New York — Henry Threadgill returns to the Newport Jazz Festival Saturday for the first time since winning the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in music for his six-part composition “In for a Penny, In for a Pound.” With him will be Zooid, the ensemble with whom Threadgill recorded the complex work, which incorporates a unique blend of counterpoint and structured improvisation. But when interviewed in Manhattan recently, Threadgill hadn’t decided how much of that music they would perform this weekend.
“It could be the recent stuff, but then it might not be,” he muses, seated at an outdoor table at an Italian coffee shop down the block from his home in the East Village. “It will probably be a mixture. I think it’ll be some stuff from the last record, but we have a lot of material. And we always redo all the material anyway. Once we play things, we look for other ways to do it.”
In the notes to “In for a Penny,” Threadgill had written, “I intended for this to be played in chamber-listening spaces,” but that doesn’t rule out a performance at Newport.
“Oh yeah, we could still do it,” he says. “I’ll do those environments, but I’m not crazy about them at all. The public is distracted. The whole atmosphere is distracted because it’s open. It’s like sitting here. You’re looking at me, but then there’s all this stuff going past. In a concert hall, everybody’s sitting. Everything’s stopped. There should be cellphones off. People can just listen, you know? I know that’s getting to be old hat: ‘Just listen.’ ”
Threadgill, 73, moved to New York from Chicago in 1975 and is popular with his neighbors, judging by the several who stop to greet him as we talk. He credits Chicago with helping shape his eclectic approach to music.
“Everything was on the radio,” he recalls. “So I was listening to Tchaikovsky on the radio, and I didn’t judge it. I just liked it. Mexican music came on, Serbian music came on, Polish music came on. . . . Who cares? Muddy Waters come on, nobody cared. I liked it, you know? That was the end of that.”
Boogie-woogie piano was a particular favorite. “Albert Ammons would come on playing, and I would just sit there and wait in the afternoon,” Threadgill says. “I was like 2½, 3. So I’d sit there and wait, and then they’d come on and I’d try to get it. Taught myself to play boogie-woogie. My hands were very small — you can imagine, 3 years old. But I got it. Some of it I couldn’t do, but I learned how to play a lot of stuff.”
He studied saxophone and clarinet in high school, and while in junior college hooked up with the nascent AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) and founding members Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, and Joseph Jarman. He took up gospel music, switching from tenor to alto saxophone in the process, and toured with charismatic evangelist Horace Sheppard. He survived a perilous tour in Vietnam with the Army, his “blasphemous” arrangement of patriotic music earning him immediate reassignment from musician duty stateside to infantryman in Pleiku during the Tet Offensive.
When he returned to Chicago, Threadgill made a good living playing parades and other music in the city’s various ethnic neighborhoods.
“I was playing in about three, four parades a month, and paying all my bills,” he recalls. “When I came to New York I was highly disappointed. The rent was higher. They were making less money up here than we were making in Chicago on little simple things.
“But that’s why I played in Polish bands. Playing polka, all kinds of bands. I can’t even tell you all the bands: small concert bands, little groups and stuff. It was a good learning experience. I just saw music as an open-ended thing.”
Threadgill persevered in New York, and in 1988 New York Times critic Peter Watrous described him as “perhaps the most important jazz composer of his generation.”
Pianist Jason Moran, who’ll also perform at Newport and played in Threadgill’s new Ensemble Double Up on the 2016 album “Old Locks and Irregular Verbs,” argued in a recent radio profile that “Henry Threadgill is the best composer that there is, period.”
In part, that’s because Threadgill embraces music of all sorts, from Scott Joplin and Ornette Coleman to Stravinsky and Schoenberg.
“Threadgill has always been a master synthesizer who pulls it all together,” Moran e-mailed from Rome. “He creates sounds so unique for his ensembles that no one ever dares try to copy it.”
Threadgill has had several great ensembles perform that music with him through the years. But the best of them, he says, is Zooid.
Beyond being talented, the band members — Liberty Ellman, guitar; Jose Davila, tuba and trombone; Christopher Hoffman, cello; Elliot Humberto Kavee, drums and percussion — demonstrated unusual commitment by rehearsing together for months and months before any paying performance beckoned.
“I promised zero,” says Threadgill. “They could come in and learn this system that I had, and that was that. But we did this every week. For a year, see? Well, now try doing that. Try getting some musicians to come do something for a year and see how long you keep ’em.”
NEWPORT JAZZ FESTIVAL
At Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., Aug. 4-6. Tickets at www.newportjazz.org
Bill Beuttler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.