SFJAZZ.org | NEA QA Henry Threadgill

On The Corner Masthead

2021 NEA JAZZ MASTERS:
A Q&A with Henry Threadgill

April 15 2021 | by Richard Scheinin

Henry Threadgill at Herbst Theatre during the 28th San Francisco Jazz Festival, Ocober 3, 2010.

Continuing a series of conversations with 2021 NEA Jazz Masters, SFJAZZ Staff Writer Richard Scheinin speaks (below) to Henry Threadgill, the saxophonist and composer. Threadgill is one of this year’s four NEA honorees. In advance of the NEA Jazz Masters Online Tribute Concert on Thurs. April 22, Scheinin already has posted conversations with 2021 Jazz Masters Albert “Tootie” Heath and Terri Lyne Carrington, as well as with saxophonist Miguel Zenón, the concert’s Music Director. (The show is a co-production with SFJAZZ.) In the coming days, Scheinin will post his conversation with 2021 Jazz Master Phil Schaap, the jazz historian and radio deejay.

For Henry Threadgill, music is an expanding proposition. As a saxophonist, flutist, bandleader, and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, he is constantly probing, changing — always moving toward his next destination. No wonder he named one of his bands “Make a Move” — it’s what he’s been doing all his life.

Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, he taught himself boogie-woogie piano at age three and became immersed in the music of his home town: parade bands and polkas, the blues of Muddy Waters, the gospel of Mahalia Jackson. In the 1960s, he came under the wing of the influential pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, who co-founded the AACM — the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Its approach was universal: Open yourself to all music, but then be yourself. Henry Threadgill took that message to heart. He made his living in blues bands and marching bands, and he toured the country with Horace Shepherd, an evangelist from Philadelphia who preached the gospel at tent meetings and in sanctified churches.

He also met the European composers Paul Hindemith and Edgard Varèse. Threadgill opened his musical imagination to their world, too. Traveling to India and Venezuela, he says, he attuned himself to the way people walk, to the rhythm of the languages they speak, even to the spices they put in their food. Mysteriously, all this brings a certain flavor to Henry Threadgill’s music. Since moving to New York in the 1970s, he has led one singular band after another: Air, his Sextett, Very Very Circus, Zooid. He always surprises, loading his ensembles with tubas, guitars, cellos, and French horns — and putting notes together with the precision and intuition of a poet. Always extending his musical language, always making a move, Henry Threadgill is one of a kind. He finds inspiration everywhere, and when he picks up his horn, his life experiences come pouring through.

A member of the 2021 class of NEA Jazz Masters — along with Albert “Tootie” Heath, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Phil Schaap — Threadgill, 77, recently answered the phone at his home in New York City, where he has lived since the 1970s. It was a joy to speak with him; Threadgill exudes good humor, curiosity, and profound appreciation for his life in music. In an hour-long conversation, he told some wild tales about his youth in Chicago: watching Sun Ra’s band rehearse in a Greek meat market, with bears and raccoons hanging overhead; or standing face to face in a phone booth with John Coltrane, who smoked skinny cigars while grilling 16-year-old Threadgill — practically choking on the cigar smoke — about his musical opinions. Mostly, Threadgill declared the power of music. As a teenager and young man, he was a music omnivore, spending his nights in concert halls — sitting directly in front of conductor Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — and in jazz clubs, standing in front of the bandstand as Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Gene Ammons, and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis filled the room with sound. “The power of that,” Threadgill said, absorbed in the memory. “Every night… Right in front… That will transform you.”

Henry Threadgill with Air at Keystone Korner, San Francisco, 1979. (photo by Brian McMillen)

Q: Tell me about growing up on the South Side of Chicago. How did it shape you as an artist?

A: South Side of Chicago — it was a wealth of everything. All of the music was on the South Side. All of the greatest music was there: Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Nat King Cole, Louis Jordan, Count Basie, Duke Ellington. All that was on the South Side. When I was a teenager, when I first started playing, I went down to the musicians’ union with a friend who played trumpet, and we just pulled out our music book and started running through it. And these grown guys, they were shocked: “Man, you all can read music like that? We’ve got work for you.” It was so many clubs and ballrooms and theaters where they played music on the South Side. So right away, we could work.

Incredible place to be, and it was a whole different time. That was a time when nobody had keys, because nobody locked their doors. You’d sleep outside in the park, sleep on the lake; nobody bothered you. Nobody robbed you. It was quite a different time.

