Born on January 24, 1938, in Fort Worth, TX; died on April 2, 1995, in New York, NY. Education: Attended North Texas State University and Lincoln University.
At the time of his death in 1995, saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill was acknowledged as a prolific and visionary composer, mentor, and performer. In addition to his position as a founder and member of the World Saxophone Quartet from 1977 to 1990 and the Julius Hemphill Sextet from 1991 until his death, his composed works included pieces for duos, quartets, and big bands. Hemphill was also instrumental in the work of the Black Artists Group in St. Louis, a group of activists, artists, and musicians who attempted to bring a social message through their art to a broad audience of African Americans in the 1970s. Hemphill even founded his own record company, Mbari Records, in the attempt to retain control over his artistic vision.
Hemphill was born on January 24, 1938, in Fort Worth, Texas. The Hemphill family included a number of ministers, a fact that Hemphill later drew upon in explaining the inspiration for his career as a musician. As he told David Jackson of Down Beat magazine in 1975, music was "an act of giving, coming out of an intensely religious tradition." Hemphill studied music while in high school, focusing on the baritone saxophone, and later trained with jazz musician John Carter. Hemphill subsequently attended North Texas State University in Denton and Lincoln University in St. Louis, Missouri, although he did not take a degree at either institution. As he was later quoted in a Nation magazine profile, "It was an academic pursuit, largely hypothetical, since there were so few African Americans in the classical world." In addition to his formal training, he gained professional experience playing with a number of R&B bands in Fort Worth.
Founded Black Artists Group
In 1964, Hemphill entered the United States Army. After his stint in the armed forces, he returned to playing as a professional musician, this time with Ike Turner. In 1967-68, he moved to St. Louis, his wife's hometown; the Hemphills would eventually have two sons. In St. Louis, Hemphill helped to revitalize one of the most active and innovative jazz scenes in the country through his participation in the Black Artists Group (BAG). While St. Louis had been the center of a vibrant jazz community in the late 1950s and early 1960s, much of the homegrown talent had left for New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Consequently, the number of performance spaces for jazz artists had almost disappeared in the city, and those who remained were reduced to playing in public parks. Together with musicians Hamiet Bluiett and Oliver Lake and a host of other musicians, writers, poets, actors, painters, and dancers, Hemphill founded the BAG to refocus and revitalize the African American artistic community. In 1968, BAG successfully lobbied the state's Arts Council for a grant and soon opened the doors to a community center that provided musical training for children as well as performing space for BAG productions.
With the goal of retaining artistic control of his work, Hemphill also founded Mbari Records to record and distribute his work. One of his compositions from this period, Dogon A.D., was later reissued by Freedom Records. A quartet piece, the work called for a cello in place of the traditional bass. Equally innovative was Hemphill's contribution to the 1972 multimedia production of Kawaida, which incorporated music and dance as well as his own concert appearances on the college circuit, often in exuberant ethnic costumes. By the mid-1970s, Hemphill had a strong enough reputation as an avant-garde composer and live performer that he appeared in such international locales as Stockholm and Paris.
World Saxophone Quartet
In 1972, the BAG disbanded and Hemphill relocated to Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and two sons. He continued his eclectic output as a musician during this period, adapting some of his work for the film The Orientation of Sweet Willie Rollbar, headlining African American cultural performances in New York City, and even contributing as a guest musician to the Kool and the Gang track "Hustler's Convention." Hemphill also recorded two albums of his performances as an alter-ego persona, Roi Boyé, for the 1977 releases Blue Boyé and Roi Boyé and the Gotham Minstrels.
In 1977, Hemphill rejoined with BAG partners Bluiett and Lake. Together with David Murray, they formed the World Saxophone Quartet (WSQ), which Hemphill would play with until 1990. As the primary composer of the WSQ, Hemphill's works enjoyed their greatest exposure. One work, called "Steppin,'" was even added to the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, one of the few works of the modern jazz era to receive that distinction. Although he continued to push the artistic boundaries of jazz, Hemphill did not give in to the artistic excesses that sometimes plagued other composers. As Gene Santoro wrote in Nation, "[H]e's never surrendered to the sheer energy of note cascades for their own virtuosic sake.... Instead, he uses his marvelous gift for lyricism to leaven even his earthiest or most avant-garde, noise-perforated outings. That thoughtful and balanced approach, that distinctive sense of control over texture and space, shows clearly in his composing as well as his approach to his horns." Gary Giddins echoed this sentiment in a Village Voice tribute, singling out Hemphill's "special brilliance--a clarity of purpose that made every piece singular, vividly indicative of a specific mood or idea" as the hallmark of his WSQ work.
