Leroy Jenkins: Does Race Matter?

Leroy Jenkins: I had two black teachers, and they both were classical material of the first order, but they couldn’t deal because they were black and so there was no sponsorship out there. If they were sponsored, they would be sponsored as the black player. It hasn’t changed; it’s the same thing today. I was on the airplane and I had this violin and this white lady says, “What is that you have there?” because it was in a case and didn’t look like a regular violin. So I said, “A violin,” and she says, “Oh, you’re a jazz violinist.” She didn’t mean any harm. I’ve never seen any black violinists out here playing classical stuff, have you? So she was right in a way. I didn’t say anything about it because it wasn’t her fault. It’s built in, the racism is inherent in our society. That’s an example of it.

There’s certain things, like for instance this guy, [Heisman Trophy winner Paul] Hornung—who berated the guys at Notre Dame because they weren’t pursuing black players. He said we need some black players on this team in order to win. That’s what he said. So he got in trouble and they started putting him down in the papers. He’s a national hero in this town and all of a sudden he opens his mouth and says something American. It happens all the time, man. Every time a big person gets in trouble it’s always based on stuff that’s American.

Just the other day, I went to the Erie Arts Center in Pennsylvania. They had this older guy pick us up—he was 77 years old and he was white. So anyway, we were coming back and we were talking and we were talking about price, so this guy says, “I Jewed him down…” Wow he’s just saying that. And you know I used to say that, I said that in front of some Jewish people one time. I didn’t even realize what I was saying. In my upbringing in the black community, Maxwell Street in Chicago, my father, my mother, everybody called it Jew Town. It wasn’t derogatory but that’s what they called it. That’s America; that’s what’s happening. That’s why all these names happen. America’s based on that kind of stuff. You’ve got all these different kinds of people here from different countries doing different things and they’ve got all these different prejudices that people have. I think it’s not something we probably ever will be able to change; we’ll always be like that.

It’s happening here with the president of Merrill Lynch [Stan O'Neal]. He catches more hell than the average CEO just because he’s black. Being a child of the ’40s and the ’50s, any time I see a black accomplishment I’m still into that. So I watch. I listen to the way the papers describe things that he did and I can see that that’s built in, disguised putting him down. That even happens to me and it happens to a lot of my contemporaries in the papers when the critics review, it’s always that built in racism. I mean, it’s weird, man! I know we talk about it all the time, black musicians, guys like Leo and Alvin Singleton and Roscoe and Henry and all those guys that I talk to. Alvin Singleton’s a very interesting example, because he is on the other side. He is, for lack of a better word, a “classical” composer not a jazz composer, and he’s one of the only ones, yet if he had an instrument and was going to be at the airport he would probably be called a jazz musician. But he wouldn’t mind! He likes the idea. You know he’s classical, he likes the idea because he looks at jazz as being a free thing so he doesn’t have to worry about it.

“Blue” Gene Tyranny: Creative musicians don’t necessarily do the same music, but they’re interested in each other’s music.

Leroy Jenkins: They respect each other. But the inside thing is that when we talk I think, “Man, the stuff he’s doing, the pieces that he’s written, he should be rich and famous.” Guys make jokes about me, if I had been white, I’d been rich and famous too. Now here’s the reason we know it’s not going to change until the whole thing changes—black African American composers don’t have the same infrastructure, we don’t have people we can go to, patrons of the arts who are black, to ask for money. Everything we get is from white patrons. There’s not one black person that’s given to any of the organizations I know or me or anybody else. So there it is. That means right there when we show up, we’re almost automatically second-class. Even if we’re better and the guy going to give us money knows it, and I walk in at the same time with a white guy, he goes first. It’s perfectly natural if the guy’s white. I think it would be perfectly natural if the guy was black he would chose me first, right? Give the brother a break, you know? So that’s where we are, we’re second-class in that way. When we walk in the room where all the power and the money is everybody turns toward us, ’cause we’re the only ones there. I’m not kidding you. This happens to me all the time. Sometimes I’m in a room where I’m the only black guy there.

“Blue” Gene Tyranny: It goes way beyond any of the genres.

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Jenkins under a billboard in Albuquerque, NM, late seventies/early eighties

Leroy Jenkins: In America, its philosophies are built on divide to conquer. You’re playing the new music here and you’re playing the experimental music here, and jazz here, so after while people start asking questions like, “What kind of music do you play?” That divide to conquer thing just spreads out over society, not only in music but everything, everything we do. I think that’s where it all comes from. That theme has pretty much permeated Western civilization, over here especially because everything is put in little boxes. Everything is categorized. I think that’s the reason for all the different genres, all the fiefdoms that are operating around here are a result of that. America has spent a lot of time and energy on account of their dividing stuff up. That’s why when you go to a homogenous society like Sweden, Holland, or some of those kind of places, which are 90, 95 percent white, everything’s just going along, no friction. But come here, man, shhhh….I think we do pretty well, actually, when you think about it. There used to be a time I was a revolutionary and I put down America, but I’m looking and it has its ills, but it’s better than a lot of places.

The genres are what’s messing things up, and it’s messed up a lot of minds because they’re being so indoctrinated in these schools. It’s just like the new jazz has gotten so now it’s like classical was before the contemporary people came along and made a scene out of it. So I guess that’s why we’re having such a hard time in music. The jazz people don’t understand us. We’re not jazz. They won’t accept it. A lot of jazz guys on panels when I present music in the jazz category—’cause that’s where they put me—say, “This is not jazz.” So then I’m put it in the classical music area, and they say, “This is not classical music; this is jazz!” That’s what’s messin’ up. A lot of classical people look down on jazz. It’ll mess up their pedigree if they go into a jazz course, which they should do actually ’cause it would put more feeling in there.

If you compare a new music concert attendance-wise to an avant-garde jazz concert, the audience participation [at the new music concert] would be 50 percent more. I may be exaggerating, but you can get more people at a white event. If we had, you know in the same building, the same kind of advertisement, the white event would get more because most of the people who are listening to the music are white. Most of the blacks and Latinos, they’re mostly into dance music, rhythm and blues, stuff like that.

Our schools are inferior. When I see the examples of white schools on TV or the movies or this or that they’re always nice and clean and colorful and inviting, and a place you want to be. But in a black school, it’s always noisy, dead looking, the kind of place you wouldn’t want to be. They don’t have any culture in the schools. They don’t have the facilities. They have police at the doors, and a lot of noise. Then they took the music out of most of the black schools, so what happened? Rap. They couldn’t stop the creativity, so they started doing rap. That’s my theory. We have rap today because they didn’t have musical instruments. If they’d had those musical instruments and were taking music in schools, we’d probably have an audience. When I was coming up, when this music first started, there was a small black audience because the schools in those days were a little better, the segregated schools in Chicago. I don’t know about whether or not they were in the South, but in Chicago the segregated schools were good. Maybe not as good as the white schools, but they were good. I had music in my school, foreign languages, laboratories, botany, all those courses. I played in a jazz band. I played in a concert band. I played in the marching band. I went to a black college—Florida A&M is a black school—same thing there. So my whole thing had been black up until I came to New York, and that’s when it changed.

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