Clifford Thompson

Clifford Thompson By Britt Gambino

Gotham teacher Clifford Thompson didn’t start listening to jazz until his late 20s, but it’s now the lens through which he views writing and most other art forms.

Case in point: A long admirer of Hemingway, Clifford says jazz gave him another way to appreciate the writer. “Hemingway wrote in a way that he would put everything in a story except the story,” he says. “It’s all suggestive, all subtext. Jazz musicians would do this as well—they would put a different spin on a melody.” For example, the great jazz artist, Lester Young, would perform his own version of a pop song, but instead of hitting all the notes in a chord, he would, as Clifford says, “glide above them.”
Clifford’s book Love for Sale and Other Essays touches upon all types of art and his relationship to them—music (especially jazz), film, and visual art. Some sections are personal essays that explore ideas about race and American identity. “What underpins the whole collection,” says Clifford, “is a notion of interconnectivity of the various art forms I love.”
Twin of Blackness, Clifford’s soon-to-be released memoir, involves similar themes, but more fully explored. “It’s about my journey—reconciling being black with being American, and it’s also about the evolution of my tastes in art,” Clifford explains. “And these two tracks converge in the book. It’s also about my upbringing and the community I came from; a personal story, but I hope it resonates with more people.”

Clifford grew up in an entirely black neighborhood in 1960s Washington, DC where many of his friends lived in the housing project just adjacent to his family’s home. Then he left DC to attend (mostly white) Oberlin College in Ohio. “I started to navigate through my identity,” Clifford says. I guess that’s the question at the bottom of every self-investigation—the story of trying to answer who you are.”
In discerning between whether to pursue a full-length memoir or a shorter-length essay, Clifford tells his students, “I would say an essay is great for exploring ideas and the memoir is more of a story.” He finds it exciting to be part of that process—“to see how the work might be shaped.”

Currently, Clifford is compiling another collection of essays—this time focusing on his teenage years. “It took me years to decide they were worth writing about,” Clifford says, “but I think I found a way in.” He’s also a painter (the cover of Love for Sale is actually one of his pieces) and is in the process of organizing a new show.

Whether he’s writing, painting, or teaching, Clifford can jump from one beat to the next without missing a note—or a glide.