Sending out a birthday to salute to Clifford Thornton, a cult free-jazz composer (and former Black Panther Party Minister of Art) who released a spate of classics from '67-'75 on various independent labels. In some ways he could be likened to the Eric Dolphy of his generation, a multi-instrumentalist artist who greatly impacted contemporary musicians around him while remaining out of the general public's eye.
From Philly, he was a cousin to jazz drummer J.C. Moses. At seven he started learning piano and as a teenager studied with Donald Byrd and played with jazz tuba player Ray Draper. After moving to NYC in the early '60s he was hanging around with Don Cherry, Rashied Ali, Amiri Baraka and Marion Brown and found himself playing with Sun Ra, Bill Dixon, Sam Rivers, Archie Shepp and Pharaoh Sanders. He contributed to Marzette Watts' 1966 debut. Thornton's own 1967 debut, Freedom & Unity, featured John Coltrane's bassist Jimmy Garrison (recorded the day after Trane's funeral) and a young Joe McPhee.
In '69 Thornton traveled to Algeria with Shepp, followed by some concerts in Belgium and recording in Paris for Actuel, which would result in his Ketchaoua LP, as well as sides for several other artists on the scene. 1970 saw the release of another underknown Thornton gem, The Panther & The Lash.
He taught at Wesleyan through '75, presenting jazz & world music of high regard to the students (Horace Silver, Milton Cardona, L. Shankar, Ed Blackwell were among those brought by Thornton). His '72 album Communications Network included Shankar, Sirone and Jayne Cortez, while his absolutely amazing The Gardens of Harlem ('74) with the Jazz Composers Orchestra brought out Cuban and West African rhythms.
His music was certainly art music, as well it was highly politicized. Well regarded as an arranger and composer, he could play trumpet, cornet, valve trombone, shenai, piano and was a huge influence on McPhee, Fred Ho, Peter Zummo and others. His own catalogue was scant but you can also find him on releases by Anthony Braxton, Joe Malinga, Dave Burrell, Arthur Jones, Sunny Murray, the Full Moon Ensemble and several late '60s Shepp records. He remains one of my favorites.