and look at the footage, when you go back, Governor Faubus, they turned dogs loose on people—those were black and white people that marched in the South. Look at the police, it’s always the police behavior.
When I grew up in Chicago, the bad things we did, just bad things, police would shoot at us. We were like 10, 11 years old and the police would shoot at us for breaking out windows or something. They didn’t shoot at kids across 59th Street that were doing worse things. So, the progress it’s—I don’t know what the idea of dialogue with the police department is and what that means. I think there’s a culture that we’ve let sit here so long and it’s grown exponentially into a monster. I think you have to tear the whole thing down because they’ve got all these blue walls and all these other things. I think you have to tear the whole thing down and start all over in the education of it. And people become more isolated. I remember, we grew up with police on the street. I lived in the Ninth Precinct. I could tell you the police over there don’t know one person in the community, now they’re all sitting inside their cars on their cell phones. The police used to the walk the streets in New York, in Baltimore, St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit and knew the people. They don’t know anybody, black or white. They don’t know anybody.
Jason Moran: On the way over, on WNYC, they had people call in about what happened, and this woman called in and was saying a similar thing where it’s difficult to have an officer work in a community they’re afraid of. So here this guy is walking down the stairwell with his gun drawn without knowing. With his finger on the trigger! There’s no reaction time to let your body even understand the situation before your feelings just pull the trigger so quickly.
Rail: Time goes on and things don’t change or things do change and ideas or the way that things are communicated doesn’t change.
Threadgill: Things have changed and the problem is the good will between the different ethnicities. You don’t remember this, but the United States was segregated. A lot of people, most people are confused about what segregation was in the first place. Most people think segregation had to do with black people. Segregation had to do with every ethnic group in the United States. Every ethnic group, every group in this country had their own unions. Tailors unions, bricklayers unions, Italian bricklayers, Polish bricklayers, German bricklayers, black tailors, Italian tailors.
Now, when you look at that, as a result of integration, the good will, the lines that broke down among the populace is a lot that’s happened. People have risen to a level of civility and are humane to one another and forming a leading sense of friendship. But, like I said, the institution of the police has remained outside of that and no one has ever looked at it. Not just that, the military too. They’re outside of it. So it’s very dangerous for them to send the National Guard. If you remember under Nixon at Kent State, that was the National Guard that shot and killed all those kids.
Rail: In those terms you’re talking about—the history of segregation—the music you guys make falls under the jazz genre, but is it better to say that you’re working in this broader African-American tradition, beyond the music?
Threadgill: It is broader. I can’t speak for Jason, but I don’t even know what that word means anymore: jazz. Words have lost their meaning. You have jazz festivals today, like the one they have in New Orleans, and you’re lucky if they even have one jazz musician on the bill.
Rail: At a certain point Miles Davis didn’t want to use the word jazz anymore because he was afraid it would be pigeonholed as an ethnic music, when the roots you work with are really broadly American.
Threadgill: They’re larger than America, they’re worldwide, they come from all over the world.
Moran: My generation’s entry point into music is a little different. Henry got to see the makers, the ones who made language, he was a part of making the language that my generation now has to look at and get inside of and try to find the meaning—attach the strings, so to speak. And the music does largely fall under that “jazz” umbrella, but it gets really strange because the music must be dependent on an awareness of yourself within your culture. How we as black folks understood who we were, is how the music sounded, and this understanding became encoded in the music for generations. So then as people across the globe engage that construct, they try to figure it out: how do we sit inside this framework? And sometimes what ends up happening is they consider the framework absent of the culture. As I travel the globe and talk to young players, it’s a little tenuous about where the urgency comes from that attracts you to the music. The urgency I hear in the A.A.C.M.’s music, the urgency I hear in Fletcher Henderson’s music or Chick Webb’s music. The urgency of James Brown: you feel it, it ain’t passive. That’s what made me say, “Oh I’m supposed to find my own way to be urgent in that place, because the word is now a very loose word.” People add “-y” to the end and say jazzy.
Threadgill: Can we get back to the root of it? Nobody knows anything about the root anymore!
Rail: In the music that both of you have made, it strikes my ear that the roots go back to the 19th century, to music that became a component with jazz, became identifiable with jazz but also went in a different direction as well. When I think about musical progress, there’s that kind of incremental progress that people make working within a genre—I’m going to add to the language, add a little bit more vocabulary that’s open-ended and exciting and stimulating and broad-based. You start from your precursors and then you jump over some preconceived notions. I absolutely hear that in everything both of you do, in different but parallel ways. But in either case even though you both work with very modern ideas, it seems to me that you can hear those early origins.
Threadgill: You can’t get around it. If you’re listening to Wagner and you can’t hear Bach, you’re not listening very closely. It’s that way in all the Western genres. The basic strong principles are going to be there. You’re going to hear the people that founded the principles. Not an imitation of their style, but the tribute to those principles. If it works there’s no reason to get rid of it. If you can use it as a construct in the moment, there’s no reason to abandon it. That’s what Jason has been doing and what I have been doing. Not only us, but everybody else. You have to listen closely to Cecil Taylor to hear what he was listening to and transforming. I worked with Cecil and I know what he was listening to. It’s no different than if you’re listening to Berio or Debussy, if you know enough about where they came from and their influences. You can see what Debussy was picking up from Indonesia, and how he put that on top of what he learned from Bach. You just have to dig deep enough and long enough and you can see the connections.
