Changing Your Life Through Music
“Blue” Gene Tyranny: In this pamphlet about the AACM put out in the mid-70s, you are quoted as saying “When I first heard the AACM, that was just perfect, not just because it was ahead of its time, but because it was time for me.” Would you tell me about growing up in Chicago, and the influence that the AACM had on your life then and later?
Leroy Jenkins: I came up in the 1960s and the ’70s. In the ’60s there was a heavy influx of drugs in the black community. So a lot of us, including myself, were involved in it. In the ’60s I went back to college at Florida A & M down in Tallahassee, Florida, to finish because I didn’t have the money or the wherewithal to make it in Chicago. Chicago was like the pit of hell as far as I was concerned because all my friends were drug addicts. So I went to Florida and I got my degree and I studied with Bruce Hayden, a great fine black violinist who was a frustrated classical violinist because he had to take a job to support himself even though he was excellent. He was happy when I came on the scene. He didn’t have a student so I studied with him and got the benefit of all this violinistic experience. I was ready for it because I was trying to rebuild myself. I got lucky in that sense. So I studied with him the whole four or five years just straight every day. He was only about three or four years older than I was. I had messed around, like I said, in Chicago and come back to school so I was older than most college students at the time. Not old old, but old. So we would hang out.
He was the first one to recognize when at last I was getting the tone of a violin, I mean the real tone. I was keeping my regular practice routine and one night I started practicing just with him there—he was sleeping in the studio—and all of a sudden he kind of jumped up when I started to practice and said, “Leroy, that’s it! That sound, that tone, that’s it!” That was a major breakthrough for me. I’ll always remember that. When I got back to Chicago, my old friends either were dead or in jail, and I was on another level. I had been teaching for four years and gone back to school.
“Blue” Gene Tyranny: You were teaching in Alabama…
Leroy Jenkins: I was teaching for four years down there until they ran me out of town because I had money problems. I could teach but I didn’t have the character of a teacher; I didn’t set a good example. So I had to escape from there and go back home to Chicago and got a job working as a music teacher in the Chicago schools. When I first got back to Chicago, I didn’t want to get back into my community. A few of the older guys kept showing up—one guy that I identified with because he was a schoolteacher, surprisingly enough, and he was on drugs. Anyway, that’s the way it was at the time in the 1960s. It seemed like it was the whole world. Maybe they still are, but it seemed to me at the time that everybody was using drugs, hard drugs not just marijuana. I got lucky. I got through the pit of hell life that I went through. I compare myself to the Jews at Auschwitz. After 30 years, I still have marks on my arms from using drugs. We had a beautiful community and then all of a sudden drugs came into the community and just destroyed it. A lot of my friends had great minds and great abilities and they all just went that way: O.D. this, O.D. that… I was lucky enough to get out of that.
When I met Roscoe and Braxton, they were much younger. They didn’t hardly know about that stuff that happened in the community. Muhal knew about it, since he’s around the same age as me, but he wasn’t into drugs and none of the other AACM guys were. They brought me to this music, Muhal and all those guys. I wanted to make a statement that it was time for me with this new music, this new thing they were doing, for me to make a change too.
Muhal was a famous so-called-jazz-at-the-time pianist in Chicago. I was mostly a church musician. I played the violin for churches and stuff like that. I wasn’t really a jazz player. I loved jazz. I listened to Bird and all those guys, but I didn’t really get into it until I got to high school and I started playing the saxophone. Everybody had a saxophone. There were many Charlie Parker copyists. They used to call me “Little Bird the Third,” because there were so many “Little Birds” in Chicago. I had music all the way. I’d been doing music since I was eight years old, so it’s not by chance that I’m doing what I’m doing. I never did anything else since I was eight years old. My folks and everybody knew I was going to be a musician. I was always striving for it. And these jobs… I worked four years in Mobile and came to Chicago and worked four years there. At both jobs I was ready to go, I had my foot half way out the door, but I had to have a job to make money so I could eat and sleep. I think I did a pretty good job as a teacher, but after a while I quit.
In 1969, the next step with the AACM was moving to Paris where I met Archie Shepp and Ornette. Ornette was playing the violin at the time. He came into this place called La Lucenaire where all the new music was being presented in Paris in 1969. He came in with his big block checkered suit—Ornette was really a great dresser—and he told me: “Man, you’re really great! Come to New York.” So that made my day, it made my whole year. I told some of the guys. We were very competitive, Braxton, Leo, Roscoe especially. We were there for almost a year and then I came here in 1970.
“Blue” Gene Tyranny: That was around the time you formed The Revolutionary Ensemble…
Leroy Jenkins: When I first came to New York, I stayed with Ornette. Everybody knows this story. Ornette told me to look him up when I came to New York. This guy in Chicago wanted his car in New York, so Braxton and I drove up from Chicago and decided we were going to move here. We didn’t have a place and Ornette said we could stay at what was called the “Artist House” at the time. It might be where Phat Farm is, on Prince Street, downstairs. He had one floor, his loft, and the floor that was the Artist House, which was a performance space. He told Braxton we could stay down there. He had mattresses. I had never had that kind of a hard life. I always had a place to stay. This was in February and at night it was cold, cold. I was thinking about going back home. In the morning, Ornette came down and said, “Oh man it’s freezing down here,”—he was from the south, anyway—”come upstairs.” He had this big room with a big color TV, in 1970. He had 4,000 square feet.
Braxton left. He got a gig with Richard Teitelbaum…
“Blue” Gene Tyranny: …Musica Elettronica Viva…
Leroy Jenkins: They became good friends and they went off on tour, but I stayed there and I had this big room with a big bed and color TV, even though I didn’t watch it that much. Too much was happening to be watching TV. But I stayed there for three months and met a lot of people who came to meet Ornette. I didn’t realize how famous he was. At first, I thought he was a struggling guy. He was struggling then, but not because he needed to but because he was demanding such high things. He seemed to be making it fine, and it was great to see him live like that, you know, a guy that’s playing this kind of music being able to command that kind of life. It was a great experience for me. Guys like Lee Konitz… They knew each other. And I thought that was weird. I would never believe that Lee would know Ornette. In fact, I thought he’d be putting him down. I became friendly with Lee on account of that—not for musical reasons, but for friendship. And every time Ornette has a concert, I look for him.