Q: Can you describe the parades you saw as a child? Do you remember the thrill of it? Did your parents carry you on their shoulders so you could have a better view?

A: Oh, yes. The biggest Black parade in America is in Chicago. It’s called the Bud Billiken Parade. You saw everybody at that parade, everybody from Roy Rogers to Gene Autry to Greta Garbo, Count Basie, Duke Ellington. All the film stars: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin. And all of the bands. The thing was, it was like a competition, too, among the marching bands. And the greatest, the most powerful, and the most memorable bands were the bands that had all these bad kids in them, from the reformatory schools, like St. Charles. St. Charles is almost a penitentiary place. And these were the greatest bands you ever heard in your life. We’d be lined up the street there; we’d be waiting! You could hear them blocks away, and people would say, “That must be St. Charles comin’!” There’d be five, six bands passing, and they’d be playing so much rhythm on the drums.

Duke Ellington and band at Chicago's Bud Billiken Parade, 1933

Q: It made a strong impression on you.

A: I made my living playing in marching bands — the Shriner’s, the VFW, you name it. Chicago’s different. It’s not like New Orleans where they’ve got this African, Caribbean, Black parade tradition. In Chicago — remember, it’s the most segregated place in America. That was the reputation, right? So that meant that every community — Italians, Greeks, the Jewish community, every community like that — there would be all kinds of parades. And who put these on? The politicians, so they could go to the people and tell them stories — tell them bedtime stories, so they could get their vote. “Everybody gets a chicken! Everybody gets a milkshake if they vote for me!”

So I did that until the time I moved to New York. I played two or three parades a week and I could pay my rent and everything.

Q: You supported yourself by playing in marching bands — until you moved to New York in the ‘70s?

A: That’s right.

Q: Tell me about church. Did you sing or play saxophone in church as a kid?

A: Just singing. My grandmothers went to two different churches and we kind of followed them. There was Olivet Baptist Church on 31st and what is now King Drive; that street was called South Park. And Joseph Jackson, the minister, was head of the National Baptist Convention. That was the biggest Black church on the South Side.

And my other grandmother went to a sanctified church, Church of God in Christ. There was a minister there named Rev. Charles.

And there was another church; the name escapes me. But Dinah Washington was over there, and Leroy Jenkins (the violinist, later a member of the AACM). And Sam Cooke may have been over there sometimes — Sam Cooke, the Pilgrim Travelers. Chicago was incredible, the wealth of artistry and talent.

Q: Tell me about hanging out at Sun Ra rehearsals when you were growing up. That’s a crazy story — Sun Ra rehearsed in a Greek meat market?

A: That was when I was in high school. They used to rehearse on 63rd and South Morgan. There was a meat market on the southeast corner. And I think it was a Greek guy that had that market, and it was wild game: bear, boar, raccoons and all this kind of stuff — hanging from the ceiling, right? I don’t know how it was that he liked Sun Ra, but he would let Sun Ra rehearse in there at night!

And so me and this other young saxophone player who lived right around there — we went together. And it was cold back there, because there was a freezer section, and you could feel a lot of the cold air.

Q: Sounds like they rehearsed near a meat locker.

A: We’d walk right through there. And I remember (saxophonists) Pat Patrick, Marshall (Allen) and (John) Gilmore. And one of the Pryor brothers was in that band. In Chicago, you had Henry Pryor who played with Dizzy Gillespie. And Harry Pryor, he was my schoolmate; he played trombone. It was another older brother (Nate Pryor) that played trombone with Sun Ra. He was in that group. I know Ronnie Boykins was on bass; he’s the one who invited us. So we used to go to the rehearsals and sit there and look at the music and listen. That was all we could do. But we were learning — you learn by being there. You watch people. You look at music and you say, “God, I can’t play that. That’s hard.” But you start to get some understanding of it. You get an understanding of how Sun Ra was communicating information.

Sun Ra Arkestra, Chicago, 1960

Q: It sounds like you were curious by temperament. I’ve heard another story about you: When you were in conservatory (the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago), you tried to take every single course in the catalogue. Is that true?

A: Yes!

Q: Why did you do that?

A: Why’d I do it? It was simple. Because when I listened to Tchaikovsky, when I listened to Beethoven, when I listened to Duke Ellington or Jimmy Lunceford — and then when I looked at the courses I was supposed to be taking, it just hit me. I said, “What are you supposed to do with that?” I said, “I can’t write a Fifth Symphony” — not based on the information they’re giving me. I said, “This is ridiculous!”

