Clifford Thornton was a cornetist, valve trombonist, composer and band leader whose work made a mark on the free-jazz genre in the 1960s. Born in Philadelphia on September 6, 1936, Thornton's work embodies multi-instrumental virtuosity and a combination of bebop and free improvisation. He was a minister for the arts of the Black Panther Party.
Thornton attended Temple University from 1954-1956, and studied with Donald Byrd in 1957. His first professional experience was to play with tubist Ray Draper, after which he toured Korea and Japan with the Army Band, recorded with Sun Ra, and played with Pharoah Sanders. In 1967 he formed the free jazz group New Arts Ensemble; its first recording, Freedom and Unity, was recorded the day after the funeral of John Coltrane. Thornton incorporated big band concepts in his free-jazz work, drawing upon the musical influence of Charles Mingus.
In 1969, Thornton began playing with Archie Shepp. He performed with Shepp's free jazz band at the Pan-African Festival in 1969. In 1970, he played with Shepp at the Antibes Juan-les-Pins Jazz Festival, during which he was banned from France for making a political speech regarding his separatist dispositions that shocked even his fellow Black Panthers. This ban, which was later lifted in 1971, was placed for Thornton's Black Panther politics and socialist extremism. Thornton's compositions, such as The Gardens of Harlem and The Panther and the Lash, explicitly expressed his political inclinations through themes of Black Nationalism and the influences of gospel, West African, Tunisian, and French musical styles.
The Gardens of Harlem (1974) draws its influence from Caribbean, West and North African, blues and gospel music traditions, as well as a piece based upon the cry of a South Carolina fruit vendor (Sweet Oranges). It was recorded by the Jazz Composers' Orchestra of America and paid homage to the outgrowth of the black liberation and black arts movements in Harlem in the 1960s. The garden in Thornton's piece represents a metaphor for growth and change, as black musics (i.e- blues, gospel, sorrow songs, ring shouts) traditionally expressed themes of change, transcendence, justice and personal worth.
This work has been significant in the jazz tradition because of its use of black music traditions and improvisation to express the cultural richness of the black liberation and black arts movements that occurred in Harlem during Thornton's lifetime.
The Scientific Soul Revolutionary Gardens of Harlem by Fred Ho and Marie Incontrera pays homage to Clifford Thornton in that it captures the spirit of his resistance tradition and flowers a new creative endeavor. The work honors revolutionary concepts, people and movements that influenced Thornton and his fellow activists. Movement I is titled The Life and Redemption of our Shining Black Prince and pays homage to Malcolm X, as he was called “our shining black prince” during his eulogy, given by Ossie Davis. Movement II, a ballad titled Mother Earth and the Green Destiny Weapon, pays respect to the practice of revolutionary matriarchy, including the first matriarch: planet earth. Movement III, The Grace of the Guerilla, My Love, is a tribute to the graceful, dedicated lifestyle of the guerilla revolutionary.