Although a 1982 car accident somewhat impaired Hemphill's mobility, he remained a prolific composer. In 1990, Hemphill left the WSQ and formed the Julius Hemphill Sextet. Increasingly, he composed commissioned, multimedia collaborations, including Long Tongues: A Saxophone Opera, which had its premiere in Washington, D.C. in 1989. Through spoken words, dance pieces, photo montages, and music, the piece told the story of the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Club over four decades. Hemphill also worked on The Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin: The Promised Land, which toured the United States and Europe in 1990 and 1991. Other commissioned works led Hemphill to work with groups as diverse as the Arditti String Quartet on "One Atmosphere (For Ursula)" in 1992, the Richmond Symphony on "Plan B" in 1993, and "A Bitter Glory" with the Walker Art Center and the American Music Theater Festival in 1994. Jim Macnie of Billboard quoted Hemphill explaining his ability to take on such a range of projects: "I don't have many particular preconceptions about anything, and that kind of makes me eligible to do something a little different, a little more personalized."
In 1991, Hemphill returned to recording, releasing Fat Man and the Hard Blues with his sextet on Italian label Black Saint Records. He also released a live album of his performance with cellist Abdul Wadud in 1992, Oakland Duets. The final album released by the Julius Hemphill Sextet during Hemphill's life, Five Chord Stud, was released on Black Saint Records in 1993. Hemphill made one of his last public performances at the New York Jazz Festival in 1994. Recovering from a bout with cancer and facing increasing problems with diabetes, Hemphill died on April 2, 1995.
Hemphill's achievements had guaranteed him an esteemed place in the pantheon of great jazz composers and musicians of the twentieth century. As one of his students, Marty Ehrlich, remarked to the Village Voice, "He got lumped in with the avant-garde, but he was really his own academy. One mark of his genius is that he found his musical language at a really young age--it's pretty much all there in Dogon A.D."
Hemphill's reputation continued to grow after his death. In 1998, Black Saint Records released Chile/New York: Sound Environment, a duet that Hemphill recorded with percussionist Warren Smith in 1980. "Smith's multiple instruments paint a spacious soundscape, adding a level of depth not often present on duets," a Texas Monthly reviewer noted, "while Hemphill's spirited blowing skirmishes the craggy scenery with stark originality." Hemphill has also received numerous posthumous tributes from musicians who trained with him, including performances of his works by his former students.
by Timothy Borden
Julius Hemphill's Career
Studied saxophone in Fort Worth, TX; moved to St. Louis after stint in U.S. Army, 1968; helped to found the Black Artists Group; established own Mbari Records; relocated to New York City, 1970s; contributed to the multimedia production of Kawaida, 1972; released albums and made festival appearances as the founding member of the World Saxophone Quartet, 1977-90; created Julius Hemphill Sextet, 1991.
- Selected discography
- Dogon A.D. , Freedom, 1972.
- Coon Bid'ness , Black Lion, 1975.
- Live in New York , Red, 1976.
- Blue Boyé , Screwgun, 1977.
- Roi Boyé and the Gotham Minstrels , Sackville, 1977.
- Raw Materials and Residuals , Black Saint, 1977.
- Buster Bee , Sackville, 1978.
- Flat-Out Jump Suite , Black Saint, 1980.
- Georgia Blue , Minor Music, 1984.
- Big Band , Elektra, 1988.
- Fat Man and the Hard Blues , Black Saint, 1991.
- Live from the New Music Cafe , Music & Arts, 1991.
- Oakland Duets (live), Music & Arts, 1992.
- Five Chord Stud , Black Saint, 1993.
- Reflections , Freedom, 1995.
- At Dr. King's Table , New World, 1997.
- Chile/New York: Sound Environment , Black Saint, 1998.
- Billboard, April 15, 1995.
- Down Beat, June 1975.
- Nation, March 7, 1994.
- Texas Monthly, October 1998.
- Village Voice, April 25, 1995; December 8, 1998.
- Excite Music, http://music.excite.com/artist/biography/136453 (September 16, 2001).
- KWMU (St. Louis) Jazz Unlimited Home Page, http://walden.mo.net/~dcowsley/index.htm (September 16, 2001).
- Subito Music, http://www.subitomusic.com/hemphill_bio.htm (September 16, 2001).