Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

In for a Penny, In for a Pound:
Brent Hayes Edwards on Writing with Henry Threadgill

Brent Hayes Edwards, Henry Threadgill © 2023 Senti Toy Threadgill

Henry Threadgill’s autobiography, Easily Slip into Another World: A Life in Music, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in May. Simply put, it is a page-turner. By the time Threadgill hooks up with the AACM, he already had an extraordinary life, his exploits growing up in Chicago and surviving Viet Nam being the stuff of novels and movies. Certainly, the material concerning his music will be foundational to future articulations about Threadgill’s singularity as a composer, bandleader, and performer. However, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole Easily Slip into Another World as a jazz autobiography. Great American autobiographies tell the story of the times during which a life is lived, as well as the subject’s comings and goings and mindsets and motivations. Threadgill’s does so with seeming effortlessness.

Many autobiographies are written “with” someone. The nature of with is elusive. There is no recipe. Ultimately, the success of a particular with lies in the story to be told, as much as the process that got it onto the page. Threadgill’s choice of Brent Hayes Edwards made immediate sense, given Edwards’ track record for meticulous research, and painstakingly conducted oral histories and interviews. We discussed his relationship with Threadgill and the writing process via email and Zoom in February 2023.


Bill Shoemaker: When did you first meet Henry Threadgill and how long thereafter did the autobiography project came about?

Brent Hayes Edwards: In the winter of 2005-06, I was starting to do research on the “loft jazz” scene that flourished in downtown Manhattan in the mid- to late-1970s. As manufacturers and wholesalers fled SoHo, NoHo, Tribeca, and the East Village in the throes of the economic recession, a number of musicians – including Sam Rivers, Ornette Coleman, Joe Lee Wilson, Charles “Bobo” Shaw, Joseph Bowie, Juma Sultan, James DuBoise, Warren Smith, Rashied Ali, Cooper Moore, David S. Ware, Alan Braufman, John Fischer, and Barry Altschul – gravitated to the area, many of them opening rehearsal and performance spaces.

To me, one of the main questions about this period is to consider how the music was transformed in an atmosphere where the artists themselves controlled the means of production. There were still nightclubs, cafes, galleries, and independent theaters, of course, but the lofts were special in that they gave musicians an opportunity to figure out how they wanted to present their art. I think of the era as a brief but fascinating collective experiment in institution-building. The piece about Ornette Coleman’s loft on Prince Street that my former student Katherine Whatley and I published in Point of Departure in 2015 [Issue 53] was derived partly from my research on this ongoing project.

Although I’ve done a good deal of research in the collections of places like the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers, the Kitchen, and the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts, I realized pretty quickly that the only way to approach the topic was to speak to the musicians themselves, many of whom were still around – and many of whom had voluminous personal archives of the spaces they’d run and the music performed there. So I started interviewing people, sometimes helping them organize their archives and digitize their materials.

Some of the other scholars who have focused on this era have done crucial work around particular individuals: Michael Heller and Stephen Farina with Juma Sultan; Rick Lopez and Ed Hazell with Sam Rivers; Rick Lopez and Cisco Bradley with William Parker. I cast a wide net in the beginning, speaking with a variety of folks – not only musicians but also dancers, writers, photographers, producers, and journalists. There was some overlap with other work being done: I went to Florida to interview Sam Rivers, for example. But I knew that Rick and Ed were working on Studio Rivbea, so I tried to focus on documenting some of the spaces that haven’t received as much attention: Artist House, the Ladies’ Fort, the Tin Palace, LaMaMa’s Children’s Workshop Theater.

Henry was one of the first musicians I approached. He didn’t run a loft space – although his great trio with Steve McCall and Fred Hopkins did have a rehearsal studio and art gallery called the Air Studio on East 13th Street briefly in the early 1980s. But I knew he was a key part of the wave of musicians associated with the AACM in Chicago who had moved to New York in the early- to mid-1970s, and that he performed often in the lofts.

In the spring of 2006, the Jazz Gallery – then still in its old location on Hudson Street in SoHo – hosted a series of workshops organized by Steve Coleman. Henry did a few. He played with his band Zooid, but there were open sessions, too, where musicians were welcome to show up and play some of his charts. You could also just go and observe, which is what I did. It was interesting, because Henry was teaching the participants about his intervallic compositional system, which involves a unique approach to harmony and improvisation. I had heard Zooid so I knew what the recent music sounded like – but it was thrilling to watch Henry explaining exactly how it worked.

I went up to him after one of the sessions and asked if he’d be willing to do an interview. He said to give him a call. So I did, and we met to do an interview one afternoon toward the end of April 2006 at a French bistro called Casimir that used to be on Avenue B between 6th and 7th Streets.