So I said, “The only way you’ll be able to write what all these great people were writing is that I take everything — all the information that they’ve got.” I wasn’t interested in degrees, so I kept changing my major. I must’ve majored in everything — just to keep from getting the degree! Because my aim was to take the entire catalogue, every course. Every course that made sense. I mean, I wasn’t planning on being no teacher, so I wasn’t going to take those courses — teaching methods and all that. But all the other courses, I would take them.

Q: The idea was that if you could amass all this information, you could funnel that into your music and compose something great?

A: Yes! You’d be capable of operating at the level that all these great people were. Because I asked myself, “How can you go to school for four years, come out and do what these people were doing? It’s impossible! You don’t have enough information.”

I just wanted the information. When you audition for the Chicago Symphony or Count Basie’s band, nobody says, “Let me see your degree” or “Let me see your resume.” No. If you go in front of Fritz Reiner (then the conductor of the Chicago Symphony), it’s the same as going in front of Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman or anybody else. They say, “Let me hear you play.”

Q: Did taking all those college courses shape the way you play?

A: No, it had to do with my compositional thinking, not with my playing. It was how much information can you gather about how to make music. See, a lot of this was an understanding of theory and analysis. I took four or five years of theory and the formal analysis, so I could analyze anything. Being able to analyze things is part of the process of learning.

If you can’t take Schoenberg apart, you can’t learn anything from Schoenberg.

Q: Did you always have this kind of analytical approach to things?

A: From the time I started. When I was teaching myself how to play piano, I knew right then that I wasn’t curious about playing the piano or playing boogie-woogie. What I was really curious about was how do people make music. That was what it was about from the very beginning: How do they do this?

So playing instruments was second to that. The thing that got me curious — it was just like when I took the first wrist watch apart; I wanted to know how it worked. That’s why I used to take things apart. Because I wanted to know how they worked. I remember my first bike. I took it apart — the sprockets, all of that stuff. How does it work? You know, I remember messing up my first saxophone; had to go downtown and have them put it back together.

Q: You had to take it to the repair shop?

A: Oh yeah, yeah! But that’s part of the process: How? How do kids become curious? You look at this big clock up on the tower, you say, “How does that work?” All you see is these two hands on the clock; how does something like that work? Somebody shows you the inside of it, you say, “Oh, I’ve got to look at every piece of this now.” That’s how I felt as a kid. From the very beginning, I wanted to know how people made music. Not how to play music. How to play music was different from how it’s made.

Q: The AACM’s whole message was a lot like what you’re describing: Absorb everything out there, then figure things out and be yourself. Did Muhal (Richard Abrams) articulate that, or was that ethos just kind of in the air?

A: It was about being yourself. He didn’t have to say it because that was the policy. We didn’t put on concerts to perform somebody else’s music. We put on concerts to perform our own music. This was a chance to examine and develop what we did. That was the policy with the AACM.

Muhal Richard Abrams' Experimental Band featuring Henry Threadgill at Chicago Jazz Festival, 2015

Q: You’ve described how your own travels have influenced your music. In Venezuela or India, you would observe how people walk. You would take notice of the spices in the local foods. I’m wondering, how does all that relate to music? Is all of that somehow encompassed by your music?

A: It gets encompassed in all music. Music is not something that’s separate from the rest of life. You’re informed by everything around you — from all forms of life. Music is not created in a vacuum. We don’t know how these different things make their way into it. You can’t parse them out and pull them out — what part birds play, what part the sound of wagons on cobblestones play. But they play a part, all these things. I used to sit up and just listen to the carts come down the road in India, and then the same thing in Cuba. I used to sit there and listen to this cart. (Threadgill imitates the rhythm and the sounds of a cart clackety-clacking along the road.) I would sit there listening and say, “Wow. Just listen to that.” It leaves an imprint in your sound repertory, in your musical thinking.

You eat some food and you say, “What is that in there” that you can’t identify? What is that taste in there? In places like Bali, the way people walk is because of that dance that they practice for so long. It’s almost a kind of a squat, where they drop their hips and they bend their knees. So it affects their daily walk. Everybody’s looked at this dance for so long that they’ve got this kind of tai chi look about them when they walk.

It’s amazing. And another thing — music is particular to the time that it is made.

