“I like to make things,” the saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill told an interviewer from the Smithsonian in 1994, a year before his death from diabetes. “It might not equate to the great American novel…but I can hold your attention for a little while.”
A revealing remark: disarmingly casual in tone, yet hinting, in its sly understatement, at the self-possession—and the intellectual ambitions—that lay beneath his work. Hemphill’s composing fused Duke Ellington’s refinement, Thelonious Monk’s unexpected cadences, and Charles Mingus’s turbulent romanticism with the grooves and sensuality of R&B and soul. His harmonic sense had few equals, notably in his arrangements for the World Saxophone Quartet, which flicker with svelte dissonances that hover at the edge of atonality. His playing on alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, and flute had a rustic modernism, turning the “cry” of the blues into a language of stark, lyrical abstraction. He created new instrumental configurations, sometimes by substitution (using cello instead of bass in his rhythm section), sometimes by subtraction (eliminating the rhythm section in his all-saxophone groups), sometimes by addition (improvising against overdubs of himself on other reed instruments). But no matter how idiosyncratic, Hemphill’s work was never contrived or mannered, because he never lost the inflections of the blues and gospel he grew up hearing in Fort Worth, Texas.
A quiet intellectual who spoke in meticulously composed paragraphs, Hemphill considered his music to be “autobiographical.” Through his saxophone—and in his irreverent titles—he reflected with a highly developed sense of absurdity on his experiences as a black man. In the words of the poet K. Curtis Lyle, with whom he made the 1971 album The Collected Poem for Blind Lemon Jefferson, Hemphill was a “blues surrealist.” Like his hero Ralph Ellison, he regarded the blues as a structure of feeling, a way of confronting the vicissitudes of American life. His music is as expansive in mood as it is formally adventurous, suggesting exuberance and contemplation, pastoral serenity and urban anxiety, love and regret. But what it captures, above all, is the openness of its creator. “You often hear people nowadays talking about the tradition, tradition, tradition,” he said, alluding to the conservationist founders of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch. “But they have tunnel vision on this tradition. Tradition in African-American music is as wide as all outdoors.”
The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony, a new seven-disc box set, is likely to be a turning point in the reception of Hemphill’s work. (“Boyé” was one of his comic alter egos.) Nearly eight hours of music, it’s more than a reminder of Hemphill’s gifts as a composer and performer: it’s an act of excavation that shows his achievement to be even greater than we knew. For this we have to thank Hemphill’s friend Marty Ehrlich, a saxophonist and composer who played in a number of Hemphill’s ensembles, including his last great band, a saxophone sextet. Ehrlich, the chief researcher at the Hemphill archives at NYU, selected thirty-five pieces that illustrate the breadth of his work, twenty-five of them never commercially recorded in his lifetime. We hear Hemphill’s electrifying improvisations in quartets and quintets; a fierce trio with the trumpeter Baikida Carroll and the drummer Alex Cline; and a sublime hour of duets with the cellist Abdul Wadud, the “Rosetta Stone” of the archive, in Ehrlich’s words. We also hear Hemphill as a solo performer and as an accompanist of poetry and spoken word. But his voice is equally recognizable in notated works in which he doesn’t perform, such as Mingus Gold, a string quartet based on Mingus themes that brilliantly portrays the man’s passion and caprice, and two untitled compositions for woodwinds and brass, studies of timbre, harmony, and counterpoint that suggest a kind of jazz impressionism.
Hemphill saw his music as a record of black experience, much as August Wilson saw his plays about Pittsburgh. “This art form…it’s a voice of our culture,” he said. “This is a voice right out of them cotton fields and stuff. This ain’t out of a conservatory. This is out of the neighborhood. That’s where my impetus comes from.”