What a lot of people forget about is that historically black people in America are the latest thing on the planet! Because they aren’t Africans! It’s like Abbey Lincoln said, “I got some people in me, some black, brown, and beige.” My name is Threadgill, and there are 13 spellings of Threadgill. Everybody in this country is related to me that’s got that name. And most of the people in England and France are related to me that’s got that name. So, anybody that was in this country as an African, they then became a black. You can’t be exclusively concerned with any one kind of music, because you’re already a cross-culture. Eventually an artist is gonna start looking around and say, “Let’s get some of this Cuban or Chinese music.” Eventually you’re going to look across the border to different places. Anyway, it’s the history: this music was always looking for connections with everything in the Western world.
Raymond Foye: Several years ago they found the original manuscript to “St. Louis Blues,” which is often called the first composed piece in jazz, and they found that after the first 12 bar blues, it goes straight to a tango. So right from the start in this music you have a hybrid.
One thing we’ve been talking about in other interviews in this issue of the Rail, with electronic musicians, and painters and poets, is this whole subject of tradition, roots. We’ve been talking about the Harry Smith Anthology and Dylan, and also Coltrane and electric Miles, and everybody feels this weight of culture. It’s a flood of information, a glut. Young people go into appropriation because they think, “There’s so much in the world, why do we need to make anything new? Why don’t I just copy this painting? Why don’t I sample this?” The question is how do you engage tradition, how do you give it momentum, how do you make it new? What are your relationships to the tradition and the idea of making it new?
Moran: It’s a weighty subject. I might enter through talking about appropriation. There’s a group now called Mostly Other People Do the Killing that did an appropriative act where they copied Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. It’s more about the idea. But for my generation, the 1980s, the new thing in music was all these producers in New York, finding their parents’ records and going in and chopping and sampling James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Wes Montgomery. So that became the fabric of all great hip-hop in the ’80s and early ’90s, from the drum beat to the bass line, to the keyboard sample, to the horns. And so as a person who is growing up with that as a tradition, you make that not as the thing you put forth but you make that as the landscape. Now along comes Nas—Olu Dara’s son—and he grew up hearing Henry Threadgill’s music because his father played it, and all of Olu’s music, and now he says, “I can move it like this, and I have this story to tell about living in Queensbridge.” And so, that becomes a platform in a way, and I always thought that was a very creative way to look at music, even Afrika Bambaataa taking Kraftwerk’s monumental electronic music and making it something from the Bronx. So when people hear me playing “Planet Rock” they think I’m playing Kraftwerk. I’m like no, I’m playing Bambaataa!
Rail: And it’s not just the Bronx, it becomes this international, cultural thing.
Moran: Yeah, it is the “Trans-Europe Express.” It really is connecting it, so that’s part of my practice and it’s the thing that I’ve been trying to scratch at incessantly over and over again. Because there is this line between things, and it is a line that you can cross, or you could trip over the line and fall into the trap without understanding the connotations of what you’re making. I try to be very careful about that line: how to use a person’s voice, or how can I chop together people talking about jazz from say, Jelly Roll Morton to Richard Pryor, you know? And then putting them all into this sonic milieu of a bunch of samples from disparate sources, trying to make one cohesive statement.
For me, it’s also about texture. Within a composition in a group—and I have a very small group, it’s just piano, bass, and drums, mostly—there’s something about the sample entering invisibly when I play it from my MP3 or minidisk player, no one knows where it’s coming from. It appears, and there’s something about this invisible texture that comes and sits right in the middle of my music that I really like, and I like for an audience to kind of figure it out. Or even if I simply press play and we listen to Billie Holiday during my concert and it’s like, “okay let’s have a group listening experience around Billie Holiday, because we probably don’t do that as much as we should.” And we probably could all stand and listen to Billie Holiday together in a room silently and consciously know we’re listening in that moment. Not like, “okay, I’m gonna eat my dinner because Billie Holiday is playing in the background.” So I try to be really careful, and sometimes I trip and I fall, but I think that’s the nature of trying to touch texture in a way that you have to get your hands really dirty to see where it can go through.
Rail: When you play, you’re having an active dialogue with history. Especially Jason, you have this new Fats Waller record out.
Moran: I’ve always thought about the way people that I respect have touched the history. A saxophone [gestures to Henry] is playing Scott Joplin’s music, you know what I mean? So there’s something about the transfer, or trying to match the energy level, that’s something that I think about. Because history is to be touched. It’s all like a memory that you can also change, and none of our minds are made the same, and it’s not supposed to be objective. You’re supposed to share your views on what you think about. So Fats Waller for example, Fats Waller is a man more than he is a musician, he’s a man, he was a father, he was a lover, he was the son of a preacher, he was an alcoholic, and he was funny, he could play the shit out of the piano. He’s all these things. I don’t want to reduce him to just his records, and so I try to make a performance around him.
Rail: It’s one thing to listen to a Fats Waller record, but when you see a clip of him playing it’s that personality that’s musical too. It’s so expressive.
