Julius Hemphill - alto and soprano saxophone (1928 - 1995)
For over thirty-five years Julius Hemphill earned a reputation as one who broke down boundaries and defied labels. A prodigious composer who wrote luscious and shimmering sonorities with the ever-present tang of the blues, Hemphill was as comfortable writing for full orchestra as he was for his Sextet or Big Band. He composed for theater and multi-media productions and worked with some of this generation’s most acclaimed writers and choreographers who sought his unifying consciousness for collaborative projects. An improviser of immense talent and saxophonist who could coax the best out of any musical unit, Hemphill performed in almost every major jazz festival and hall in North America and Europe, including the Berlin, Montreal, Kool, Rome, Paris, Den Haag (North Sea), and Warsaw festivals.
Born in 1938, Julius Hemphill divided his attention between music and sports while growing up in the fertile musical environment of Fort Worth, Texas. He gained experience playing in local blues bands and jazz groups and began focusing on his musical career in earnest after moving to St. Louis in 1966. In 1968, Hemphill joined the Black Artists Group (BAG), playing an instrumental role in developing this interdisciplinary performance collective that included future World Saxophone Quartet members Oliver Lake (alto) and Hamiet Bluiett (baritone). In the early 70s, the composer recorded two albums, “Dogon A.D.” and “Coon Bid’ness,” that were later released on the Arista/Freedom label.
Hemphill moved to New York in 1973 to continue his dance on the edge of free jazz. In 1976, he became the founding member and principal composer/arranger for the World Saxophone Quartet"a four-horn band which proved that saxophones could swing and sing without the support of a rhythm section. Hemphill’s performances with the WSQ can be heard on “World Saxophone Quartet Plays Duke Ellington” and “Dances and Ballads,” recorded for Elektra/Nonesuch, as well as “Rhythm & Blues,” recorded for Elektra/Musician.
After leaving the World Saxophone Quartet in 1989, Hemphill devoted more of his time to collaborative multi-media projects and expanded his compositional palette. The Julius Hemphill Sextet was first featured in Hemphill’s Long Tongues: A Saxophone Opera, a multi-media composition with dancers, actors, and slide projections, built exclusively on instrumental music and loosely based on the history of the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Club from 1943 to 1968. Developed from an earlier collaboration with District Curators and Malinke Robert Eliott, the work received its world premiere in Washington D.C. in 1989 and its New York premiere at the Apollo Theater in 1990.