Lest We Forget:

Julius Hemphill (1938-1995)
By Ken Waxman

Known best for the 15-odd years he spent as a founding member of the World Saxophone Quartet (WSQ), saxophonist and composer Julius Arthur Hemphill, influenced the shape of jazz before and after that affiliation. Live at Kassiopeia, a 1987 German concert recently released by NoBusiness, demonstrates his prowess in extending solo reed language and in powerful duets with German bassist Peter Kowald. Hemphill’s organizational and musical smarts also encouraged younger saxophonists such as Tim Berne and especially Marty Ehrlich, whose Julius Hemphill Sextet preserves the all-saxophone ensemble Hemphill created after splitting with the WSQ.

Born Jan. 24th, 1938 in Fort Worth, TX, the sounds of blues, jazz and gospel live and on jukeboxes were part of Hemphill’s life growing up. Brief R&B gigs with Ike Turner’s band following a hitch the US Army intensified these currents. Moving to St. Louis in the late ‘60s, Hemphill helped organize the multidisciplinary collective Black Artists’ Group (BAG) with future WSQ members alto saxophonist Oliver Lake and baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett. Moreover, it was compositions such as his epic “The Hard Blues”, initially recorded on the influential Dogon A.D. album for his own Mbari label, which confirmed that the textures of experimental jazz could be combined with bedrock blues rhythms.

This tendency was extended with the WSQ, initially consisting of Lake, Hemphill, Bluiett and tenor saxophonist David Murray. Hemphill was chief arranger for the cooperative until personal conflicts and health problems forced him to leave. With albums under his own name such as Roi Boyé & the Gotham Minstrels (Sackville/Delmark) and Blue Boyé (Screwgun), he started experimenting with multimedia, multi-instrumentalism and overdubbing. Hemphill collaborated with dancer Bill T. Jones on “The Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land”; organized one eponymous big band disc on Elektra/Musician around a setting of K. Curtis Lyle`s poetry; composed “Long Tongues”, a 75-minute opera for six saxophones, rhythm section, strings, brass and piccolo that utilized spoken word, dance and photo montage; wrote for non-jazz ensembles such as the Arditti String Quartet and the Richmond Symphony and, in live performance, would often play alongside pre-recorded tapes.

The results of a serious car accident, plus diabetes, cancer and heart problems, adversely affected his life from the early ‘80s onward. Although his health didn’t permit him to perform after 1994 - Berne took his place in the sextet - before that Hemphill had worked steadily with associates like percussionist Warren Smith and cellist Abdul Wadud. Hemphill died in New York on Apr. 2nd, 1995.

—For New York City Jazz Record January 2012