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Julius Hemphill: Greater Harmony

A seven-disc set adds new depth to the legacy of the late saxophonist and composer

Julius Hemphill 1984
Julius Hemphill at Irving Plaza, New York, September 1984 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

In the concluding section of Marty Ehrlich’s gold-standard booklet notes for The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony (New World), a seven-CD extravaganza culled from the 180 audio and visual documents contained in the Julius Hemphill Archive at NYU’s Fales Library, Ehrlich reminds us that Hemphill (1938-1995)—with whom he collaborated closely for a decade, and whose music he played and organized posthumously with the Julius Hemphill Saxophone Sextet—“would never tell you what his music meant.”

No back stories or provenance are required to appreciate Hemphill’s homegrown, novelistic corpus, herein represented with 46 tracks, including 35 original compositions (25 of them previously unreleased) by 16 different configurations recorded at 18 different locations. The collection substantially augments his existing discography: 19 leader or co-leader albums in a panoply of contexts and eight albums with Hamiet Bluiett, Oliver Lake, and David Murray in the pathbreaking World Saxophone Quartet, which recorded 30 of his pieces between 1976 and 1987 (one of them, “Steppin’,” appears on The Smithsonian Anthology of Jazz).

“He was phenomenal as a composer and as a player,” said Jack DeJohnette, who propels the flow on three tracks (CD 7) from an authoritative 1979 performance of Hemphill repertoire with trumpeter Baikida Carroll—Hemphill’s close friend and collaborator since 1968, when both were founding members of the Black Artists Group in St. Louis—and bassist Dave Holland. “He had so much to say, like a stream of consciousness. His ideas were potent, and the intensity that came through in his playing was awesome.”

In total, the box reflects almost the full spectrum of Hemphill’s transidiomatic interests, excepting his Ellington/Benny Carter/Oliver Nelson/AACM-inflected saxophone ensemble writing. His chamber music (CD 4) is best represented with “Parchment,” performed by his late-life partner Ursula Oppens, the eminent new-music pianist. CD 5 expands our awareness of Hemphill’s magnificent saxophone-text dialogues—eight encounters with poet K. Curtis Lyle and five with actor/provocateur Malinké Elliott over prerecorded salvage-yard percussion—on which Hemphill effectively morphs his metal instrument into a signifying analogue for the human voice.

There are 13 tracks with the preternatural cello virtuoso Abdul Wadud, who introduced the world to Hemphill’s no-limits cello conception on the latter’s much-admired 1972 debut Dogon A.D., its 1975 follow-up Coon Bid’ness, and the 1976 duo album Live in New York. CD 2 comprises six Hemphill-Wadud duos that cut through abstraction at rarefied levels of interplay and conversational erudition. So does the discursive, interactive 1980 quartet concert on the first half of CD 1, on which Wadud punctuates and counterstates Hemphill (who plays tenor sax on “Zuli”) and Olu Dara’s hot trumpet, elliptical yet declarative, and the expansive 1977 quartet concert by Hemphill, Wadud, Carroll, and drummer Alex Cline on CD 3.

In each context save the chamber pieces, Hemphill animates and suggestively guides the flow with his unique voice on alto saxophone and flute, infused with a Black-vernacular-meets-Modernism consciousness for which Lyle’s term “blues surrealism” is as good a descriptor as any.

By 1994, well aware that his struggles with diabetes and heart disease were nearing their inevitable end, Hemphill told his life story in a comprehensive Smithsonian oral history with Katea Stitt, the daughter of one of his heroes, Sonny Stitt, whose 1950 single “Imagination” he’d heard as a 13-year-old aspirant. Hemphill heard “Imagination” on one of the several jukeboxes in establishments of ill repute that remained active until the wee hours near the Fort Worth, Texas home he shared with his “marching through Babylon with her Bible” mother, Edna Hemphill, a schoolteacher who played homegrown piano at church on Sunday mornings. On another jukebox, at “a shoe shine stand a few blocks away up the corner,” Hemphill heard “Au Privave,” his portal to Charlie Parker, whose language he refracted through a prism not dissimilar to his older cousin Ornette Coleman.

“Quite frankly,” he told Stitt, “I didn’t like going to school. It had too many rules. The last person I really obeyed was my mama, and I was about 10. Once I got out from under that jurisdiction, I was a free-floating organic plankton. I hardly ever tried to emulate anybody. I’m stubborn enough to say that if I can’t come up with an idea I have no business being up here.

“If I have anything to contribute to this art form (and I think it is an art form), it’s that this is a voice of our culture. This ain’t out of the conservatory. This is a voice right out of them cotton fields, out of the neighborhood. That’s where my impetus comes from. No matter what I study, music means to me a summation of my experiences. That doesn’t say that I’m trapped by that. But that’s what seems vital to me. That’s my bottom line. I may take the challenge on to do something that doesn’t reflect my background particularly. But my home base is so rich. I got America in my bloodstream. I have seen it from the bottom up. I’ve seen how the rules are one thing, but the application of rules is quite another matter.”

Hemphill’s music, whatever the context, paralleled the multiply layered eloquence and breadth of reference that infused his conversation. It’s a compositional legacy—“full of fantasy” and often “very complicated,” as Ehrlich told me in early June—that remains fresh and vital and mysterious a quarter-century after his death.

Ted Panken

Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz and creative music for various publications, and programmed jazz and creative music on WKCR-FM in New York City from 1985 through 2008. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article “Smalls Universe,” published by DownBeat, and earned the Jazz Journalists’ Association 2016 Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism award. His blog, Today Is The Question, contains over 260 of his articles and verbatim interviews.