That neighborhood was the Hot End, not far from the stockyards of Fort Worth, where Julius Arthur Hemphill was born on January 24, 1938. The Hot End was mostly black and Mexican, though he also played with the children of a German-Jewish shopkeeper until “they grew up and realized that they could get by on the white thing and there was no future for them making out with us.” His father, a World War I veteran, died shortly after he was born, but he had a strong and determined mother, Edna Hemphill, a schoolteacher barely five feet tall who instilled in him her love of reading and her “imagination.” The Hemphills were a formidable clan of black people, known for their drive and independence: one of his ancestors was the cowboy and rodeo star Bill Pickett, who invented bulldogging. They were also a powerful force in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, where his mother played piano on Sunday mornings. “My mother doesn’t believe in Jesus Christ,” he told Lyle, then paused, and said, “My mother believes she is Jesus Christ!” The power and spirituality of his experiences in church permeated his music, even at its most joyfully profane.
The first person Hemphill saw holding a saxophone was Ornette Coleman, his second cousin by marriage. But as an adolescent, he was more interested in playing football and considered his clarinet lessons a form of drudgery. Still, “I didn’t have to seek out no music, it was in the house. Not only outdoors, it was through the windows.” In the Smithsonian interview, Hemphill rhapsodizes about the jukeboxes of the Hot End: Hank Williams blasting from the Jewish corner store, the R&B saxophonist Louis Jordan from the black-owned shop across the street, blues coming from a honkytonk. “Mozart didn’t mean shit in the Hot End.” His only exposure to classical music came through “some kind of remedial take-a-trip-to-the-library kind of thing…. And then otherwise we were back in our little stoop. We had a wonderful stoop.”
From that stoop he noticed the “curious things going on in that segregation business.” He saw interracial mingling after dark; he saw a woman shot in the back while running away from a Bible-carrying serial killer. “There’s nothing that you could really tell me about America that I haven’t seen demonstrated on the Hot End,” he reflected. “I’ve seen those contradictions demonstrated practically every Sunday on the Hot End when it’s supposed to be closed. I’ve seen how the rules are one thing, but the application of the rules is quite another matter.” The rule-benders who drew his attention weren’t the musicians so much as the gamblers, hustlers, and bootleggers, “people with lots of talents and things and nowhere to go with them.” These artists of the underworld left an imprint on his sensibility—especially his love of style, his taste for silver lamé suits, African robes, and theatrical gestures.
In his late teens, Hemphill began to dedicate himself to music. (By then he had switched from clarinet to saxophone.) He loved southwestern saxophonists like Earl Bostic and Tab Smith, whose raw, vocalized sound would influence his own, but he initially gravitated to cooler musicians like the alto saxophonist Lee Konitz and the pianist Lennie Tristano. It was only when he discovered Charlie Parker that he realized that “I had my priorities all wrong…. One Charlie Parker solo could wipe out a whole Lennie Tristano record.” Yet Hemphill did not go to New York to play. Instead, he went to Lincoln University in Missouri, where he met his wife, Lynell, and majored in English while studying music with the composer David Baker. By the time he and Lynell were married, he had been drafted. While stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, Hemphill read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and pretended to be a member of the Nation of Islam to avoid being sent to Vietnam. If there was a “battle that…needs fighting,” he decided, it was in the Mississippi Delta, not in the Mekong Delta.
In 1967 Hemphill moved to St. Louis, where he edited a local newspaper, played in jazz and blues bands, and toured with Ike and Tina Turner. (He quit after two weeks, when Ike “went off the deep end” with cocaine.) A year later, he helped found the Black Artists Group (BAG) with the actor Malinké Elliott, the saxophonists Oliver Lake and Hamiet Bluiett, and the trumpeter Baikida Carroll, among others. BAG drew inspiration from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the Chicago-based black composers’ collective, but Hemphill, who became BAG’s chairman and charismatic leader, vetoed the idea of joining the AACM: “Why should we be a branch of them?” Unlike the AACM, BAG focused on collaborations among musicians, dancers, visual artists, and actors. “We were doing a kind of activism in terms of music and theater,” Hemphill told me in 1991, when I interviewed him for Columbia University’s radio station, WKCR-FM, “trying to cut across what we perceived as the existing lines.”