Shoemaker: So how did an interview for your book turn into a collaboration on Henry’s autobiography?

Edwards: One reason I’m still working on my own loft book a decade and a half later is that it keeps morphing into other book projects – the book with Henry isn’t the only one!

Recently I revisited the recording and transcript of that first interview I did with Henry in 2006. I was asking him about his move to New York and his impressions of the downtown scene – things like that. We also talked about his famously evocative and sometimes cryptic song titles – “The Devil Is on the Loose and Dancin’ with a Monkey”; “Paper Toilet”; “Those Who Eat Cookies”; “Salute To The Enema Bandit”; “Let’s All Go Down To The Footwash”; “Mirror Mirror the Verb” – and about his sense of language more generally. As a literature professor, I had always been intrigued by the ways he uses language, and in the seeming parallels between speech and literary composition, on the one hand, and music composition, on the other. I had given a talk about this in 2003, years before I interviewed Henry, which eventually ended up becoming a chapter in my book Epistrophies, and it also comes up in the autobiography, especially in chapter 7.

In our 2006 interview, Henry says that his song titles are sometimes doing “the same thing” as the music, but in a “different dimension” or with a “different perspective.” Words aren’t meant to explain the music or to allude to specific historical contexts or intertexts, but instead to provide “another aspect” of the art by pointing to the “non-tangible level of what you are talking about.”

I asked him whether he’d ever considered publishing his writing, and he said: “Oh yeah, I have something I want to write, a book.” Years later, while we were working on the manuscript, I went back to what he said as a kind of touchstone – I cut and paste it into a new document that I would look at periodically for inspiration and guidance. But until I went back recently and listened to this interview again, I had forgotten that this came up in our very first conversation. Curious, I asked him, “What kind of book do you have in mind?” His answer is worth quoting at length:

“Well, the book is about a lot of things. It’s everything that I’ve experienced over a long period of time. That does not necessarily mean only music: it’s a lot of things that I lived through, a lot of things that I’m interested in, things that I do, like cooking. Places that I’ve been, things that I’ve survived. But not to be written on the flat realist scale. More on the scale of Ulysses. More of a Ulysses and what I consider the classical form of American TV soap opera.”

When I commented that a mashup of Joyce and soap opera would make for an interesting generic mix, Henry continued: “I need somebody that will allow me to do it a certain way. Because I need to get somebody to sit there and for me to talk and to get it out. And then to work with me to write it. ... That’s what I need: a writer that could do that, so I could first get everything down, and then get the form – and then I guess you might say the style, if there would be one style. I’m not even sure – I don’t even think there would be one style. You know, like with time: where you flash back in time, flash forward in time – let’s just destroy time in the first place. I couldn’t write anything that made any sense to me that was written in some kind of chronological, straight time anyway. Because something needs to be successful as a work of art. What’s the point in writing a book if you’re going to do something that’s been done? I don’t see a point in doing anything that’s been done. Why do it? Someone else might have a reason for that, but I can’t find a reason for that. That’s a monumental waste of time.”

I said that I’d love to talk with him about it further, explaining that although I was working on this project about the downtown music scene and had some musical training, I was primarily a literature professor. “Yeah, I mean, I need some money for that because I need somebody to be able to come and sit and for me get it all down,” Henry mused.

“I know the material, but I need time to get the material out a certain way. I can’t just put the material out one way or another. You can’t just turn on the machine. I’ve got to get it out of me a certain way. If it comes out of me the wrong way, then I’ll have to do it again. How I get the raw material out is everything, because that’s what’s going to allow it to move to the next stage.

“I have a whole period – my whole military experience, which is one of the main, one of the great big vessels that I move everything in and out of, anyway. ... That’s the main bulk of the information. My whole military experience, I have to figure how to use it as the main thing to be going in and out of. That will be the tricky thing – I’ll have to go from talking about this, if this is going on over here in Paris during these years; I’ll be talking about something during my childhood when I experienced moving into a neighborhood that was all white for the first time, or my experience learning how to cook. All these different things – how to get in and out of that. But also not on the level of consciousness – of bland reality, illustrated reality.

“I can’t go too far with that until I get to the point where I can actually do the book. Because that is one thing I do know about my ability to create. Certain things will not reveal themselves to you until you’re ready – you have to be at the fire. I know that you have to get all the way there, and then that’s when the real stuff will come up.

“That’s why it’s very difficult for me to sit down and write a ‘treatment.’ I can’t really put too much into that ... The publishing world, they’re as bad as the record world now. They are so fucking practical. Everybody’s forgotten that they are dealing with art ...

