(Something Right in the Universe Dep’t): Henry Threadgill Awarded Pulitzer Prize

Credit:  Pulitzer Board / Handout

Photo: Pulitzer Board / Handout

We humans are happy because yesterday Henry Threadgill was awarded this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Music.

At the Pulitzer site, Threadgill’s “In for a Penny, In for a Pound” (released in May, 20015, on Pi Recordings) is referred to as “a highly original work in which notated music and improvisation mesh in a sonic tapestry that seems the very expression of modern American life.”

That’s savvy analysis, and it’s a relief to hear the “American-ness” of music from an African American composer with strong roots in jazz invoked as something beyond “the democracy of improvisation” or the “cry of freedom.”

Still, I hear in Threadgill’s music, and especially in light of the range of his influences, the very expression of life here on earth, period.

Threadgill is never at a loss for words. (Cornetist Graham Haynes posted on Facebook that Threadgill could have won a Pulitzer simply for his song titles.) In Nate Chinen’s news piece in today’s New York Times, here’s Threadgill’s pull-quote:

“I create what I create. When I’m fortunate enough to create a work, that’s the end of it in my mind. Where it’s placed, where it goes, what people say about it, that is really not my department. I’m in Lingerie, I’m not in Hardware, you know?”

Howard Reich, writing in the Chicago Tribune, heralded Threadgill’s award as “another blow against the classical monopoly that has been in place from the very first music Pulitzer, awarded in 1943 to the great composer William Schuman for his ‘Secular Cantata No. 2, A Free Song.'”

When I spoke with Prize Administrator Sig Gissler in 2004 for a Jazziz column, Gissler explained from the Pulitzer office at Columbia University, “The truth is, we really don’t get very many submissions from jazz composers – or for pieces written for film and theater. And that’s something we’d like to change.”

Witness the official statement his office released in June, 2004, bearing the title, “It’s Time to Alter and Reaffirm.” Declaring that the board wishes to “consider and honor the full range of distinguished American musical compositions,” the statement notes that “many composers move among those various forms … the Music Prize competition should reflect that artistic richness.” So a number of changes have been made to guidelines to entry — some semantic, others quite practical.

The qualification “for distinguished musical composition of significant dimension by and American” was revised, dropping the phrase “significant dimension” (which, apparently for some, implied orchestral work). The requirement for “first performance in the United States during the year” was changed to “performance or recording”; this benefitted jazz and other composers who don’t have the luxury of an orchestral commission or booking with which to qualify, and for some of whom recording is the primary method of reaching audiences.

Pulitzer consideration longer requires a score, however one is “strongly urged.” (In 1997, the wording had been changed to require “a score of the work’s non-improvisational elements; this new change is seen to embrace a wider range of compositions, and to affect jurists consideration of submissions without scores.)

Through the selection of Threadgill, the Pulitzer board has acknowledged a vital and primary influence—not just for jazz but for anyone composing music in this day and age. Yet more than that they were honoring the idea behind their award. What a great composer does, more than anything else, is create his or her own world. If they are successful, we’re all just living in it.

When I wrote about “In for a Penny, In for a Pound” last year in the Wall Street Journal (along with Steve Coleman’s “Synovial Joints,” here’s how I began:

http://www.wsj.com/articles/in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound-and-synovial-joints-reviews-1433974776?KEYWORDS=LARRY+BLUMENFELD

Those who pine for a new “big idea” in jazz—one that lends the music’s next chapter a catchy name—miss what’s going on.

Radical thinkers—seeming outliers—are today’s prime movers. If this has been the case throughout much of jazz’s history, what is different today is that such innovators no longer beget clear schools that gain popularity, such as bebop or even free jazz. Jazz’s forward flow is not well measured by stylistic monikers and pop-culture breakthroughs, but rather through profound ripples of impact. The most influential musicians now suggest less about how jazz should sound or be sold and more about how meaningful musical possibilities may be awakened within the context of jazz tradition.

On those terms, two musicians— Henry Threadgill, 71 years old, and Steve Coleman, 58—loom especially large. Messrs. Threadgill and Coleman have achieved masterly and original voices as instrumentalists (both play alto saxophone; Mr. Threadgill is also a flutist). Leading unconventional ensembles, both are starkly authoritative yet also warmly nurturing presences. Most significantly, each has successfully met one of jazz’s central challenges: to synthesize the acts of composition and improvisation through personalized yet rigorous approaches to structure and form. Each has crafted and stuck to a unique process that can’t really be imitated but can be shared.

The esteem with which Messrs. Threadgill and Coleman are held within jazz’s ranks is hard to exaggerate. Pianist Jason Moran, who discovered Mr. Threadgill’s music in his father’s record collection and began performing with him last year, told me in an interview, “Henry is the best living composer, hands down.”….

and here’s some more from that piece:

Musicians call Mr. Threadgill’s music demanding, yet it sounds utterly organic—mutable as the patterns of a good conversation or of cloud formations. Rhythms are forceful yet slippery, like a wave’s undertow. Harmony and counterpoint sound novel, a product of Zooid’s unusual instrumentation (a quintet including tuba, cello and acoustic guitar) and Mr. Threadgill’s strategy of assigning specific intervals to guide each player’s improvisations. Mr. Threadgill’s liner notes cite each piece as focused on a different instrument, yet his music’s nature defies such analysis. Despite its name, “Dosepic (for Cello)” is highlighted by Elliot Humberto Kavee’s brilliantly melodic trap-set playing and by an astoundingly lovely and articulate passage from Jose Davila’s tuba. You can home in on, say, guitarist Liberty Ellman at any moment and sense the full logic of any piece: The music here is born of group communion. And yet Mr. Threadgill’s playing—full-throated and ripe on alto saxophone, airy yet declarative on flute and bass flute—best defines its essence, often through short fanfare-like bursts or a judicious single note….

Mr. Threadgill’s new recording opens like an old song joined in progress. Mr. Coleman’s ends like a delicious question not fully answered. Both musicians seem on endless quests that have slowly but also permanently urged jazz along.

Pultizer aside, Threadgill has since moved on. So have I. I’m currently listening to his new release, “Old Locks and Irregular Verbs” (Also on Pi). You should be, too. Here’s my account of hearing that music as played live, in premiere.

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