Threadgill: When you see artists, physically, that’s a whole other thing. It’s very powerful.
Rail: That is essential for what you’re doing Henry, because on record, the music is dense and vivid and abstract, and when you see the musicians making it work, the positive effort, you can see it being made.
Threadgill: It’s something about live music. I grew up that way. It was live music from the very beginning. Walking around on Maxwell Street in Chicago, standing right there with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, the power of that. Of going to church and seeing James Cleveland singing or talking, the power, the voices, always live. Sitting in front of the Chicago Symphony, oh my god! Always live, live, live. And, that’s one thing that’s always concerned me—I worry about musicians that don’t do that. You could lose something very important, if all you’re doing is listening to music and discussing it. Music is something we do, that people come to sit down in front of. Everybody is sitting at home texting and sending music to each other and all these kinds of things, but go and sit in front of a choir, or soloists, or hear a poet. When a poet writes his poetry it’s one thing, but go and listen to him deliver it.
Foye: Has the audience experience changed for you now that we’re in a digital age where people have all these distracting devices. Have you noticed a change?
Threadgill: No, because I have a small audience in the world. It’s an international audience, but it’s a small audience. They come to hear me play and that’s what they do.
Young people, I don’t know, I think there’s a positive side and negative side to technology. Not just now, but any time. I think right now, technology has created a bit of an overload. I get my inspiration for most things I do from looking at the world: from a tree to the bricks to precipitation falling outside the window, the condition of the atmosphere, watching people. I really watch people very closely. I get all of my information, mostly, if not from there then from reading science or reading mysteries. All of my information basically comes from looking at nature, seeing a tree and saying, god I never noticed that about that tree, I come back and the tree tells me something, the design, the light on it. All of this technology, you can do a lot of good things with it, but it’s a distraction and it’s a—
Foye: It’s a narcotic.
Threadgill: It’s the best thing since crack! It’s more powerful than crack. I think, because there’s so much there, it’s hard for young people to get focused. Because there’s just too much stuff, too many things to do.
Foye: Do you ever want to make a place for technology in your music?
Threadgill: When I’m creating I try not to have any kind of guidelines for material. I don’t really care what comes up.
Rail: Do you use any musical technology at all when you make music, even notation?
Threadgill: No, I don’t use it. I don’t have anything against it, I’m just not finished working with things that I’m still dealing with. I’ve done some electronic stuff. But, basically I’m not finished with acoustic yet.
Moran: That’s always been the trickiest, or the thing that I examine the most when I’m working around people like Henry or Andrew Hill, any of the people I’ve gotten to work with or talk with. What is their application process? That’s the biggest key, how are they getting from A to B? I remember one time, about five years ago, I called Henry and he said, “I’m thinking about Morse code [laughs], I’m making these pieces based on Morse code,” which is an old form.
Now for him to say it, it’s a very different thing than if I said it. His results are gonna be very different from mine. But in that same way, as far as touching technology, I also have just a little bit of trepidation. I need the piano, I need to hear the sound coming at me. Meanwhile 10 years younger than me is Flying Lotus, his application is this little box, he can do all of this with composition in a different way. I was like yeah, but I can’t get there.
Rail: At the same time you came out of working with this musical language that comes out of a technical process. You’re playing audio recording when you’re performing and there’s occasional uses of technology in your records, but you don’t have those origins of hip-hop without the ability to sample and splice all these things together. This is part of a generation of musicians that you’re in and that surround you.
Threadgill: Yeah, a lot of them don’t play instruments, but it doesn’t matter. You gotta make something, how’d you make it? You gotta write something, does it hold up? I don’t care where you touch it, how you do it, it’s gotta stand up. I don’t care that you didn’t go to film school, I don’t care if you didn’t play the piano, I’m not interested in any of those things. In the end, it’s about, how did you cook it? It’s all about creativity, how to create, it’s not about what the materials are, so don’t get sidetracked by that. In the end, when you put this meal down in front of me and it don’t taste good, don’t start talking about “I should have put in more cinnamon.”
I was out in Berkeley once and I did a little residency there in California, and the students that were studying electronic music wouldn’t come in because I didn’t know anything about what they were doing. I said, “I don’t need to know anything about what you’re doing, I’m here to talk about composition. Composition has nothing to do with notes or anything else. Now, what I’m getting ready to talk about, you don’t understand how something is arranged from left to right and put together, that’s what I’m talking about. That’s what I hold together.”
Rail: There is a common material that you guys are working with, which is harmony.
Threadgill: With notes as the language in itself.
Rail: There is this very idiomatic harmony that, Jason, you work in and against. And Henry, especially lately with the Zooid band, you’re constructing harmony on the fly with your compositional idea.
Threadgill: You hear a lot of harmony as a result.
Rail: You create the environment for the musicians to create.
Threadgill: I write contrapuntal music, contrapuntal music creates a whole lot of harmonies that you can’t account for. It’s like Bach. What is he talking about? A flatted-ninth, an augmented-eleventh? No he was not.
Rail: Because it relates to what happened before and what is going to happen.
Threadgill: It’s these independent voices, they create incidences that just come up, you don’t know what they are going to be.
