Born: January 24, 1938 | Died: April 2, 1995 Primary Instrument: Sax, alto
Julius Hemphill - alto and soprano saxophone (1928 - 1995)
For over thirty-five years Julius Hemphill earned a reputation as one who broke down boundaries and defied labels. A prodigious composer who wrote luscious and shimmering sonorities with the ever-present tang of the blues, Hemphill was as comfortable writing for full orchestra as he was for his Sextet or Big Band. He composed for theater and multi-media productions and worked with some of this generation’s most acclaimed writers and choreographers who sought his unifying consciousness for collaborative projects. An improviser of immense talent and saxophonist who could coax the best out of any musical unit, Hemphill performed in almost every major jazz festival and hall in North America and Europe, including the Berlin, Montreal, Kool, Rome, Paris, Den Haag (North Sea), and Warsaw festivals.
Born in 1938, Julius Hemphill divided his attention between music and sports while growing up in the fertile musical environment of Fort Worth, Texas. He gained experience playing in local blues bands and jazz groups and began focusing on his musical career in earnest after moving to St. Louis in 1966. In 1968, Hemphill joined the Black Artists Group (BAG), playing an instrumental role in developing this interdisciplinary performance collective that included future World Saxophone Quartet members Oliver Lake (alto) and Hamiet Bluiett (baritone). In the early 70s, the composer recorded two albums, “Dogon A.D.” and “Coon Bid’ness,” that were later released on the Arista/Freedom label.
Hemphill moved to New York in 1973 to continue his dance on the edge of free jazz. In 1976, he became the founding member and principal composer/arranger for the World Saxophone Quarteta four-horn band which proved that saxophones could swing and sing without the support of a rhythm section. Hemphill’s performances with the WSQ can be heard on “World Saxophone Quartet Plays Duke Ellington” and “Dances and Ballads,” recorded for Elektra/Nonesuch, as well as “Rhythm & Blues,” recorded for Elektra/Musician.
After leaving the World Saxophone Quartet in 1989, Hemphill devoted more of his time to collaborative multi-media projects and expanded his compositional palette. The Julius Hemphill Sextet was first featured in Hemphill’s Long Tongues: A Saxophone Opera, a multi-media composition with dancers, actors, and slide projections, built exclusively on instrumental music and loosely based on the history of the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Club from 1943 to 1968. Developed from an earlier collaboration with District Curators and Malinke Robert Eliott, the work received its world premiere in Washington D.C. in 1989 and its New York premiere at the Apollo Theater in 1990.
The Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin: The Promised Land, composed for choreographer Bill T. Jones and featuring the Julius Hemphill Sextet, toured the United States and Europe with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Co. during the 1990-91 season to a chorus of raves. In 1991, Hemphill received a Bessie Award for each of his dance compositions, Long Tongues: A Saxophone Opera and The Last Supper At Uncle Tom’s Cabin: The Promised Land. (The Bessies, named for the highly regarded teacher of dance composition, Bessie Schonberg, are presented annually by Dance Theatre Workshop in recognition of outstanding achievement by a select few choreographers and performance artists.)
“Fat Man and the Hard Blues,” the Julius Hemphill Sextet’s recording debut, was released by Black Saint in 1992 and voted one of the top ten CDs of 1992 by Downbeat Magazine. Both “Live from the New Music Cafe,” featuring Hemphill’s unusual jazz trio collaboration with cellist Abdul Wadud and percussionist Joe Bonadio, and “The Oakland Duets,” featuring Hemphill and Wadud in duo, can be heard on the Music & Arts label. The 1992 December issue of Downbeat gave five stars to both Hemphill’s Sextet and Trio CDs. In 1994, JMT/Polydor KK released “Diminutive Mysteries” (Mostly Hemphill), a recording performed by one of Hemphill’s celebrated students, Tim Berne, and featuring compositions by Hemphill. In 1994, Black Saint released Hemphill’s second Sextet recording, “Five Chord Stud,” and in 1997 New World Records released “At Dr. King’s Table,” a CD of previously unrecorded Sextet music that Hemphill composed.
Recent commissions included “One Atmosphere (For Ursula),” a piano quintet premiered by the Arditti String Quartet and pianist Ursula Oppens in 1992, and “Plan B,” an orchestral work premiered by the Julius Hemphill Sextet and the Richmond Symphony in 1993. A Bitter Glory, a music-theater piece composed by Hemphill with libretto by New Orleans-based writer Dalt Wonk and commissioned by the Walker Art Center and the American Music Theater Festival, received a workshop performance in Minneapolis in December 1994. Hemphill had recently been commissioned by the Pacific Rim Players, with funds provided by the Meet The Composer Jazz Program, to write a new work for improvising ensemble (the Northwest Creative Orchestra), and pianist (Ursula Oppens). Julius Hemphill died on April 2, 1995. He was inducted into the Downbeat Hall of Fame later that year.
Source: Sobito Music