“What is the one mission of art and science that make them different from everything else? To take chances. Nothing else is allowed to take chances and risks, and step out on a promise. Nothing else is allowed to do that but art and science. Now how the hell did institutions like recording companies and publishing companies forget the mission of what these things are about? ... These are the two things that humanity has always allowed to have this liberty: to take risks, to go where other things can’t go.”

Shoemaker: It’s amazing that you were already talking about the writing process the first time you interviewed him.

Edwards: Well, it’s striking to me now to realize that that’s where his thinking was going, even that first day. But at the time – as I sat there with one of my musical heroes, trying not to make a fool of myself – it didn’t really register as a concrete proposition. I took it as a sort of revelatory flight of fancy: a moment of conjecture.

And in 2006, that was that. The conversation moved in another direction: we talked about the ways that the atmosphere in downtown New York in the 1970s seemed to allow certain kinds of risk-taking that might not have been possible twenty years earlier or twenty years later; about some of the journalists on the scene at the time like Peter Occhiogrosso, Roger Riggins, and Stanley Crouch; about his introduction to some of the giants of twentieth-century composition through concerts at the University of Chicago by Easley Blackwood’s Contemporary Chamber Players; about the Air Studio in the East Village.

Shoemaker: So that was the beginning of what turned out to be a long dialogue.

Edwards: Yes. We were in touch a couple of times in the following months when I sent Henry some recordings. First I made him a CD copy of the extraordinary session that Air recorded with the poet Amiri Baraka for a radio station in Köln, Germany on 20 March 1982. Henry knew that the recording was in circulation, but he didn’t have it.

Then, the next winter, I met a photographer and filmmaker who had recorded what I believe was the first New York appearance of Air at the La MaMa Children’s Workshop on East 3rd Street in March 1976. Henry had described it in our interview. The first night it was frigid and there was only a sparse audience. But the word spread quickly, he said: by the third night the house was packed. Henry was interested, and I hired an audio engineer to digitize the recording, with the idea that it might be worth releasing. But it didn’t work out. Although the recording was made with a portable Nagra reel-to-reel, the levels were set incorrectly and there was clipping throughout at the high volumes.

In 2008, Henry recommended me to serve as a moderator for a series of panels at Cornell University about the 1970s avant-garde in SoHo. Called “American Artistic Renaissance,” the symposium was convened by the painter Fred Brown, who had a loft on Wooster Street and was close to a number of musicians including Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton as well as Henry. It was a small gathering but an astonishing conglomeration of towering figures in multiple disciplines including Henry and other musicians such as Charlie Haden, Sam Rivers, and Jerome Cooper, the producer and arts administrator James Jordan, the dancers Blondell Cummings and Megan Bowman Brown, the writer Stanley Crouch, the photographer Anthony Barboza, the videographer Tony Ramos, and the poet Felipe Luciano.

The following year Henry asked me to undertake a bigger project with him: he wanted me to conduct a full oral history, documenting his life and career in as much detail as possible. How could I say no? We started meeting regularly to conduct extended interview sessions, often two or three hours each. In the fall of 2009 Henry had a compositional residency at the Aaron Copland House, and I would rent a car and drive up the Hudson to Cortlandt Manor to do sessions there. Once he was back in Manhattan, we would meet downtown, mostly at the venerable East Village Italian cafes and pastry shops Henry tends to favor: DeRobertis Caffe and Pasticceria on First Avenue – which tragically went out of business – or Veniero’s Pasticceria and Caffe on 11th Street.

I did a huge amount of research to prepare for these sessions, not only listening to his music but also reading every interview and profile of Henry I could find. I had done a lot of interviewing but not oral history proper before, so it was a challenge, but I enjoyed the chance to take a deep dive.

Ultimately it propelled me into another subsidiary area of activity – another of those detours from my loft book. Over the next few years, I started working with the Columbia Center for Oral History, doing a number of sessions for their projects on the Apollo Theater and on Robert Rauschenberg. And then the record producer and broadcaster Ben Young and I co-founded a jazz oral history project sponsored by the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia. It wasn’t specifically focused on the loft scene, but our idea was to record extended conversations documenting the work of some of the musicians who emerged in the wake of the 1960s. The oral histories we’ve done so far include sessions with Ahmed Abdullah, Barry Altschul, Karl Berger, Stanley Cowell, Andrew Cyrille, Ricky Ford, Kirk Lightsey, John Lindberg, Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, Sam Rivers, Rashid Sinan, Warren Smith, Juma Sultan, James “Jabbo” Ware, and Kiane Zawadi.