Moran: I studied with Andrew Hill, and went to see him play at a club in midtown, and he told the audience, “We’re going to play a piece by Bach.” And I thought, “This is new,” and they played something, and I had no idea what it was. When I had my next lesson with him, I said, “You said you played this piece by Bach.” He said “Oh yeah,” and showed it to me, and he said, “Why don’t you play it?” So I started at bar one and he said, “Why did you start there?” And I was like “Oh shit, first lesson.” Then he said, “Now go to the middle of the second page,” and when I started playing he said, “Now play the left hand two beats later than the right hand.” So it is like your hands are playing in different time spaces. And then he explained later, he told everybody “I am not telling you where to start, or which direction to play it in,” but somehow listening to Bach that way, I realized this was some new beautiful version. The music could function in a way different from its original format but still all the elements were making sense with each other.
When I was still studying with Muhal [Richard Abrams] he would talk about rhythm as the start. He would say, “You can’t make a melody without making a rhythm first, you can’t get from one note to the next, as soon as you play one note and a year later you play the next note, that’s a rhythm.” And he said, “If you think about rhythm first, rhythm is the thing that helps make harmony make sense.” There were enough people who said those kind of things to me, about what harmony represents and how it can feel, that I knew there were a lot of other ways to approach it, especially on the piano, which has its own binding. I’m still trying to figure out the ways in which you can relate things to each other, but also trigger something else.
Rail: What’s it like, with that experience, to work inside Henry’s music?
Moran: It’s one of the great challenges, it’s one of the things that I love about playing music. Very rarely are you allowed into someone’s environment and then permitted to see how it works. Which is the great part about being a pianist, you can get into people’s bands, like, “Oh, I can kind of see the accompaniment part, and I can also see the melodic content.” You can really try to figure it all out.
But Henry’s work, the way it’s structured and the way it wants to shape some of your movements. It’s like you are a choreographer and you give your dancers the set of movements they can make. You can put them in any kind of order, and you can think about space and think about time as well, but these are still the movements.
Henry is also a master pianist, so the way he is writing things down is unlike anything I could come up with, but it is also the thing that I have been trying to pattern myself after for years. So it’s also good to finally see that this moves like this and it feels like this. It goes from here to here, and now my hand has to move here and you feel it in your body. That part to me is one of the great joys, when you hit it and you feel it!
Rail: From the standpoint of a listener that makes perfect sense because the contrapuntal idea, whether it’s Henry Threadgill or Bach, is this flow, flow, flow, and then there are the moments of magical stasis where everything coheres together, and it is a revelation.
Moran: I used to pick locks, this is my first time sharing this! [Laughter.] And there you had a similar system. I got this pick set for vending machines, and you talk about that moment when things align? The way the lock works is you have to hit each pin up to its appropriate point while slowly pressing in; the lock would have levers around the cylinder, and each one would push back separately. But when all of them reached their aligned point, then you could turn it open. And in Henry’s music it’s the exact same thing.
Rail: Even if that’s the end or immediately you are onto something else.
Moran: And sometimes you just got to reset. It’s the moment where you say, “I’ve got no fucking idea where I am! And I’ve got to pull off, I’ve got to hear again and find my bearings.” It happens, and there is so much moving around. You know, Henry, it’s like when you watch a typhoon, when water is swirling in the bayou, and you see the rush, but then you see the pools, these little whirlpools happening. That’s the water, that’s what starts to happen when things get cooking in Henry’s band and it’s like, “Whoa.” And you are trapped in it, ride it, or go under.
Rail: Henry, your technique, your structure is always moving to the top, not just moving around.
Threadgill: Because of the theoretical principles that I work from, everything is original, every alignment of every three notes is original, and it is different from probably any other. For some things, there is a Siamese twin, but C-E-G, and E-G-C, and G-C-E have nothing in common with each other.
Rail: You make them three different chords.
Threadgill: They are, they have nothing in common, period. Only they do in a major-minor system, because that’s the way the [diatonic] system is set up, and it makes sense that we would need tones, etc. But once you leave, once you go in a chromatic world, then those principles don’t work anymore.
Rail: You have been a bandleader for so long. Is that something that’s hard to do?
Threadgill: No, not really. Because it’s an evolving thing. You’re always learning, you know? A bandleader is a psychologist [Everyone laughs]. Case number two has to sit next to case number three! You get two guys that are just like oil and water, totally volatile. You have to control that. You have to make that thing work for you. Band directors are only successful because they are able to hold a number of people together and make them cooperate. You’ve got to have a history. That means if you don’t have a history, you weren’t successful at it.
Rail: That’s part of being a working musician, an essential part.
Threadgill: There are a lot of people who undertake this who don’t really know what it involves. You need to think carefully about this if you’re planning on doing this for a long time. It’s an obligation, and you need to start thinking that way. This guy, he didn’t show up. Now I got to deal with him. Do I want to lose him? Do I want him? Now I got to catch up with him and see how I can get him to do what I want him to do.
Rail: Jason, you discovered Henry’s music with the Too Much Sugar for a Dime record. So you first heard the Very Very Circus ensemble. And at the festival that was the first time you heard the Sextett?
Moran: Well, live.
