Julius Hemphill, born today in 1938 in Fort Worth, Texas, emerged as a distinctive and influential voice in the world of jazz saxophone. Rooted in the blues and influenced by the bebop style of Charlie Parker, Hemphill’s musical journey began with a strong connection to the rich musical traditions of his region, similar to Ornette Coleman.
In 1966, Hemphill’s career took a pivotal turn when he moved to St. Louis. There, he joined forces with like-minded musicians, including alto saxophonist Oliver Lake and trumpeter Lester Bowie. Two years later, he co-founded the Black Artists Group (B.A.G.), an African-American arts collective focusing on multi-disciplinary collaboration, similar in spirit to Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
Hemphill’s first record was a duo album with the poet K. Curtis Lyle, dedicated to Blind Lemon Jefferson, showcasing his inclination towards collaborative and experimental works. His move to New York after the release of his classic album “Dogon A.D.” in 1972 marked another significant phase in his career.
A crucial development in Hemphill’s career was his role in the formation of the World Saxophone Quartet in 1977, alongside Oliver Lake, Hamiet Bluiett, and David Murray. The Quartet, known for blending free jazz, R&B, funk, and South African jazz, became a prominent ensemble in the jazz world. The original members, having worked together as part of the Black Artists’ Group in St. Louis, brought a unique synergy to the Quartet.
Hemphill’s compositional skills were particularly notable in the Quartet, as he had a gift for creating extravagant harmonies from reed instruments. This skill was evident in his other works as well, including his saxophone sextet which performed his piece “Long Tongues: A Saxophone Opera.” Hemphill’s collaboration with the choreographer Bill T. Jones for “Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land” further highlighted his versatility and creative vision.
Despite battling health issues, including diabetes and heart surgery, which eventually forced him to stop playing the saxophone, Hemphill continued writing music until his death in 1995. His legacy is preserved through various recordings and a retrospective seven-disc box set titled “The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony,” which showcases his work in various live solo and group contexts.
Hemphill’s contributions to the saxophone and jazz music were profound and lasting, influencing a generation of musicians and leaving an indelible mark on the jazz scene. His work with the World Saxophone Quartet remains a significant part of his legacy, showcasing his exceptional talent as a saxophonist and composer