A Chance Encounter with Jazz Legend Henry Threadgill at Mezlan

It was an ordinary summer day on the vibrant strip of Chicago’s North Michigan Avenue better known by its nickname, the Magnificent Mile. The monolithic buildings that line the street glowed in the August sun as constant streams of pedestrian traffic flowed in and out of their doors. In the Mile’s 900 N Michigan building a man casually strolled through the mall’s corridors as unsuspecting shoppers, caught up in the intricacies of their own lives, went on about their business unaware of the man that walked among them.

After finishing his shopping in the 900 Shops he began making his way towards the building’s exit, but before he could make his leave something caught his eye. In the midst of the mash of advertisements, salespersons, and customers a display directing shoppers to a store selling handcrafted shoes and accessories stood out to him. He “dug the style,” as he would later say. The display was for Mezlan’s Chicago store located on the 3rd level of 900 N Michigan.

Tito Garcia has worked at Mezlan Chicago for many years. His approach is always to make the customer feel comfortable so when the man walked in, he struck up a conversation. “He had the look of an artist,” Tito recalled. He said he had grown up in Chicago before his career had led him to other places. Although he had traveled many places, he always came back home to his native city. The two conversed for a short time before the man purchased a sporty pair of Mezlans and left the store before Tito was able to ask whether or not his instincts as to the man’s profession were correct, but he would get another chance.

The next morning, as the store was opening, the man arrived before any other customers. Satisfied with his first set of Mezlan shoes he had purchased, he had returned in search of a more formal pair to complement them. Tito wouldn’t let the opportunity pass twice, asking him the question he had piqued his curiosity since first seeing the man stroll into the store. His intuition was correct, the man was an artist.

Once it was established that the man was, in fact, a musician Tito inquired as to what instrument he played. With a calm, cool demeanor the man pointed to the store’s speaker which was pumping out the saxophone solo of a smooth jazz track. As the conversation unfolded and the man revealed further details of his life and journeys, it became clear, the man who was now standing in front of Tito in the Mezlan Chicago store was Jazz legend Henry Threadgill.

Threadgill burst on to the national music scene in the 1970’s thanks to his unique style. His unorthodox style and ability to incorporate elements of different genres into his compositions set him apart from his contemporaries. Studying at Chicago’s American Conservatory of Music where he majored in piano and flute, Threadgill would later settle on alto saxophone as his instrument of choice.

After becoming a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Threadgill would earn his first real work as a musician touring with Jo Jo Morris and his gospel band before enlisting in the US Army. Although many would lose sight of their dreams and aspirations in the middle of a war zone, Threadgill took the opportunity to form a rock band while serving in the U.S. forces stationed in Vietnam. The band entertained fellow soldiers from 1967 until their leader was discharged in 1969.

Threadgill returned to Chicago ready to take his craft to the next level by teaming up with 2 of his old AACM bandmates, bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall. The first time around circumstances weren’t quite right and Threadgill would move to New York to form X-75, before reuniting with the Hopkins and McCall 4 years later. The trio would become Air, the group that revolutionized music in the 70’s with their brand of avant-garde jazz.

Air’s biggest impact came with the release of their 1979 album Air Lore, a collection of interpretations of early jazz and ragtag compositions originally performed the likes of Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin. The album would set the tone of jazz for the next decade, as nostalgia would dominate the genre. The group would last through the mid-80’s releasing an array of albums before its members branched out to different projects.
In Threadgill’s case, it would be the Henry Threadgill Sextet. The group, which was actually a septet as it was comprised of 7 members as opposed to 6, played music that mixed New Orleans Jazz, Rhythm & Blues, Gospel, as well as others. Its members included cornetist Olu Dara, the father of Hip-Hop legend and Queens, New York rapper Nas. Under Threadgill’s leadership the group would gain critical acclaim as they released 6 albums through the end of the 80’s.

As the 90’s arrived, Threadgill would again split with his group to form a new one. Very Very Circus comprised two tubas, two guitars, a trombone, a trumpet, and drums and would push the envelope even further blending elements of jazz, funk, salsa, and even Eastern European marches into what would be arguably the most versatile ensembles in the history of Jazz music. The septet would release 5 albums before Threadgill, in what had now become the norm, would move on to other endeavors.

Threadgill would lead Make a Move and Zooid as well as partner with numerous other artists to release collaborations, never stopping to take a break or even thinking about retirement. Amongst Jazz circles, his name is synonymous with some of the most profound musical compositions known to man. He had earned his keep and excelled in a profession most only dream of succeeding in. He was a trail blazer who played by his own rules and scoffed at the standards set forth by the industry. He was the true embodiment of a living legend and he was now standing directly in front of Tito asking him about Mezlan shoes.

Thread, as he went by to those close to him, said he grew up in the city’s Englewood neighborhood. Tito responded that his father in law, Terry Ross, had grown up in the city and played jazz as well. Threadgill’s response would catch Tito off guard, “There’s only one Terry Ross,” he said as his eyes lit up. As Tito stood in amazement, Thread told him the two had been friends and fellow musicians in the 60’s and asked how Ross was doing. Tito didn’t hesitate, pulling out his phone and dialing Ross, before handing the phone to Threadgill so the two could catch up and reminisce about old times.

Threadgill said he appreciated the quality and artisanship of Mezlan shoes and after trying on a few pairs decided to place another order. After the two had talked for a while Threadgill exchanged pleasantries with the store’s staff and made his way toward his next adventure.

“He was very laid back and non-pretentious—a warm person, very nice and very gracious,” Tito would recall, “very much a Mezlan man.” Although the exchange was brief, it left a lasting impression on Tito.

You can find Tito Garcia at the Mezlan Chicago store at 900 N Michigan Shops.

COMMENTS AND REACTIONS

Comments are closed.