Leroy Jenkins, pioneering violinist and composer, died in Manhattan on Saturday, February 24th from complications related to lung cancer. He was 74 years old. Prized equally in the avant-garde jazz community as in that of the new-music world, Jenkins was a leader in the post-World War II generation of musicians who worked the cracks between worlds. Whether it was as a violinist on a jazz scene that had precious few violinists or as an African-American composer in a classical music scene exhibiting few but growing numbers of black composers, Leroy’s gift and passion for music made him seem to simply dive in and make himself at home. Thin and taut as a steel e string, and just as expressive and resilient, Jenkins seemed to clearly be composing as he improvised, while his composing seemed as naturally poured forth as inspired moments of improvisation.
Trained classically from childhood in his native Chicago, Jenkins’ way with improvised jazz solos was unique. At times the listener might perceive Brahms or Tchaikovsky virtuosity in the middle of some wild otherwise clearly blues-based passage—one that might be as well a personal shout of triumph, joy, or anguish from a man’s very soul. Just as he pushed the limits of jazz Leroy also pushed the limits of classical music. His was a unique American gift to the world of music.
I first met Leroy through an introduction in the mid ’80s by the American symphonist Alvin Singleton. I had been trying to assemble the Skymusic Ensemble for several years, as an inter-stylistic chamber group that could make music that would be by turns read and improvised—listenable but always dangerous and unpredictable—Downtown crossed with Uptown. Sam Rivers on soprano saxophone, Gordon Gottlieb on percussion, Marianna Rosett on acoustic piano, Kitty Hay on flute, and Eric Johnson and Kenneth Bichel on synthesizers were the already brilliant members, but we needed a bit more edge. Alvin suggested Leroy. Violin? Edge? When I met him he seemed too gentle, though like our other members he also seemed a pleasure to be around. The rest is history. Leroy’s wild and powerful sound and improvised choices took the Ensemble over the top.
And was he funny! On New Years Eve 1989 in Venice, on our way to play my score to Alvin Ailey’s Goddess of the Waters, which was commissioned for the Ballet Company of La Scala, Skymusicians and any English speakers within earshot were treated non-stop to Gordon and Leroy laying down barrage after barrage of enough quips and foolishness to make Martin and Lewis and Abbot and Costello seem like Dick Cheney on tranquilizers. Sometime around sunset they both sailed off drunk in a gondola still yacking it up.
Just last year I found myself both in terror of things technical and in desperate need to stop scribbling parts with a pencil and grow up. Leroy put my mind at ease. “I’m using Sibelius,” proudly announced this man not noted for a love of things left-brained. Hearing that, I was buoyed, gave it a try with occasional frantic calls for help to Leroy in Brooklyn, and now swear by the user-friendly software. Of course, the main factor here was Leroy’s generosity of heart and belief in other people’s right to life’s wonders. Both hands-on and by example he was the best of teachers, and I was his student in many ways.
Leroy Jenkins was born on March 11, 1932 and grew up on the tough South Side of Chicago. One can only imagine what it must have been like for a small, frail, highly-intelligent black kid walking those streets with a violin. Maybe folks left him alone fearing he was packing, Capone-style. Actually as a sub-teen Leroy was already making a name for himself as a prodigy. With Professor O.W. Frederick at Ebenezer Baptist Church the young Jenkins not only learned the violin, but also the music of such pioneering black classical composers as Will Marion Cook and William Grant Still. From the legendary Walter Dyett at Chicago’s Du Sable High School he took lessons in such woodwinds as bassoon, alto saxophone, and clarinet, although violin remained his passion. After graduating from Florida A & M University Jenkins taught school in Mobile, Alabama then returned to his beloved Chicago where in 1964 he joined the legendary Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (the A.A.C.M.), a “free-jazz” group influenced by the work of Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. He subsequently formed the Creative Construction Company with Leo Smith, Anthony Braxton, and Steve McCall and toured Europe, moving to New York in 1970 to form the critically-acclaimed Revolutionary Ensemble with Jerome Cooper, drums, and bassist Sirone.
The ’70s and ’80s saw Jenkins, like friend and colleague Muhal Richard Abrams, developing a much-admired creative voice as a composer in the classical new-music world. His music was performed by such as the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Albany Symphony, the Kronos Quartet, Pittsurgh New Music Ensemble, Cleveland Chamber Symphony, and the New Music Consort. From the mid ’80s Jenkins was, of course, violinist with our electro-acoustic Skymusic Ensemble, for many years in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. In 1989 Leroy Jenkins was commissioned by Hans Werner Henze for the Munich Biennale New Music Theater Festival to create the opera/ballet Mother of Three Sons with choreographer Bill T. Jones. Later the work was also staged at the New York City Opera and Houston Opera and received a Bessie Award for its “lyrical, intricately-constructed river of jazz and opera.” Jenkins then turned much of his attention to creating music theatre works, among them: Fresh Faust, a rap opera; The Negro Burial Ground, a cantata presented at New York’s Kitchen Center; the opera The Three Willies in collaboration with Homer Jackson presented at The Painted Bride of Philadelphia and at the Kitchen; and Coincidents an opera with librettist Mary Griffin, which is to receive its premiere at Roulette in New York. At the time of his death Mr. Jenkins was developing two new operas: Bronzeville, a history of South Side Chicago with Mary Griffin, and Minor Triad, a music drama about Paul Robeson, Lena Horne, and Cab Calloway set to a libretto he engaged me to write.
Jenkins’s performing work continued apace. He collaborated frequently with dancer/choreographer Felicia Norton and was commissioned by the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival for collaborations with choreographers Molissa Fenley and Mark Dendy. A recent touring group called Equal Interest featured Jenkins on violin, Joseph Jarman on woodwinds, and pianist Myra Melford. Also recently he assembled a world- music improvisatory ensemble including Jin Hi Kim of Korea on Komungo, Rmesh Misra of India on Sarangi, the Malian Yacouba Sissoko on Kora, and himself on violin. For these and a lifetime of extraordinary work, Leroy Jenkins received many awards, including ones from the NEA, NYSCA, Rockefeller Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation (2004).
The likes of Leroy Jenkins will not soon be seen again. Tucked gem-like under his chin, his violin seemed some vital body part hard-wired into an extremely active brain. At work on a composition he was all excitement, open to suggestion, thoughtful, and fearless. He has left the world of music—too soon—a better place.
Carman Moore has composed everything for pop songs to music for opera, theatre, dance, and film, as well as chamber ensembles (including his own electro-acoustic Skymusic Ensemble) and orchestras (including the New York Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony). He has taught at the Yale University Graduate School of Music, Queens and Brooklyn Colleges, Carnegie-Mellon University, Manhattanville College, and The New School for Social Research, has served as music critic and columnist for The Village Voice and has contributed to The New York Times, The Saturday Review of Literature, Vogue, and Essence, among others. He is the author of two books: Somebody’s Angel Child: The Story of Bessie Smith (Dell), and Rock-It (a music history and theory book for Alfred Music Publishers).