Thanks to a $100,000 grant from the Rockefeller and Danforth Foundations, BAG moved into a building of nearly 10,000 square feet near the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, where they provided arts education for young people in the community. They staged a theatrical adaptation of Larry Neal’s “Poem for a Revolutionary Night” for Pruitt-Igoe’s residents and in 1971 put on the first all-black concert at Powell Symphony Hall. (The audience had to be evacuated at one point because of a bomb threat.) They also made a short silent film, Sweet Willie Rollbar’s Orientation, largely set in a vacant lot, in which a group of pilgrims, some of them wearing face paint, follow a shaman played by Elliott, who looks as if he had stepped out of Andrei Rublev. Urban blight has seldom looked so dreamy: in one scene, the procession wanders through a field lined with Dogon wood carvings.1 Hemphill, who plays a drug dealer dressed in bright red slacks and cowboy boots, created the film’s taut, brooding soundtrack for solo alto saxophone and flute.2
In 1972 Hemphill released his first album as a leader, Dogon A.D. The title alluded to the “adaptive dance” that the Dogon people of Mali performed for tourists, which he’d read about in a 1948 study by the anthropologist Marcel Griaule. The Dogon had identified an invisible companion star to Sirius long before its existence was confirmed by Western science. Hempill was as impressed by their adaptive dance as he was by their cosmology. It had “a certain static quality” that could “induce a proper state of mind, [a] trance.” He decided to make a “small contribution toward their control of their stuff.”
Although Dogon A.D. is now considered an epochal recording in post-1960s jazz, its beginnings could hardly have been humbler. The studio was so cramped that Philip Wilson, the drummer, had to play in the toilet. The album, which Hemphill produced on his own label, Mbari, features a quartet with Wilson, Carroll on trumpet, and Abdul Wadud, a young, classically trained cellist from Cleveland whom Hemphill had met at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, where he’d come to give a concert. Wadud could strum his cello as if it were a blues guitar; even his strangest drones and glissandi preserved the feeling, the mud and the sun, of the vernacular. On the title track, a fourteen-minute dance based on an unusual 11/16 rhythm, he plays double-stops with his bow, in a relentless, hypnotic ostinato, over which Hemphill and Carroll, riffing on the same phrase, play fiery yet exacting solos, punctuated by shrieks, hollers, growls, and other dissonant effects drawn directly from southwestern black music.3 (Hemphill listened to Stockhausen but didn’t need him.) It has an irresistible—and very Texan—swagger. “Julius wanted his music to be inescapable,” Elliott told me shortly before his death in late February. “He used to tell me, ‘I want to convince people as if I was convincing them to step into an elevator shaft.’”
Hemphill saw the music as “a testimony of our resiliency,” underlining the African retentions in the Delta blues and in black American culture. The music’s repetitive structure bears a thin resemblance to the early work of Steve Reich, who also studied the percussive ritual music of West Africa, but “Dogon A.D.” is as soulful as Reich’s Drumming is cool. And though the instrumentation is entirely acoustic, the music is more organically funky, more electric, than the electric jazz fusion of the era. At once earthy and otherworldly, it still has the power to startle, especially in its long and irregular pauses. “Dogon A.D.” became Hemphill’s signature work, his Rite of Spring, whose folkloric energy and assaultive rhythms it shared.