That’s why I always said, “I’ll never be able to out-play Scott Joplin or Jelly Roll Morton. I’ll never be able to out-play Charlie Parker.” That was their time. You’re not going to beat people at their game, during their time — you can’t do things better than Beethoven or better than Charlie Parker or anybody else. Because they belonged in that specific period, and they’re informed by all kinds of things. You can’t even identify all of the elements that influenced the artists of that period. Like the writers — the Dashiell Hammetts and the Hemingways; you’re not going to beat them at that game. So you might as well get your own game — get the game that’s peculiar to your time. That’s what we always thought in Chicago in the AACM. Better to do your own thing, because you’re not going to beat those other people.

I used to study and try to play bebop. But I knew it, I said, “I’ll never be able to out-play Lester Young. Are you crazy?” Don’t be stupid. You’re not going to beat Lester Young, and you’re not going to beat Charlie Parker, and you’re not going to beat Sonny Rollins. You’re not going to beat these people. So when Ornette Coleman came along, and I heard him, that’s when everything changed. It wasn’t just what Ornette Coleman was doing. It opened the door. It said, “Now, there’s a lot of things we can do. We don’t have to do what they were doing.” It opened up all these rivers, all these new streams. See, it opened up our heads to say, “Oh, we don’t have to have four-bar phrases. We don’t have to have piano-bass-drums.”

All of that didn’t get thrown away. But everything expanded. Like they say, it’s an expanding universe? Everything expanded. Okay, I don’t have to out-play Clifford Brown now. I got to out-play me. Now the competition is with yourself. That’s what it gets down to.

          Henry Threadgill and Make a Move at Umbria Jazz Festival, 1996

Q: You come up with such great song titles and album titles: Just the Facts and Pass the Bucket, Too Much Sugar for a Dime. And your band names: Air, Make a Move, Very Very Circus. How do you relate words to music?

A: It’s just something that kind of comes to me. I’m always messing around with numbers and words — again, taking things apart is just part of my makeup. And people sometimes ask me, “What came first, the music or the words?” I say, “Sometimes the music comes first, and sometimes I have some words I’m playing around with, and that’s the beginning of some music.”

Q: When you came up with the name “Air” for your band with (bassist) Fred Hopkins and (drummer) Steve McCall — was that just a catchy name, or did it reflect something essential about the quality of the music you made together?

A: We had another name; at first it was called Reflections. But Steve McCall’s girlfriend, I remember when she asked us about our astrological signs. Because she said, “You all should have a simpler name,” because Steve and Fred were both Libras. And I was Aquarius. And she said, “Why don’t you call yourself `Air’ since you’re all air signs?” And we said, “Yeah, why not? That makes sense.”

Q: People born under air signs are supposed to be communicators, thinkers. So, I guess she was right.

A: She got it. And the group I had after that never got recorded — the Wind String Quintet. That was violin, viola, cello, tuba, and myself. And then came the Sextett, which was with two ts, because it was seven people, with two percussionists. And then I played a little bit of circus stuff in Chicago, so I had Very Very Circus. Because if you ever went to the circus, the big thing was when they could make two or three rings operate at the same time. That was like Technicolor and 3-D! You’d be cross-eyed trying to look at it. The band strikes up in one ring, and the horses come out of another ring: You say, “Oh my God. It’s counterpoint!” Visual counterpoint. And that’s how I got to the whole idea of not just circus, but very very circus.

Q: Did you say you played in circuses?

A: I played a little circus music, yeah, because I played in polka bands and everything else in Chicago. Again, it’s a parade town, and you’ve got Mexican mariachi bands. You’ve got Jewish and Polish bands, Italian bands. All of ‘em.

Q: Did you play all that stuff?

A: Yes! (laughs). I played clarinet in Polish bands and Jewish bands, yeah. (Threadgill starts singing a fast polka.) Yeah. Sure!

Q: When I listen to your music, I always feel like I’m hearing music that you grew up with — the blues, the marching bands. At the same time, your music is so unique and — I don’t know what the adjective is. It’s advanced, sophisticated, and just different. Do you consciously aim for that kind of mix, or does it just happen?

A: No, it’s just the way it comes out.

Air (Henry Threadgill, Fred Hopkins, Steve McCall): "B.K." from Air Mail (1980)

Q: I guess it’s who you are, how you think, what you’ve experienced.

A: Right. Like I’ve been talking to some people who don’t know the power of live music. They listen to recordings — a lot of young college kids, they never stood up in front of a live band.

