Thoughts About Henry Threadgill and Maria Schneider

I was both delighted and fascinated to read that Henry Threadgill has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Masters Fellowship for 2021, along with Terri Lyn Carrington, Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath and the broadcaster and educator Phil Schaap. 

I regard Threadgill as one of the most important figures in contemporary creative music and have written to that effect in a piece on this website, in a post which can be read here.  Threadgill’s compositions for his various groups, Very Very Circus, Make A Move, Zooid and 14 Or 15 Kestra are truly original and creative pieces of work that stand comparison with work in any form of music.  The reason I am fascinated by this award and avoided using the word ‘jazz’ above is that in recent years Threadgill has been at pains to argue that his music is not jazz and that jazz is a music of the past century when it was clear what jazz was and wasn’t.  We can find these statements in various interviews which can be read here and at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42pCOwN6Uf8.   Threadgill argues that the term jazz no longer has a clear meaning and that his music should be labelled as ‘creative improvised music’. 

By rejecting the jazz label, I do not think that Threadgill means any disrespect for the jazz tradition, rather that the use of the term jazz always creates an expectation of a certain kind of music which is different from Threadgill’s music.  It also means that his work is regarded as that of a jazz composer rather than that of a major composer in any genre of music.    

This discussion of whether much of contemporary jazz would be better categorised as creative music is one that is unlikely ever to be resolved.  I see the point and agree that Threadgill should be listened to by people who listen to contemporary ensembles such as the London Sinfonietta or Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, but also feel that Threadgill has followed a career strongly associated with jazz, for example through his membership of the AACM and his inclusion in his ensembles of players who are generally regarded as being members of the jazz community. Furthermore, for me jazz still means creative music. 

Nonetheless I think the NEA Jazz Masters Award is one that Threadgill richly deserves and I will be fascinated to hear what he says in his acceptance speech. 

I have also been listening to and really enjoying Maria Schneider’s latest album: Data Lords.  Schneider is also a brilliant composer and the pieces on this double Cd are excellent examples of her work.  When the Maria Schneider Orchestra spent two or three days in Birmingham a year or so ago conducting a workshop with Birmingham Conservatoire jazz students and giving a wonderful concert to a large audience in Symphony Hall, I was struck by the strong group feel in the players and their excitement about being members of the orchestra.  This comes across very strongly on Data Lords with each composition being a feature for one or two members of the orchestra, so that players such as Ben Monder, Rich Perry, Gary Versace, Frank Kimbrough and Donny McCaslin are beautifully integrated into the writing for the composition they are featured.   

This is definitely a jazz approach and, although Schneider works in other genres, e.g. writing arrangements for David Bowie’s last album, I am confident that she regards herself as a jazz performer. 

Incidentally Schneider received a NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship in 2019 and made a brilliant acceptance speech which you can access at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQBY5uYt2jM&feature=youtu.be&t=4318

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