Opening People to Improvisation
“Blue” Gene Tyranny: I want to ask you about the operas you’ve been writing…
Leroy Jenkins: Basically I write the same way. I think in terms of a bebop singer. When I write, I don’t know if that’s so operatic or not, because opera’s more legato, I mean it’s stretched out, but mine is word for word, note for note. A lot of people don’t go to operas, because maybe they don’t understand what’s happening. I know that used to happen to me when I’d go to some of the older ones. Now I know how to prepare, but if you were just off-handedly checking out opera, you probably wouldn’t understand…You have to tell the story; that’s the main point.
“Blue” Gene Tyranny: What do you think of the venues in which your operas are being presented?
Leroy Jenkins: When I first did The Mother of Three Sons, I went to Europe. Hans Henze was instrumental in this. We had this classical conductor and he didn’t know what was happening. It was written there as plain as day, but he was worried about it so he went to Henze and told Henze, “I don’t know if this is going to work.” He was really worried. I didn’t even know any of this was going on. So finally Henze called me up and told me about some things and he had made some changes he thought would help the conductor. Of course, I changed it right back. I didn’t go for what he said even though it was Henze. I started talking to the conductor. He could speak English and everything. I said, “Let’s just get into it. I always have trouble with my music when somebody first sees it. Let’s just work with it; it’ll come out. What you’re doing now is not at all like what it’s supposed to sound like.”
I was scared just like he was. After rehearsal, I’d go home and shut the door and think, “They paid me all this money and my stuff is not up to par.” It was my first opera. I did my homework and everything. In all my musical career I’d never studied it, so I just did a crash course here in New York and what a place to study opera. I mean all the libraries and the opera houses. And so many operas… I was going to operas like an opera buff. You can do anything in music if you set your mind to it!
After we spent a lot of time, the conductor loved the piece. He finally understood everything and it worked out fine. This was with Bill T. Jones; he was the director. Even Bill was nervous because it was my first one and he recommended me. We have a beautiful tape of it. It worked out really great.
“Blue” Gene Tyranny: I think in general with new music it takes some understanding and cooperation to try out things.
Leroy Jenkins: Right now I’m involved in orchestrating improvisation. The Relâche group in Philadelphia commissioned me to do a piece, and it was all based on improvisation. I just had little motifs spread around in the piece, and it opened with the viola doing some series of improvisations in different modes. [The violist] had a fit on me. He thought it was awful to do that to him, because I had him improvising right off the bat. Man, he was outraged. So I told him, “What do you expect from me? I’m an improviser, that’s my thing. If I don’t have improvisation in my music, then I’m not valid; my philosophy is not valid.” Well, I have to say he did great. In fact, he started overdoing it. Once he got into it you couldn’t hold him back, he took up too much time, too much freedom. You’ve got to learn how to manage freedom too. Everybody talks about freedom. Once you get it, it’s a very volatile thing; it’s not something you can just take lightly. It can lead you to the pit of hell in fact. [laughs]
“Blue” Gene Tyranny: When you’re teaching, how do you encourage people to some other level, for instance, to get beyond improvisation to spontaneous playing?
Leroy Jenkins: You just have to practice improvisation actually. When I teach, the person comes in and takes out his instrument and we just start playing. We try to make music. And then after we play, I’ll try to remember where some key things went down, negative or positive, as to what I think would help. I always say, “Think in terms of counterpoint when you’re improvising with somebody, because it sets up this motion.” Because that’s what you need to generate—a swing. You need that motion. That’s the ultimate result, to be able to swing in that way. What Duke says will always be true. [laughs] I think not only in jazz or whatever but in all music. I listen to stuff like some of the Bach Sonatas the way some of the guys play it. This guy I used to know played the complete Bach Sonatas on the violin, and he played ‘em. He just swung. And that’s way back, you know how far we go back, and he was swinging then. Duke knew what he was talking about. So that’s the way I look at it—all good music swings.
“Blue” Gene Tyranny: You’ve developed techniques that I’ve never heard anybody ever do on a violin. I don’t even know how to begin to describe them. In the last solo I heard you do, I couldn’t believe you were getting the sounds you were getting. I guess they’ve developed over time. But in the midst of playing, do you spontaneously discover a sound?
Leroy Jenkins: A lot. A lot of that is spontaneous. I wish I could just keep going but I’m afraid that I might dissociate from the people who are listening to me. I could just go for sounds, period, and not sound like a violin at all. That’s where I want to go, and I know I have to. The next solo album I do is going to go into that because it’s the only way. The music of tomorrow has got to be sounds like that. We’ve done all kinds of harmonies. We’ve worn out all of it. The only other thing we can do is what a lot of the electronic musicians do. But I’m talking about playing the violin in the 21st century or whatever you want to call it. It seems like to me, I might have to be the sacrificial lamb, because I like that idea. And the idea of improvising completely, not even having a score…