Shortly after the album’s release, BAG fell apart when the Rockefeller and Danforth Foundations declined to renew its grant, on the grounds that its programs were “mainly for blacks, not whites.” (BAG audiences were in fact remarkably mixed for a deeply segregated city.) Hemphill flew to Sweden to spend a few months with Elliott, who’d gone there to study mime. They grew close and developed a unique approach to collaboration, combining absurdist theater with their love of black American ritual. “Though we weren’t practicing,” Elliott told me, “we were impressed by what we’d experienced through the church.” They saw themselves as part of the Black Arts Movement, founded by Amiri Baraka, but Ralph Ellison’s blues existentialism spoke to them more than Baraka’s revolutionary nationalism. They also shared a fascination with the tradition of blackface minstrelsy and conspired to “turn the minstrel into a truth-teller.” As Ellison had instructed, “Change the joke and slip the yoke.” Or as Hemphill would say, with a twinkle, “Let’s bring on the ignorance and darkness.”
When they returned home, Elliott moved to Oregon, and Hemphill settled in Brooklyn with his wife and their two young sons. But the collaboration deepened, and in 1976, they staged a satirical piece called the Coontown Bicentennial Memorial Service. “We wanted to acknowledge that black entertainers like Bert Williams and W.C. Handy were our antecedents,” Elliott told me. “If you’re in the theater, you owe these folks a debt.” The title alone got under some people’s skins, but Hemphill and Elliott “were reclaiming the word, much the way gay Americans say, ‘We’re fags, we’re queers.’ Because the seeds of genius, of black performance, are there. That’s the seed.” For the Baraka wing of the Black Arts Movement, this was not just transgression, it was heresy. As Lyle remarks, “Who’s more provocative in a nationalist setting than a minstrel?”4
In response to the 1976 Soweto massacre, the two men created a piece based on the funeral oration in Invisible Man, in which the narrator elegizes Tod Clifton, a left-wing protester killed on the streets of Harlem. One of the box set’s most astonishing discoveries, Soweto 1976 is a twenty-minute work in five sections, set against a cavernous symphony of percussion that the two men recorded at a lumber salvage yard in Oregon, using discarded tools as mallet instruments. Impersonating a variety of characters—a hipster, a preacher, and a carnival barker among them—Elliott improvises on Ellison’s words, as Hemphill snakes around him on alto and soprano saxophones. The speech conveys the horror of racist violence, but Elliott delivers it with an unstable, unsettling blend of mournfulness and self-parody, as if to suggest how suddenly a black man’s death becomes black comedy, the cruelest joke being the world’s indifference.
When Hemphill performed a version of this work at a 1979 celebration of Ralph Ellison at Brown University, Ellison’s wife, Fanny, was appalled that he’d used her husband’s work without permission. (Ellison himself was simply perplexed.) But Hemphill ended up charming them both. “You’re from Oklahoma, and I’m from Fort Worth,” he said, “so we’re neighbors. And where I come from, your husband’s book is the Bible.” According to Elliott, Fanny Ellison blushed: “Well, you can have it as long as you don’t make any money off it.” Hemphill told her she had no reason to worry: he’d never made any money from his music.
Supported by his wife’s teaching salary, Hemphill made a name for himself on the New York loft scene in the latter half of the 1970s. He shot pool at his cousin Ornette Coleman’s storefront on Prince Street, gave multimedia concerts with other BAG members, and recorded two masterpieces of loft-era free jazz: a spellbinding improvised duet with Wadud, performed live at La Mama in 1976 (released as Live in New York but long out of print), and an invigorating trio with Wadud and the drummer Don Moye, Raw Materials and Residuals. Meanwhile, he embarked on a search for new compositional forms. The more he composed, the more he found that he could “get lost in that, concentrating for hours on writing music.” According to the alto saxophonist Tim Berne, a protégé of Hemphill’s who briefly shared an apartment with him, “he’d sit on the bed, watching football with the sound on, and he’d write these three and four-part things, straight to score.”
His 1975 album ’Coon Bid’ness, which opened with a suite organized around lush, enigmatic harmonies for saxophones, had already announced his desire to create a new music for reeds. So did his evocative 1976 composition for woodwind septet, Water Music for Woodwinds.5 But he also hoped to lift the “cloak of anonymity” that prevents instrumental music from “delivering specific imagery and messages.” To that end, in 1977 he made two double-albums of intimate self-portraiture, the “audiodramas” Blue Boyé and Roi Boyé and the Gotham Minstrels. They are ensemble works, but he is the only performer. Yet there is nothing precious or self-consciously “experimental” about them.