I stood up in front of all these people. I stood in front of Johnny Griffin, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Gene Ammons, Sonny Rollins. I mean right in front of them. I would sit right there beside Fritz Reiner conducting his Chicago Symphony at the Edgewater Beach Hotel every Sunday. The power of that, of him conducting — the power of that orchestra hit you right in your face, right there. Right in front. This was a ballroom, not Orchestra Hall. I used to be there, too. I used to go to Orchestra Hall and work as an usher, and have my score; take your little flashlight out and open your score, see, and get paid for it!

Q: Where was the Edgewater Beach Hotel?

A: That’s where they broadcast from. Their home was Orchestra Hall. But during that period — this was ’62, ’63, ’64 — they broadcast from the Edgewater Beach Hotel. It was almost all the way up to Evanston, almost up to Northwestern University.

You stand up in front of that — that will transform you. I mean, I was there every night in the clubs, too — Sonny Rollins Quartet with Gene Ammons as guest. Night after night. I was standing in front of the bandstand. Every night. Coltrane would come, it would be the same thing. When I was 15, 16, 17 years old, that’s what I’d be doing.

Q: OK, I’ve got to ask you about Coltrane. There’s this story that you met him when you were 16 and he treated you as if you were his musical equal.

A: He confused me, because he kept asking me questions. I was supposed to be asking him questions. I was saying to myself, “What’s wrong with you, dude? I’m not Coltrane. I’m supposed to be plying you with questions. I’m the snotty-nosed kid that can’t play, not you.”

And I’d make the mistake of saying I liked Ornette. And he’d go, “Oh, you like Ornette?” And I’d think, “Oh, here we go again.” I mentioned the Nicolas Slonimsky book (the Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, which Coltrane studied obsessively) — same thing again. He said, “Oh! Do you like Slonimsky?” I thought, “OK, I’ll just be quiet until I can ask him some questions.”

Q: Where were you talking?

A: We were in a telephone booth in the club. The people didn’t even know he was in there. He was smoking those skinny cigars; I thought I was going to die. We were in there so long — the people were looking for him to start the next set, but they couldn’t find him. Because they couldn’t see him; there was so much smoke in the telephone booth.

Q: Why were you in a telephone booth?

A: We were talking! He was right in front of me, the two of us in a telephone booth. (laughing). You know those ones where you close the door?

Q: Yeah, those old-fashioned ones — big private booths with doors.

A: Right. He was smoking that little cigar, burning my eyes. He’s blowing that smoke and questioning me. I feel like I’m getting the third degree.

Q: What else was he asking you?

A: All kinds of questions. About what I was working on. What did I like about Slonimsky? What did I like about Ornette? What was it about Albert Ayler? About Eric Dolphy? About all these different people I’d mention. And he was so serious, earnestly plying me and digging into and looking at me so seriously.

Q: What do you make of that?

A: The funny thing is, in life, these things are not just coincidences. My experiences with him and Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Duke Ellington and all these different people I met — that wasn’t just by accident. Howard McGhee, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington. Mario Bauza — the time I spent with all these people was so special.

What did Sonny (Rollins) tell me? “Henry,” he said, “I never had any grand ideas about myself. But at one point I knew I was supposed to be there, because Miles called me to be there, and Monk called me to be there.”

See, when Cecil came and got me to join his band — it’s almost like it’s fate, in a way. It is. It’s hard to explain it: How did I meet these people, and why did I meet these people? I know a lot of people who never met any of these people.

Henry Threadgill and Very Very Circus: "Hope a Hope a" from Spirit of Nuff...Nuff (1990)

Q: Tell me about Left Hand Frank. That’s someone else you played with in Chicago.

A: Oh, you don’t know Left Hand Frank? Very famous blues guitar player out of Chicago. He used to play all around, but the Blue Flame was where he had the house band for a while. And I was in that band and I traveled around with him, too. Buddy Guy and them — all of them used to come in and play Sunday nights. Jazz people have sessions on Monday nights. The blues world has a session that starts Sunday afternoon around 3 o’clock and don’t leave off until Monday morning — maybe 4 or 5 o’clock the next morning.

Q: Did you feel like you were part of the jazz community in Chicago? Or, were you rejected by it?

A: Yeah, because I really wasn’t trying to play traditional stuff, so nobody was calling me. I was just working on that stuff; I really didn’t care. I knew where I was going. I was developing my own ideas in terms of composition. And I had all these instruments I was studying simultaneously.

Q: What about when you got to New York? Did you have to create your own scene?

