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July/August 2023  -   -  

How Henry Threadgill's Wild & Crazy Vietnam War Tour Shaped his Musical Career

In the spring of 1966 Henry Threadgill, the renowned jazz composer, saxophonist and flutist, was working at a hospital in his hometown of Chicago and studying part time at the American Conservatory of Music. That’s when Uncle Sam came calling as his draft board discovered he wasn’t attending school full time, and promptly revoked Threadgill’s student deferment.

The 22-year-old musician joined the Army in August that year. He had Basic at Fort Campbell, then joined the 437th Army Band at Fort Riley in Kansas. Soon thereafter, he became the head arranger of Riley’s Post Band, aka the General’s Band, and wrote and arranged music for special events, including departure ceremonies for troops heading to Vietnam.

Threadgill — who received the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2016, the first Vietnam War veteran to do so — took that arranging one step too far in the eyes of the Army in the summer of 1967 when he created a jazzy medley of patriotic tunes for a departure ceremony in Kansas City. That arrangement angered the brass so much that they immediately halted the event. The next morning Threadgill received orders for Vietnam, and a month later found himself at 4th Infantry Division headquarters in Pleiku.

The upshot, as Threadgill writes in his insightful and engagingly written autobiography, Easily Slip into Another World: A Life in Music (Knopf, 416 pp. $32.50), was a Vietnam War tour like few GIs experienced, and one that would have a profound influence on his creative life. As a clarinet and alto sax player with the division’s band, he played in concerts and at picnics, ceremonies, and barbeques at the big base camp and for units in other camps, as well as at South Vietnamese government ceremonies in and around Pleiku.

Being in the 4th, though, meant that he and his bandmates “reverted to infantry status if they needed troops to go out on a scouting mission,” he writes. “At any moment [you] had to be ready to drop your clarinet … and grab your M-16.”

And not just for scouting missions. During his year in-country, Threadgill rode shotgun on convoys; came under a Viet Cong attack while playing on a bandstand at a village ceremony; was nearly killed when his base was hit by intense rocket and mortar fire during Tet ’68; and sustained a severe and long-lasting back injury after a Jeep in which he was riding was hit by explosives, flipped over backwards, and wound up in a ravine.

Also, while pursuing an NVA unit outside the wire, he was trapped by a wait-a-minute vine that “also halfway pulled out the pin” of a grenade he was carrying, which then got pinned under him. A buddy wound up saving his rear end — literally. Threadgill also recruited Montagnards as scouts and accompanied them on missions. Plus, he nearly died after contracting a vicious case of gonorrhea that was cured only after a long stay at a Royal Australian Medical Corps rehab center. Oh, and he accidentally ran into a renegade group of GI’s — a “band of outlaws” — holed up (and hopped up) in a jungle camp outside Saigon and spent a memorable night with them.

His service in Vietnam, Henry Threadgill says, was a “defining experience” for him, as it was for hundreds of thousands of other Vietnam War veterans. “The war,” he says, “reshaped my insides,” and had an impact on the acclaimed, pioneering music he has created and performed in the five decades since he came home from the war.

“It’s like I grew a set of antennae” in Vietnam, he says. “When I returned, my reception equipment was different. And even if the war messed up my head in a million other ways at the same time — and even if I didn’t ask for any of it — I’d have to admit that that heightened sensitivity became one of the main things that shaped me into the composer I’ve become.”

Henry Threadgill made the right decision when he chose Brent Hayes Edwards, a Columbia University English professor who has written widely about jazz and jazz musicians, as his co-writer. The two meaty chapters Edwards and Threadgill came up with on the latter’s time in the Vietnam War are riveting, revealing, and evocative. They, alone, are well worth the price of admission of Easily Slip into Another World, a well-told, exceptional life story.


First-time novelist Cecile Pin’s Wandering Souls (Henry Holt, 240 pp. $26.99, hardcover; $16.99, paper; $13.99, e book) is an ambitious literary novel centered on a Vietnamese family’s post-war refugee journey. Ambitious in that Pin interrupts her memoir-like main narrative with lyrical musings told by a ghost; with reportorial accounts dealing with bigger-picture events; and with short, first-person passages told by an unidentified (until the very end) person explaining an author’s writing process — and more.

The plot centers on Ahn, who is 16 when she, her parents, and her six younger siblings escape South Vietnam by boat in late 1978. Non-spoiler: Tragedy soon ensues and Ahn is forced to take charge of her two younger brothers.

The orphaned siblings escape to Thailand, spend many months at a rudimentary refugee camp in Hong Kong, and wind up in — of all places — England. Also in the mix are short passages dealing with three GIs. In-country in 1967 they take part in Operation Wandering Souls, a psy-ops attempt to convince enemy troops that they are being haunted by their KIA colleagues who were never given proper burials in their home villages. All three suffer emotional and physical consequences as a result of what one of the men calls that “blasphemous operation.”

It’s no coincidence that said operation provides the book’s title, which also alludes to the intermittent appearances of a family ghost who follows Ahn and her brothers throughout their journey, including to the U.K., where they face seemingly unsurmountable problems assimilating and just plain surviving.

The book has received positive reviews and has literary merit. The story moves along smoothly for the most part, but the reportorial and the first-person sections did little more for me than interrupt the narrative.


West Point Admiral 
by Michael W. Shelton

Empathy and selflessness are indispensable qualities for a successful military officer. In reflecting on his extraordinary career, from the halls of the U.S. Military Academy and into the U.S. Navy, Rear Adm. Michael Shelton returns to these principles throughout his memoir, West Point Admiral: Leadership Lessons from Four Decades of Military Service (Acclaim Press, 368 pp. $29.95). For him, a successful leader must respect those he commands, as well as those who command him.

As a boy, Mike Shelton was deeply inspired by the World War II experiences of his father, a career Navy man. Hoping to follow him, Shelton learned that he wasn’t qualified to attend the U.S. Naval Academy because he didn’t have uncorrected 20/20 eyesight. Determined to serve — and knowing that a USMA graduate could apply to become an officer in another service — Shelton applied to West Point and was accepted.

Shelton, a VVA life member, illustrates with spirit and humor the upper classmen’s efforts to get plebes to quit. Shelton grasped the purpose behind the harassment with stark clarity, which was to make him stronger and better. He became both.

Military engineering is the bedrock on which the USMA was founded and the field Shelton chose. But when his grades weren’t high enough to qualify, his father persuaded him to go into the Navy. So in the spring of 1967, Shelton became a Navy ensign and went to civil engineering corps officer school in San Diego as an aspiring Seabee.

After four years of Army schooling, Shelton had a new service with quirks and protocols to get accustomed to. He encountered rigid formality among his peers, which he felt was at odds with the dynamics necessary for any operation to succeed, let alone an engineering one.

Too often, including during his two tours of duty in Vietnam in I Corps, officers treated enlisted men with disdain, although they had priceless abilities and experience. He vowed to respect men under his command and to be generous with praise. Those convictions grew stronger when he encountered complex problems and his men routinely solved them.

Over the next 34 years, Shelton participated in naval construction projects all over the world in peace and war. One striking example was Operation New Life in 1975, when — in seventeen days — Seabees on Guam converted an old Japanese airbase into a camp that housed more than 50,000 Vietnamese refugees.

Mike Shelton retired as a Rear Admiral in 2001 with unshakable faith in his men. In West Point Admiral, he offers this wisdom to anyone smart enough to follow it: “The resourcefulness of the senior enlisted in all services is what makes the military work, and officers of all ranks who interfere with this equipoise do so at their own peril.”

Well said, Admiral.

The book’s website is westpontadmiral.com




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