Recorded in a basement studio in Westchester, Blue Boyé is a work of warm, pastoral lyricism, featuring various overdubbed combinations of alto saxophone, soprano, and flute, recreating the experiences of his childhood. An ambience of playfulness, curiosity, and delight pervades the album: there’s a jaunty, nearly serialist duet for alto and soprano and a bracing ten-bar blues called “Kansas City Line,” performed entirely on alto. He slaps his thighs, as if inviting us to join him on his stoop. But in the album’s two tone-poems—“CME,” for soprano and alto saxophones and flute, an homage to his mother’s Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, and “Hotend,” a call-and-response dirge for alto and soprano—Hemphill achieves a power worthy of the spirituals, in which celebration and sorrow are such close neighbors that you can hardly tell them apart.
Roi Boyé and the Gotham Minstrels, recorded in Toronto, is a more challenging and more troubled work than its predecessor. Originally conceived as a radio play for WBAI, it intersperses, and occasionally interweaves, intricate counterpoint for saxophones and flute with ambient sounds Hemphill recorded on his walks in New York (wind, traffic, birds). His mellow voice, with its soft Texan drawl, drifts in and out, at one point remarking on “butterflies in Central Park,” at another impersonating a subway conductor: “42nd Street, watch the closing doors.” He speaks of his desire for “blood from guitars” and “moon-eyed girls,” images plucked from Lorca, whose Poet in New York he called “my salvation now.” Estranged from his wife and drinking heavily, Hemphill poured his disquiet into Roi Boyé. As he wrote in his liner notes, “There are scattered moments of jubilation and festiveness; but there is often an undercurrent of tension in the laughter.” The album culminates in a dark, hallucinatory prose poem, which is brutally swallowed up by the garbled noise of what sounds like a cartoon.
The audiodramas are somewhat daunting works of sound art. But their exploration of saxophone “voices” fed directly into his choral writing for his best-known ensemble, the World Saxophone Quartet (WSQ). Founded in 1976 by Hemphill and three of avant-garde jazz’s finest improvisers—Oliver Lake and Hamiet Bluiett, both BAG members, and the young David Murray—WSQ provided him with an ideal vehicle. Writing for four saxophonists, who could each double up on clarinet or flute, he discovered “a whole internal group of associations and understandings.” Out of it emerged a vast body of glittering miniatures: some fifty tunes that moved (as he put it) from “reflection to vigor to reflection,” as well as arresting arrangements of Ellington, Marvin Gaye, and Junior Wells. He also outfitted WSQ in tuxedos that paid respect to the sophistication of Ellington and Cab Calloway, and built music stands out of plexiglass and fish wire, so that their scores seemed to be suspended in the air.
In the early 1980s Hemphill hit another rough patch. His marriage had ended, and his left leg was amputated because of his diabetes. He was also drinking again. Then, in 1983, while on a New York State Arts Council tour with WSQ, he met the pianist Ursula Oppens. The daughter of Central European Jewish émigrés, Oppens was renowned for her interpretations of Elliott Carter and other postwar composers. When he heard her perform, he was dazzled. “I came up meddling with her, and it turned out she had a rather large sense of humor, as I consider myself to have,” he told me. “And we struck it off in a very interesting way.” Soon after their tour, Hemphill moved into her apartment on the Upper West Side, which had thick walls and separate practice rooms.
