Born: February 15, 1944 Primary Instrument: Reeds
Threadgill first performed as a percussionist in his high school marching band before taking up the baritone saxophone and later a large portion of the woodwind instrument family. He soon settled primarily upon the alto saxophone and the flute. He was one of the original members of the legendary AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) in his hometown of Chicago and worked under the guidance of Muhal Richard Abrams before leaving to tour with a gospel band. He later served in the Army, where he played with a rock band.
Upon his return to Chicago he rejoined fellow AACM members Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall, forming a trio which would eventually become the group Air, one of the most celebrated and critically acclaimed avant-garde jazz groups of the 1970s and 1980s. In the meantime, Threadgill had moved to New York City to begin pursuing his own musical visions, which explored musical genres in innovative ways thanks to his daringly unique group collaborations. His first group, X-75, was a nonet consisting of four reed players, four bass players and a vocalist.
In the early 1980s, Threadgill created his first critically acclaimed ensemble as a leader, Sextett. The group actually had seven members: Threadgill, two drummers, bass, cello, trombone and trumpet. The seven albums the group recorded feature some of Threadgill's most accessible work, notably on the album You Know the Number.
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 and a drummer. 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.
By this time Threadgill's place amongst the upper echelon of the avant-garde was secured, so prolific in fact that 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, Zooid and Flute Force Four.
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.
He has been married to singer Cassandra Wilson and has a daughter with choreographer Christina Jones, a founding member of the Urban Bush Women Dance Company. Threadgill's daughter with Jones, Pyeng Threadgill, is an up and coming soul-blues artist with much of her father's flair for genre-bending experimentation.