Rail: There’s this big leap from the Sextett to the Very Very Circus. It’s like a whole new range of ideas. Plus it’s like Henry going electric.
Threadgill: Yeah, it was in a way.
Rail: Did your whole audience make that step with you?
Threadgill: I got a lot of new people, a lot of new people came on. But a lot of new people came on with every move. But you have to backtrack to Air. Only three ingredients: percussion, woodwind, and strings. I played a wide range of woodwinds and I thought in terms of strings, wind, and percussion. When I formed the Sextett, now I have brass, woodwind, strings, and percussion. The things that I could only imply with three people, when I moved to the Sextett, I could state outright. I had enough voices now, I had seven people, I could put anything up on the table. But you could join Air and Sextett because one is the extension of the other. When I finished with the last record, Rag, Bush and All, I had run the course of what I was doing, contrapuntally and harmonically, then I went over to Very Very Circus. The way I wrote music for the Sextett was not theoretically what I was doing when I went over to Very Very Circus. It had changed. It wasn’t just that initial mutation to the electric guitar.
Rail: The whole counterpoint idea changed, the rhythms that you wanted.
Threadgill: Yeah, the rhythms, all of that. I moved away from the bass and the cello, to two tubas. The difference was the sustain. The decay was different. The bow goes out and can hit a note and sustain it, right at the same level. And when he released it, the decay off the strings was different from tuba decay and the tuba blends with anything.
So the harmonic language had changed. I stopped Very Very Circus because I was completely at its end. The extension of the major/minor system—I had almost corrupted it, to a certain level. That’s when I started putting implants into the language. I planted so much stuff, then it had all these new things in it, then I said okay that’s it. There’s nothing else to do with it. I ran it as far as I could go. During that period I started doing my research. I started hearing another place I could go. But I had to work it out and that took a long time. It has always been that way.
Foye: How do you relate to your instrument, at the most basic level?
Threadgill: You are always renewing your connection, first of all. When you have the form, you’re going back to your best friend on the connection basis. You’re going to start practicing and doing everything else to get yourself reconnected so that it becomes an extension. You’ve got to do that or it’s going to be clumsy when it comes time to express something. You’ve got to go back and lock up with that instrument on the highest level that you can. The challenge of whatever the project is musically still puts you in a very difficult place to express yourself, because of what the music is asking you to do. And you know I say, “God, maybe I should have done some more gymnastics, me and my partner here, before we came out.”
Foye: I was reading an interview with Sviatoslav Richter recently and they asked him, “What do you do when you get to a concert hall and the piano is really bad?” Which would happen all the time in Russia. He said, “It just means I have to play that much better.” What a wonderful answer.
Moran: Yeah, the piano is different. Henry gets to carry his horns with him, gets to select his reeds. So he’s really touching the woman, the partner, he’s been with all his life. And each piano is, you really have to talk to it for a second. Or I do. I have to talk to it to see what kind of conversations it wants to have because not all of them want to say the same stuff. You might come with material. But, yeah, you have to play it that much better or find a way to get that phrase out. Or just say it’s going to be a new phrase, because they’re going to translate it differently. You know, she don’t really know what I’m talking about, because she’s from Australia. [Laughs.] My slang is different, but I think we can find a level of communication. And I enjoy the mystery of each piano and how they respond to the touch and what they want to say.
I have always felt that concert halls almost do a disservice to pianists because they try to get pianos that are mostly the same around the world, rather than allowing the pianist to really try something new. In Chicago I bought an old upright and I brought it up on the stage. I’m doing new pieces in Houston and I’m bringing my Spinet [piano] on the stage because it’s like we have a segregation of instruments, in the kinds of instruments that get on concert hall stages, and I think it is unfair also for audiences. Most people in the audience don’t have a Steinway D concert grand piano in their house. Their grandmother will have a Spinet, maybe an upright or a grand piano, but not a concert grand. So I enjoy that part because you can really play some down home blues on a nice raggedy piano.
Foye: And you’re making adjustments all along the way for each of the instruments.
Moran: Yeah, and that’s being an improviser. You know, there are all these stories about Art Tatum getting to pianos and skipping over notes because 10 of them don’t work.
Threadgill: He said to somebody who asked, “What do you do about playing on a piano without those notes?” He says, “Well, I don’t play those notes.” [Laughs.]
Foye: Jason, are pedals the same way?
Moran: Yes, but it’s less of an issue.
Foye: What’s your approach to pedaling?
Moran: Jaki Byard was my teacher, so we talked a lot about pedaling because he was pretty adamant about how to use pedals. First we started with no pedals. You should work on your touch and your legato first so that you don’t use it as a crutch to always get you around. The sustain pedal at least. But he was also a master of using the middle pedal. He would say it’s like choosing the kind of paintbrush you want. Whether it’s fine, or whether it’s wide, is it soft or is it hard? The pedals are the things that can really help sculpt your language at the piano.
Rail: Jason, you’ve played Schumann, Brahms. Is that part of your practice as a musician?