“We never talked about music, we made music,” Oppens told me. “And it was wonderful.” His relations with the other members of WSQ were beginning to sour—he left the group in 1989—but his relationship with Oppens inspired him. He told me, “I need to learn to express myself in more vigorous terms so that I can deserve the interest of an artist like Ursula.” He wrote dozens of new compositions for his saxophone sextet, collaborated with the choreographer Bill T. Jones on his theater and dance work Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and delivered some of his most romantic soloing on Julius Hemphill Big Band, which features two of his great “torch ballads”: “For Billie,” an exquisite ode to Lady Day, and the haunting “Leora,” in which his alto soars over an ominous arpeggiated figure, moaning and crying with almost unbearable intensity.
He also began to compose his first pieces for classical instruments: the string quartet Mingus Gold, commissioned by the Kronos Quartet; the solo-piano piece Parchment, a spiky and mysterious blues written for Oppens (her live performance is on the box set); and a piano quintet, One Atmosphere, for Oppens and the Arditti Quartet. They are extraordinarily self-assured compositions but, as Oppens notes, “the only reason they’re considered classical is the instrumentation, because otherwise they’re so much like his other music, with their amazing harmonies.” Mingus Gold, superbly realized by the Daedalus Quartet on the box set, is not merely an arrangement but a reinvention of its source material, written in a richly chromatic language, with pizzicato passages for the cello that conjure the great bassist. One Atmosphere, with its bustling fugue section, is an even more impressive work. When I attended its 1992 premiere, Carter and John Cage were in the audience. Hemphill appreciated getting to know Oppens’s uptown composer friends. But he wasn’t intimidated by them, nor was he tempted to reinvent himself as a classical composer. As he told Ehrlich, “I’m happy writing for the saxophone.”
By the early 1990s writing was all he could do: as his diabetes worsened, he no longer had the strength to play. “I’m living on borrowed time,” he told the Smithsonian. “I’ve never been no boy scout, anyway…. Pay your token and ride your ride, you know.” The work that consumed him was his saxophone opera, which had grown out of Ralph Ellison’s Long Tongue, a collaboration with Elliott that had its roots in Soweto 1976. It had since evolved into Long Tongues, a saga about a black music club in Washington, D.C., from the 1940s to the late 1960s: roughly the years between his childhood and his arrival in St. Louis. The title derived from a phrase he had heard as a child: “laying a tongue on somebody” meant that “an elder had given an upstart a good dose of wisdom. I translated that idea into the versatility of the saxophone, and its endless ability to dispense wisdom.”
A chronicle of all that he knew and felt about America, written for an orchestra of seven strings, piccolo, five brass, saxophone sextet, and rhythm section, and narrated by the lyric tenor Thomas Young, Long Tongues was performed at the Apollo in 1990. But in Hemphill’s mind it remained a work-in-progress. It has never been released, but the music on The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony will lay a tongue on anyone who hasn’t heard his work—and on those of us who assumed we had. When a journalist asked Hemphill if he felt he was ahead of his time, he chuckled. “Well, I don’t know about that. When is my time?”
The sculptures belonged to Hemphill’s friend Donald Suggs, an oral surgeon and newspaper editor in St. Louis with an extensive collection of African art. ↩
Sweet Willie Rollbar’s Orientation, along with its score, has been fastidiously reassembled by the jazz scholar Brent Hayes Edwards. ↩
In his excellent notes in the Hemphill archives, Ehrlich compares Wadud’s sounding of the “Dogon A.D.” ostinato to the guitar riff in Muddy Waters’s “Mannish Boy,” but there’s another parallel: like “Mannish Boy”—with its refrain, “I’m a man” (later echoed on civil rights posters)—Hemphill’s tune uses rhythm as an unbridled proclamation of black manhood. ↩
Baraka derided him as “the Tall European,” but he later acknowledged Hemphill’s gifts. After all, Hemphill’s music was an impeccable illustration of Baraka’s theory about the Black American continuum, the so-called changing same. ↩
A marvelous recording of Water Music for Woodwinds was made in 2003 by Marty Ehrlich, Oliver Lake, Sam Furnace, Tim Berne, Aaron Stewart, Robert DeBellis, and J.D. Parran, for the posthumous album One Atmosphere. ↩