A: Oh yeah, when I got out of the service in ’69, I came back to Chicago — in April of ’69. And then I came up to New York that summer. I came up here to check out New York, to see what was happening, because I knew I was going to want to come here. So I went around, just listening and sitting in. Carlos Ward, the saxophonist — we both arrived in New York the same night and met up and hung out for a couple of days, going to sessions. We played with Leon Thomas and Pharoah Sanders down on the Lower East Side. We tried to play with Gato Barbieri, but Gato didn’t want us. But I was just checking it out, and so I went back to Chicago. I said, “No, I’m not going to New York to be no sideman.” I said, “I’m not going to get in that competition. When I go back, I’m going to have my own thing that I’m doing — like Ahmad Jamal.” Because he was one of my main heroes. My uncle (bassist Nevin Wilson) used to play a little bit with him. So I made up my mind. I said, “I’m going back to do what I do.”

Q: Where did you play with Pharoah and Leon Thomas?

A: What was that famous club down there?

Q: Slugs’?

A: That’s it. And matter of fact, Kalaparusha (Maurice McIntyre, the AACM saxophonist from Chicago) was in town, and he came in and joined us that night. I remember. The three of us played — me, Kalaparusha, and Carlos Ward sat in with Pharoah that night.

Q: So Henry, how do you feel about these awards you’ve been getting — the Pulitzer Prize, and now the NEA Jazz Master award?

A: You feel good, getting recognized for doing what you do. I never concern myself with will I get an award or not; it doesn’t matter. If you get it, that’s great. I appreciate it. But that’s not something I’m going after. I’m going after the art, the music. Who recognizes me; that’s neither here nor there. (laughs).

But it’s great to be honored by institutions, by the government, by your peers. It confirms a lot. See, the one thing that you don’t get — it’s all these people coming to hear you all over the world. That confirms everything. When I go to play and I see how many people are sitting out there, coming to hear me play — that’s the biggest award. Because that’s who I’m playing for. I make music for people, not for institutions and places that give you recognition. I make music for people. They’re the most important element. You know what I’m saying? But it’s an honor, of course. It’s an honor when you get recognized.

             Henry Threadgill and Zooid, Live in Italy, 2008

Q: Has the pandemic given you new directions, new projects?

A: I’ve still got the group Zooid — that’s my band for the last 15 years or more. So it’s still Zooid projects that I’m doing. We’ve got a new record. It’ll come out probably at the end of this year. We didn’t let it out last year because of this pandemic stuff, but we’re going to let it out at the end of this year, November or December.

And I’ve got plenty of other stuff to do. I have other ensembles I have to write for. Like they’re putting in this piece of sculpture over at the Whitney (Museum of Art) — a piece designed by David Hammons, and I just finished the music for that. That’s going to be an outdoor event this summer, going to the fall. I’ll be playing with the ensemble in August or September.

Q: What kind of ensemble is it?

A: Ten pieces — or maybe it’s 11: soprano guitar, two violas, cello, bassoon, trombone, tuba, alto saxophone, trap drums, and djembe. And also a fireboat horn — you know the fireboats that put out fires? I’m using the sound from the fire horn.

Q: Is there a genre or type of music you haven’t played that you wish you had played — or that you still would like to play?

A: No. (laughs).

Q: Because you’ve already played so many?

A: No. It’s just that I’m satisfied with what has been on my plate. It takes a long time to really get inside and play certain music. And I split my time between writing and playing. Composing takes a lot of time, and always has. But I’ve had a good time playing in Trinidad and Venezuela, and playing with the two most important people right here that I wanted to play with — Cecil Taylor and Mario Bauza’s Orchestra. And Muhal — Muhal, Cecil Taylor, Mario Bauza, and Howard McGhee. I was in Howard McGhee’s octet.

Q: Really? When was that? (McGhee was an early bebop trumpeter.)

A: Yeah, I played baritone. Oh, in the ‘80s? Tommy Turrentine was on trumpet in that band. Junior Cook on tenor. Bill Hardman, I think, was a trumpet player.

Q: Anything you wish you could tell your younger self?

A: Ha! (long pause). I should’ve held my breath a lot more. (laughs.)

Q: Because?

A: If you don’t breathe, you don’t get old! (laughing, for a long time.) Young people, they be worrying about growing old. I tell ‘em, “Hold your breath!” Time stands still when you hold your breath.

Watch the 2021 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert online Thursday, April 22, 2021 at 5 PM PT (8 PM ET) from arts.gov and sfjazz.org. This is a free event.

A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.

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