Moran: By virtue of my wife, Alicia Moran, a classical singer, when we met and started dating in college, she said, “You need to hear Lieder. You need to understand these stories, these narratives, how they set these pieces up. Watch how Brahms uses three notes in the lower part of the piano and make them massive.” That kind of voicing and registration. So by virtue of working with her all these years I have learned about the material of Alban Berg, especially these masses of mood, but also density. And we have a great respect for that tradition, what I kind of vaguely call “the darkness.” And how beautiful they make darkness sound. The way Muddy Waters makes the darkness sound, or Robert Johnson makes darkness sound. There’s something very special about that because not all people who are composers can get to that thing which resonates in most people who hear it.
Actually I heard a piece the other day, [pianist] David Virelles’s new record [Mbóko, ECM]. It’s called “The Scribe.” And after hearing that verdict [in Ferguson, Missouri] on Monday, I listened to David’s piece yesterday. I thought, he is hitting the mood that I need, that I feel.
Threadgill: Yeah, the Germanic composers cared about that heavy darkness.
Moran: Alicia and I talk a lot about her great uncle, a guy named Hall Johnson, who had these great choirs of all black singers who came to New York. They were all women. He was teaching everybody how to sing the spirituals. And he set those spirituals, and a number of other choral arrangers, H.T. Burleigh, even Hale Smith, the way that they would set their songs. There was this almost a shared language of how they set them. So when playing a Negro spiritual, like, a Hall Johnson arrangement of “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” or “Were You There?” or “Give Me Jesus,” he’s handling them in a way that Schumann sets “Auf einer burg.” They’re in the same dark territory, and the subject matter is in the same kind of territory of not knowing—like Schubert’s “Doppelgänger.” This place where we’re really not quite sure.
Threadgill: Brahms is one of my favorite people, too. When it comes to movement, to modulation, I never heard anybody who could move like that. When I first started, I said, “Oh, wow, you can do that?” I sat down and, when I saw the physicality of it, I didn’t even have to figure it out anymore. It took me somewhere else, you know, when I learned how to play, when I got a feel for it. Even Beethoven doesn’t move that way.
Rail: You guys are part of the generation, too, in American creative arts, that’s totally unselfconscious—I can take it or leave it from Europe or I can take it or leave it from here.
Threadgill: When you get to be a certain age—I remember as a young man I was learning so much about European music but I was only doing the same thing everybody else had done, James P. Johnson—your music develops from their keystones. Then I started looking further, I started listening to Kabuki theater music and watching it live. And then the Balinese music, I started getting into that, and then Cambodian music.
Rail: You worked with Harry Partch instruments on Hal Wilner’s Mingus tribute album, Weird Nightmare.
Threadgill: Oh, I loved that. I knew Harry Partch from way, way back, for years, and had even been out to the studio in Arizona. I knew about those cloud-chamber bowls and all the strange instruments, I was right at home with that.
Rail: When I think about the records that you appear on, not just those David Murray ensembles, but those Bill Laswell Material records. And this year, Wadada Leo Smith, Great Lakes Suite, you incorporate such an extraordinarily broad range of musical experience.
Foye: Do you enjoy being a sideman? Does it give you more freedom? Is the question wrong?
Threadgill: I haven’t really been a sideman for years and years. And that was never my intention in New York. I always picked. I played with Howard McGhee, who had an amazing influence in my life, Cecil Taylor, right, and Mario Bauza. Mario Bauza was a master composer, arranger. And then I did all those side projects, like Sly and Robbie’s Rhythm Killers with Bill Laswell. See, I played in blues bands in Chicago. I played in rhythm and blues bands. That’s what I did because nobody would hire me to play in a jazz band. [Laughter.]
Rail: Especially the jazz you wanted to play, right?
Threadgill: No. I was in polka bands and everything else. I played in jazz bands, blues bands, polka bands, marching bands. And concert bands, some small orchestras. Playing flute, and later, bassoon. So I had a lot of experience in terms of different types of music and different types of partners. I played for years with the Dells. I would stand in my corner.
Foye: But you didn’t look down on that music.
Threadgill: I would never do that. I always knew that that was wrong. You could be putting a curse on yourself.
Rail: You were a working musician and the way to be a working professional musician was not just to be able to play everything, but to pay respect.
Threadgill: Yeah. I didn’t play music that I didn’t believe in and respect. I said, “Give that to somebody that respects it.” I wouldn’t do that, never would do something like that.
Rail: For a lot of younger jazz musicians, the way you learn to be a musician is very different now. There’s a more institutional background to it so you’re not having the gigging situation.
Moran: Well, for some people. I mean, the ones that actually get out here on the scene, I think they figure out how to work and where to work, who to work with. A lot of my friends are now also doing tours with Rihanna and Beyoncé, Kanye—
Rail: It’s a way to make a living.
Moran: Yeah. So they figure out that there are a lot of modes of operation and just playing a quartet in a little club is not the only way. Because we also like that music, too, you know. Good musicians figure it out and good musicians stay open to situations. I spend half my time working with visual artists and video artists, performance artists, choreographers or directors. It’s almost like part of my life is in jazz venues, but a lot of my other life is actually—is working in these other situations that are as varied as all the groups he just mentioned.
