Saxophonist Julius Hemphill was born in Fort Worth on January 24, 1938. He grew up around Fort Worth's blues and jazz clubs. Although he was from a family with a long religious and musical tradition, he was initially not interested in becoming a musician. This changed, however, when in high school he met John Carter, who taught him the clarinet.
Hemphill continued playing at North Texas State College (now the University of North Texas) before joining the United States Army Band in 1964. Four years later he moved to St. Louis and became involved in the Black Artists' Group, an association of musicians, visual artists, and actors. The BAG was also involved in politics and helped organize a citywide rent strike in the early 1970s.
During this time Hemphill founded his own jazz label, entitled Mbari, through which he released his debut album, Dogon, A.D. Feeling constrained in St. Louis, he moved to New York, where he became an integral part of the "loft jazz" scene. He landed spots playing and recording with Anthony Braxton, Lester Bowie, and Kool and the Gang. On the side he dabbled in combining dance, theater, and mixed media with jazz to produce an extravagant blend of both sound and vision. This experimentalism eventually culminated in his jazz saxophone opera Long Tongue. In 1976 Hemphill formed the World Saxophone Quartet, which made several tours and recordings. His activities in the 1980s and 1990s tapered off as his diabetes worsened. Though he lost a leg toward the end of his life, he still managed to play occasionally. He died at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City on April 2, 1995. He was survived by two sons.