Clifford Thornton should be one of the best-known figures of the free jazz era. That he has lapsed into relative obscurity stands as a testament to the way that the availability of recordings shapes our sense of history.
Thornton was born in Philadelphia in 1936. In the mid-50s, he went to college at Temple, studied with hard-bop trumpeter Donald Byrd and worked with various players including tuba player Ray Draper. Thornton was in an army band in the late-50s, and he settled in New York City just as it was becoming the epicenter of the free jazz movement. He appears as a sideman on some great records from the period ? Sun Ra’s Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow, Marzette Watts’ eponymous ESP record, Sunny Murray’s Hommage to Africa ? and he’s one of the most frequently cited people in Valerie Wilmer’s study As Serious As Your Life.
But Thornton was most highly active as a leader ? a composer, musical community builder, teacher (most notably at Wesleyan) and bandleader. A brass player in a world of saxophonists, he recorded a handful of fantastic records under his own name for BYG, America and JCOA (none of which is currently in print). He was an outspokenly political person in a politically charged atmosphere (in 1970, he was barred entry into France on suspicion of being a Black Panther), and he was an independent record company owner. Third World Records, on which he issued Freedom & Unity and later Communications (1972), was his own label.
Freedom & Unity was recorded the day after John Coltrane’s funeral. Thornton rehearsed his group, the New Art Ensemble, across the hall from Ornette Coleman’s Trio (with Izenzon and Moffett) on Barrow Street in Greenwich Village. Joe McPhee was a young, wide-eyed member of the band; Freedom & Unity is the first entry in McPhee’s discography, and he remembers the scene vividly. Coleman in fact invited McPhee to the now-legendary Coltrane ceremony, at which Coleman and Albert Ayler led their groups in performance. Later that night, McPhee heard the Ornette Coleman Trio at the Village Vanguard, where they played a version of Coltrane’s "Naima".
"I remember the recording being a very pleasant experience," says McPhee. "And I couldn’t believe it was Jimmy Garrison on bass ? that was beyond the pale." Indeed, the proximity to Coltrane’s funeral and the appearance of Garrison, who had not been part of the core ensemble, on the session, clearly gave the July 22 studio date an added dose of potency. That Coleman and Archie Shepp gave the record their blessings in the form of liner notes says all that needs to be said about the significance of the ensuing LP. It should rightly be considered a classic.
Thornton spent most of the last couple of decades of his life in Europe. He died in Geneva, Switzerland, in the mid-80s, completely out of the spotlight and largely forgotten by the creative music community. But his inspiration and his recordings survive him. It is to the persistence of Clifford Thornton’s memory that we dedicate this reissue. -JOHN CORBETT, Chicago, July 2001