Threadgill: It’s the same thing. You have to figure out how to live economically and to use what you know and not have to do something else, go shovel snow or drive a truck. How can I still play music? Who can I play with? Because you don’t want to do a disservice to somebody else’s work. Just because you have the skill to do it, you shouldn’t do it. Don’t do it if you don’t mean it. Eventually people will hear it anyway. You’ll never make a statement in it if you’re not in it. There’s no getting around that. I enjoyed making everything I did. I played with James Chance and the Contortions, and the Blacks. I was in both bands! [Laughs.] When he was jumping off the stage into the audience, boom, getting beat! I loved it.
Foye: And wouldn’t you say that if somebody loves a certain music, I mean, than that in itself justifies it.
Threadgill: Because you know, nothing is going to suit everybody. People want to sit up and watch that—fine. And that’s an example of real democracy. There’s something I hate that I think is absolute crap, but I think people have a right to go and look at the crap.
Foye: I think one thing that is similar with jazz musicians coming on the scene is similar to art students coming on, artists coming on the scene, is they’ve both been to schools. And that’s a good thing and a bad thing.
Moran: Yeah. Yeah. Hopefully the institutions have great teachers. If you have a great teacher, then you can really get some seeds planted, you know? I had Jaki Byard. He was an awesome teacher, not a finger-wagger, but he knew how to tell me about history so that after I finished studying with him, in my later years, I could still go back to those lessons.
Foye: What do you try to impart to your students?
Moran: That they have to figure out the application. Considering their genetic makeup, how they were raised in their home—that has something to do with the decisions that they can make musically and that they shouldn’t cut off those decisions. Those are part of their natural personality and what we need is personality in music. So I make a decision when I play that’s partially about what I think and partly what my teachers think, but it’s also how my mom showed me something or said something to me or how I listen to her. Like, that’s part of what you’re hearing. You might not think it’s there, but it is there. They have to acknowledge that part of their history and if they acknowledge it, then they’ll want to investigate their own culture and then they’re going to find everything they need—they will find everything. But they have to consider it as a main resource, it’s secondary to my Charlie Parker record. Nah, motherfucker, it’s primary to your Charlie Parker record! You know, those things will be together. And if you can find the place to put them all together, then those are the people that I’m attracted to, no matter what form of work they make.
Rail: The amount of history that comes through in your playing, was that something that you consciously pursued, did it come to you through studying with Jaki Byard, or through what matters to you?
Moran: It is an outgrowth of working with Jaki Byard, because he had his respect from someone like Earl Hines. They would play duets together. He had this respect from people all across the scene, and he didn’t seem to—he wasn’t necessarily ostracized because he also was able to change that—what he played, too. So it wasn’t so simplistic and—
Rail: How he’s always modern, but he’s giving you the tradition that he’s modern inside.
Moran: I watched that. Every Monday we’d sit down 2 p.m., and he’d show me: you can move it like this.
Rail: He seemed to be a very, very, powerful, beautiful personality.
Moran: Yeah, very old school. And very crazy, too. And his passing, his murder, I considered like in those Kung Fu films when your master is murdered and you spend the rest of your life avenging your master. I’m here to maintain his legacy and his excellence, that’s my mission: to say his name through the music over and over again, consciously, for people to hear it in the audience. Because he was gone before I really properly had a moment to say thank you. So he always sits there for me like that.
Rail: I want to ask you about time—time in your work, time in music, also that timeline idea in tradition. Where do you see what you’re doing musically on that kind of timeline?
Threadgill: I don’t really think about it. When you’re making something you get so self-absorbed—you’ve got to be self-absorbed or it ain’t going to happen in the first place—that you stay there exclusively in that place until it’s done. You don’t even think anything outside of it, or how it works outside of those rules. You know what I’m saying? There are things that a person might say in retrospect about a work, but generally when you’re doing it, you can’t get to that place to step outside of it, you’re so engulfed in the middle of the creation of it. It’s a luxury to sit on the side and think about it.
Moran: I want to continue that. That is what it takes. Almost like not trying to consider it where it falls in the line, because you hope, if it’s good enough, it’ll sit somewhere. If you make something that can last, that’s difficult enough to do, just to get to the point where you can say that this is going to be worth listening to in 15 years from now, let alone 70, 100, you know, 200 years from now. Like we’re still listening to Henry Purcell, or John Dowland, that music is killing it!
Threadgill: You have geniuses, people who have genius qualities, not just one quality, but a lot of qualities, they can kind of foresee things in existence. They have some kind of firing mechanism in them that allows them to see a little bit into the future.
Moran: I watched a part of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s TV documentary, Cosmos, where he tries to set a scale of how big time is. And he says this little bit right here is the last 2,000 years. You know, like a tiny bit. And it actually lessens pressure for me if I think about it in that way: this is all passing. This shit ain’t supposed to be forever. And then each moment that you get a chance to share music with an audience or with people, musicians—you better love that moment! Because to actually try to have that again, given how time goes, it won’t come around again. It’ll be useful in a different way. You’ll be fortunate enough if you can enjoy it the first time.
I lose myself in sometimes trying to consider that. But only recently, I’ve been thinking about things like legacy. I have children. Thinking like, oh, you know, how will they look at the things that my wife and I leave behind or how we look at the things her parents, my parents leave behind.
