For a long time, I’d see him with books under his arm walking quickly to or from the Tompkins Square Library on Tenth Street, where, I would later discover, we both lived a block apart. He always seemed to be wearing a different and marvelous hat and, unusual for our neighborhood, a sport jacket, perfectly fitting and a modest color. He was cool to an inch of his life. It may have been several months before we exchanged smiles.
For many years, I had spent time in a café on the corner of Tenth and First Avenue. It was a home for many of us in the neighborhood, especially in the back room, where it was warm and cozy and you could spend the morning writing to the whine of the espresso machine. He’d be at a table reading, not staying very long, and over time we’d smile and nod.
One spring day, twelve or more years ago, we sat at opposite tables on the café terrace—on the sidewalk, that is, but I like the snobby European twinge of “terrace.” He wasn’t reading. I felt that I could no longer stand wondering who he was, and I finally approached him.
He was Henry Threadgill, a musician, he said. And I was me, a writer. We had never heard of each other. After a while of little stuff, I asked who his favorite writer was. “James Joyce, for Ulysses,” he said without hesitation. “And you, for music?” he asked.
“Bach,” I said, “for everything.”
We did not need more glue than that. Soon it was as if we had known each other forever and were picking up our conversation from the day before.
It has always stayed like that.
A few weeks later, Henry invited me to his concert at the Jazz Gallery. Henry primarily plays saxophone and flute, but his talents extend to many other instruments, including his famous hubcaphone, which he built from pipes and salvaged hubcaps. That night, Henry shaved notes—as Cézanne did forms—into planes and made silences into music. I did not have to wait for the performance to be over to realize that he was one of the most original and brilliant musicians and composers of our time.