Shoemaker: So Henry asked you to do the oral history with the plan for it to provide the foundation for the book? This was the way he proposed to “get everything down,” as he first put it to you?

Edwards: Well, in hindsight that’s what it sounds like. It seems peculiar now to say this, but I don’t actually recall us ever having an overt conversation about a book project while we were doing all these oral history sessions. Henry might remember it differently. But I don’t recall a point where we explicitly agreed to collaborate on a book. To me, it felt like it more or less became apparent gradually that we were in the process not only of doing the oral history but also of working on a book.

We would meet periodically for sessions and, as I remember it, Henry simply started talking about what we were doing in a different way. One day we were having lunch and he declared, “Brent, we really need to talk about the book.” I nodded my head but I was thinking to myself, Um, which book? At first I thought that maybe he meant my own loft jazz book. But when he started talking about the form it needed to take and listing the topics we had to be sure to cover, I realized that he meant he was already thinking of me as the person who would help him write his autobiography.

It was amusing – albeit more than a little daunting – to realize that I’d been swept up into a project I hadn’t quite been aware of, much less consciously taken on. But of course I was honored and excited to be able to work with Henry. (Or to lift the title of the album for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2016: In for a Penny, In for a Pound.) The question for me was how I was going to find the time. And then, how we were going to do it: how we were going to “get the form,” as Henry had put it in 2006 – how we were going to take the hundreds of single-spaced pages of oral history I had been transcribing from our sessions and make them into a coherent work of art.

Shoemaker: Once you were “swept up,” how did you proceed in terms of putting the text together?

Edwards: We figured it out as we went along – which of course is the case with any collaboration: a major part of working with someone else is figuring out how you’re going to work together. Not that it’s a matter of a fixed set of rules; the terms of engagement can be renegotiated along the way.

We kept doing our long interview sessions. At first I was thinking of the oral history as a project in itself. The multiple sessions we did in 2009 and 2010 resulted in a transcript of more than two hundred single-spaced pages. Then as we started to do additional sessions, I labeled them as “supplementary” to the oral history.

Sometimes the supplementary sessions took up topics Henry hadn’t had a chance to cover in the oral history. For instance, in February 2012 he sent me a fax with a bullet-point list of “subjects still needing address,” including broad placeholders such as “Race issue,” “Industry comments,” “Jazz education put in perspective,” and “AACM effect on music then and now.” At the same time, as I reviewed the transcripts and worked on the manuscript, I also kept running lists of questions for him about things that weren’t clear or that needed further elaboration. So we used the supplementary sessions to follow up on those, too.

Especially starting in 2016, when the work intensified, we did dozens more sessions – and all in all they represent more material (more hours, more pages) than the original oral history. I’ve kept labeling them as “supplementary” throughout the entire process, even if that term no longer seems quite accurate. As the primary end project became a book rather than an oral history, the needs of the manuscript came to drive our sessions. So a lot of them have to do with revisions and corrections.

As for the process, I would transcribe our conversations – which, as anyone who’s ever transcribed an interview knows, was an enormous labor in itself. I hired one of my former graduate students at Columbia, Hiie Saumaa, to transcribe the initial oral history. But once we started doing the supplementary sessions, I did all the transcribing myself. It was onerous work, but I eventually found it useful to force myself to spend all that time immersed in the rhythms of Henry’s speech.

But transcription was the beginning of the writing process, not the end. Nothing in the book is just a print-out of what Henry said. Instead, I used the transcriptions as a starting point – a guard rail, you could say – and strove to put the material in Henry’s “voice” on the page. Then I would take the drafts of the sections or chapters to Henry. Sometimes he had corrections – typographical errors or errors of fact – but just as often he had things to add or modify. So that would lead to another conversation and another transcript, and further revision. The whole process involved that sort of extensive back-and-forth between him and me, between oral and written versions.

Shoemaker: How as a writer do you find someone’s voice on the page?

Edwards: That’s the big question. Considering how important jazz autobiography is – and how many jazz autobiographies are collaborative in one way or another, whether ghost-written, substantially edited, or collaboratively authored – I find it mystifying how little scholarship there is on the complexities of the writing process. In considerations of some of the most prominent examples – Billie Holiday, Sidney Bechet, Miles Davis – the tendency is to consider editorial mediation as potentially problematic: an interference or manipulation that raises the concern that we may not be hearing the musicians’ “actual voices” in the texts.

But a writerly voice is always a construction. It’s not simply based on, or authenticated by, a replication of a speaking voice, by which I mean the way we tend to associate the particular way someone speaks – the way someone’s utterances are indelibly shaped by their body – with their unique individual “personality.”