Threadgill: You don’t know what’s going to happen with it. You can’t predetermine that. Things change so rapidly from generation to generation, especially now. Our cultural behavior had been pretty consistent up until very recently, until about the late 1980’s, going into the ’90s, when we suddenly had this group of people we described as yuppies. Yuppies defined a whole other aesthetic.
Rail: Do you ever listen to your own records?
Threadgill: Very little. I listen to them at first when I make them. I have to because I’m always involved in the mix. But after we get it mixed, I don’t put it on unless somebody comes by and asks me to play it or something. At the Harlem Stage, some people told me, “Henry, the flute part on so-and-so was incredible!” I’ll say, “I didn’t even remember there was a flute part to the song. That’s nice.” [Laughter.] Because I never really listened after that. After we get it right, it’s completely right, we turn it over to the record company, I don’t really listen to it anymore.
Moran: It’s like the egg has been fertilized. Once it hits the public, that’s on them now. But yeah, it’s that moment after you’ve recorded it and you decided you can finally hear this thing that you’ve been mulling over for however many years. I listened to my last record incessantly as I was trying to get the mix right, but now I’m thinking about the next record.
Threadgill: You have several reasons why you listen. You listen to learn something. You listen for a type of entertainment. Well, I can’t imagine sitting up there and listening to myself. It’s a little bit too much. I can’t say that about anyone else—I’m only talking about me. Elliott Carter told me, “Henry, when I finish a piece of music, I don’t even want to see it anymore.” That’s pretty drastic.
Rail: Let me ask you about something more specific, from the universal to the particular, about the time in your music. I read something the other day that Robert Ashley was talking about—
Threadgill: I love Robert.
Rail: —he was talking about timeline music and how there’s this breakthrough still [waiting] for music that gets outside the timeline. For him, timeline music is one measure after another, and music exists in time, but you get the changing time through changing pitch and harmony. Jazz seems to me, improvised music, a place where there’s a lot of possibilities to get outside of the timeline or even combine the change through time with the sensation, listening, that time is static. I think it happens in Henry’s music because you narrowed the harmony down to such lean counterpoint.
Threadgill: See, it’s the improvisation where everything breaks. That really can get you outside, because there’s less control over the organization right there. You’ve got all these things that are happening that are organized, but as soon as you hit improvisation—and it will vary from group to group and the type of music—once you hit improvisation there’s the possibility for things to come up, and impossible things. All kinds of things can happen there, both controlled and almost uncontrolled. That’s the moment when things can really change. That’s the power of improvisation. That’s what I really like about improvisation.
Foye: Do you consider improvisation to be composition?
Threadgill: Uh, no. No. It has all of the characteristics and things of composition, but composition is with forethought.
Moran: There’s so much out there, now you can listen to any band online. You can listen to their long improvisations. But before any of this existed, I think about hearing Trane play at the Vanguard, and Trane played this 30-minute solo! I often think about what was it like to be in the audience and check a 30-minute solo out? Feeling time in that way versus listening to it on the record. I can see this track is 27 minutes and I’m in minute 14. I think about those relationships because body maps time, every person maps it differently. I try to keep that in mind for people.
Threadgill: I’m always concerned about time, and what I understand about our attention span. Whatever you’re doing, you’re going to lose if you don’t recognize the attention span of the audiences. I don’t care what you have, it’s not going to go over. Our attention span has gotten shorter, and you have to be cognizant of that. Europeans, that’s a different audience. Their attention span is longer than Americans’ span. And in other parts of the world, in India and other places, their attention span is far longer. There’s no comparison, even.
So when I think about programming music and writing music, I have to always keep that in mind. When I first thought of this time idea, I didn’t process it that way, but listening to Jason talk about it, I said, I always consider that. You got to think, I’m going to be losing them at this point. Don’t go too far. You can’t bombard people with too much sound and visual stuff and think that you’re doing something. You’re getting no returns.
Moran: I saw Muhal play at Kennedy Center. He played an hour and ten minutes straight. I saw him before the show and he said, “I am really concerned because, how am I going to play this stuff? Most people, they don’t get all this, but I’ve got to give it to them and I know it’s going to take them some time to get it. But I don’t want to wear them out.” And then he mapped out, somehow, this brilliant hour-and-ten-minute piece with his quintet. Fucking magic. And it came full circle. And that’s that part about not necessarily being a thing based on measures that as a listener I thought he did so brilliantly. I listened and watched the whole thing—magic.
I’m going to the Vanguard tonight. I’m going to see Henry at the Vanguard. Audience comes in, music playing, we’re all having our conversations. Lights go down. Henry and his band walk on stage. We take a deep breath and then the music starts. And then we have to get accustomed to like, okay, I’m hearing this in here now. And then it takes time for all of us to kind of calibrate ourselves in this environment together. It’s magic. That’s why people still go to the theater, because that happens to every person in there, whether you’re working backstage, on the stage, in the audience, the usher—that moment when it’s just about to—every molecule in here is about to change, from what’s about to happen for a long period of time, we’re going to basically meditate together in darkness. This is a beautiful thing.
GEORGE GRELLA is the Rail’s music editor.Raymond Foye
Raymond Foye is a writer, publisher, and independent curator who lives in New York. He is currently organizing an exhibition of the work of West Coast artist and filmmaker Jordan Belson for Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, in May 2019.