It was hard to negotiate this in working with Henry because he is an incredibly charismatic speaker. The book is full of phrases drawn from his idiomatic ways of talking – but only when they work on the page. My first impulse was to try to take some of the habitual patterns in his speech and transfer them to the page as a way to capture something of his cadence. But it didn’t work at all.

For instance, Henry often uses the word just as an intensifier in his speech. Here are a few examples from our oral history: “I was just swept off”; “the way the piano player would play and just the whole thing was like...”; “I remember being just overwhelmed by her”; “it came across and just like Boom! just took me over”; “I would kind of just leave the room.” But on the page, it doesn’t work to deploy just this way as a sort of rhythmic device – it ends up seeming loose and repetitive, especially when it’s overused. At best it comes across as a dutiful representation of the informality of oral speech.

I realized that rhythm on the page is something completely different from rhythm in speech. And it is indicated through an arsenal of formal means that are particular to writing, not speech: paragraph breaks, for instance. It took me back to that repeated tenet in Gertrude Stein’s Lectures in America that paragraphs rather than sentences are the “emotional” unit in prose, not because paragraphs innately express an emotion but because they “register or limit an emotion.” In the end it was in the dynamic between sentences, paragraphs and sections that I felt the narrative found its unique voice.

Shoemaker: Did you end up including any of Threadgill’s own writing – his song titles or things like liner notes?

Edwards: I am quite fond of Henry’s writing, and I made an effort to include examples when possible, including what I believe was his first publication, a 1968 article in the AACM magazine The New Regime, and his arresting liner notes for his 1993 album Song Out of My Trees. And a number of the chapter titles are derived, sometimes partially clipped, from his song and album titles, like “Too Much Sugar,” “Mirror over the Water,” “Untitled Tango,” and “To Undertake My Corners Open.” But the vast majority of the narrative comes out of our conversations, and there was no way to put that into the inimitable style of his writing – he doesn’t write at all the way he talks.

Shoemaker: Looking back, what would you say was the biggest challenge of the writing?

Edwards: For me, Henry is one of the great experimental composers of the past half century. I was determined to find a way to help him write a book that would not only tell his story but also be adequate, somehow, to the extraordinary formal innovations of his music. Could we make a book like that – one that could extend the possibilities of the form as much as his music does?

Henry is also one of the greatest storytellers I’ve ever met. And he’s a great storyteller in what I’d describe as a conventional sense: he is capable of weaving oral narratives with stunning detail and carefully calibrated pacing, full of suspense and momentum.

So that was the major challenge of the writing: could all these powerful, linear vignettes be folded into an experimental form?

I tried a number of approaches, some more radical than others. The italicized sections that are interspersed throughout Chapters 3 and 4 are probably the most striking example. Overall, my solution was to think about the narrative fragments as individual sections that could be interwoven and combined in a modular fashion. It’s not unrelated to the modular structure of much of Henry’s music. I spent a great deal of time outlining: moving sections around, figuring out ways to interlace narrative threads.

As a strategy, this interweaving doesn’t “destroy” chronology altogether – to go back to what Henry said in 2006 – but it does allow the book to “flash back” and “flash forward” to some degree. And it amplifies, rather than dissipates, the suspense of some of his anecdotes, I think, when the reader has to wait for the narrative thread to come back.

Shoemaker: I know you’re primarily a scholar. Listening to your descriptions of the writing process with Henry, I’m struck by how different it sounds from the way most scholars think about writing. It makes me wonder, was the book a major departure for you? It must have been a way for you to “slip into another world,” as it were.

Edwards: I’ve always liked doing very different kinds of writing. Over the years, I’ve sought to try a variety of things, not only scholarly articles and books but also liner notes, editorials, anthologies, interviews, poetry, book reviews, and experimental prose.

It only occurred to me toward the end of the project with Henry, but the kind of writing I’ve done that it most resembles is translation. The other book that took me almost as many years as this book with Henry – if anything, clearly I have a tendency to get in over my head with projects – is my translation of Michel Leiris’s classic Phantom Africa, a monumental, heterodox book that sits somewhere between anthropology and autobiography.

Translation, a bit like my collaboration with Henry, involves a combination of modesty and ambition: a decision as a writer to put oneself at the service of another person’s voice, but also and at the same time the audacity to shape that voice. Some people assume all too quickly that translation is inherently passive, subservient, and derivative, when in fact it involves constant interpretation and active invention in a delicate ethical embrace with a “source” that is “not a stable ideal, not an inert gas but a volatile compound,” as Karen Emmerich puts it. When I think about it that way, it occurs to me that maybe Easily Slip into Another World isn’t much of a departure for me at all.


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