Leroy Jenkins

Leroy Jenkins
October12 1993, WKCR-FM New York

copyright © 1993, 1999 Ted Panken

[Music: "Computer Minds" from Live]

Q: I think a lot of people who have admired your playing over the years have bemoaned the paucity of appearances and chances to hear you in different situations.

LJ: Yes.

Q: So we'll try to rectify that a little bit, and hear a number of situations that you've documented. A CD with the electric band, Leroy Jenkins Live, is out. A solo CD will be coming out in the near future on Lovely Music.

LJ: Yes. I did it in Santa Fe. It's going to be called Santa Fe, in fact. I did it at the Contemporary Arts Center there. That's typical of what I do a lot. I play a lot of contemporary museums, alternative performance spaces. I do quite a bit of that throughout America. Not too much in Europe, but throughout America. In just about every little town and big town, you have some . . .

Q: You're on the circuit.

LJ: I'm on the circuit somehow or another. That's true. Maybe not a whole bunch a lot, but enough to kind of manage to keep the water a little below the nose, you know -- since I'm an artist and you're supposed to have a nose in the water all the time.

Q: You've also been getting some commissions for compositions, and I believe we'll be hearing some of that material as well.

LJ: Right. I have. In fact, I started off around '86 or '87 with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and afterwards the Kronos Quartet commissioned a piece, which is coming out on CRI -- not the Kronos version; the Soldier String Quartet is doing it. So I'm just everywhere. Trying to be everywhere anyway.

What's cued up now is the Overture to my opera. The opera I wrote and had played in Munich and in Aachen and in Houston, Texas and at the City Opera here. So I've had about 25 performances in all. Anne Green wrote the libretto, a very fine writer with whom I hope to collaborate with in the future. Bill T. Jones directed and choreographed. The recording was done at WDR in Aachen, Germany, which is a small opera house there near the border of the Netherlands. I'm the soloist. The name of the opera is The Mother Of Three Sons.


Q: Over the years you've been involved in a lot of what I guess what one might call cross-genre improvising. In the press these days, the idea of what are the boundaries or definitions are starting to be thrown around by various people.

LJ: Yes.

Q: Now, you are from Chicago, and started out as an alto saxophonist and disciple of Charlie Parker in the 1940s, as you once described to me.

LJ: Mmm-hmm.

Q: What are your feelings vis-a-vis definitions of the music? Do you feel that they are useful in any way? Do you feel they have any bearing on the contemporary musical world?

LJ: Well, no. I think the only bearing it has is that it serves to split the musical world. But I think it should be called "American music." Because just about anything American in music has a bit of jazz in it, or blues. I don't care. I mean, if you're talking about American music, you're going to have a bit of jazz and a bit of . . . I mean, even the composers that were aware, that tried to be aware that came to America from Europe, their music changed. Stravinsky, all those guys. When they came here, the music was in the air. So of course, they had to employ some of it. I mean, it's just hard to miss or hard to ignore. So I think if we just cut out all the things and just say "American Music," that would . . . Even the classical American music; there are a few Classical writers who are familiar with jazz and sometimes employ that in their music -- the writing part; not necessarily the improvisation, but the writing. They hear that. I mean, they couldn't help it, because it's just in America.

The different definitions have only served so far to confuse people. Even myself. Really. I really don't know myself what I play, except American music. Usually somebody in America, that's what they do . . . If you tell them you're a musician, they say, "What kind of music do you play?" And sometimes I really don't know what to say. The reason I don't want to say jazz is because that might mislead them, because usually people think of jazz in a one-dimensional way -- not that jazz is one-dimensional, but they think of it like that. And I'm not like that. I mean, I'm spread out all over the place. I'm an artist, and in order for me to survive, I have to play American music. I can't deal with jazz per se.

Q: It seems to me that part of this debate, as it goes on, would say that you as a violinist, if you're not dealing with, say, what Stuff Smith and Eddie South and so forth and so on played, then you're doing something that's other than jazz. LJ: Mmm-hmm.

Q: That seems to me kind of limiting. But I'm wondering if you could talk about some of the people, violinists and composers, who have really made you take heed and been signposts for you in your development.

LJ: Well, I'll tell you, just about all the greats. I've been listening for 50 years maybe. Blues, pop, anywhere from Nat Cole to Mahalia Jackson to . . . Well, Charlie Parker was the one that sort of said, you know, "I want to play music." He was my idol as a teenager, the great idol of my teenage years, and he was the one that made me pick up the alto and become a part of jazz. Before that, I was mostly a violinist who played teas and weddings and things like that around Chicago. And I went to the Regal Theatre and saw all the great bands -- Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong. I saw all those guys, too, but being that I was a violinist, I thought I'd never play in a big band like that, because I never saw one -- except Ray Nance, he did a little bit now and then.

Q: A Chicagoan as well.

LJ: Yes, he was a Chicagoan.

Q: Who came under Captain Walter Dyett's wing at Phillips High School about 15 years before you encountered Captain Dyett at DuSable.

LJ: Well, yeah, probably some way or another. If he wasn't as a student, he probably gigged for him, because Captain Dyett had a lot of bands -- he had outside bands after school. But I didn't really meet Ray Nance until I came to New York. When I first came to New York I met him, because he was living not too far from where I was, and I used to see him a lot.

Q: Particularly in the 1920s Chicago was full of black violinists, and there was a lot of demand for them because there were many theatre and established dance bands, like Erskine Tate, Doc Cooke, Charles Elgar and people like this.

LJ: That's right.

Q: Then when the bands began to dissolve because of talking pictures and the Depression, there were all these strong violinists with no work.

LJ: Yes, that's true.

Q: Did you have good teachers?

LJ: Oh, yes. O.W. Frederick was my teacher. He was one of those violinists you're talking about, that played shows and churches and teas and things like that. He had a little orchestra. One of the reasons why I took lessons from him is because I knew if I took them long enough, I'd get in his working orchestra. He would play a lot of teas. We didn't make a lot, two or three dollars, but that was a great prestige for me in those days to do that. So I kind of like hurried up to try to be a good violinist so I could play in his orchestra and play these different things, which I did. And maybe when talkies came in and everything, Mr. Frederick had to go look for another kind of way to work, and he started to teach and play teas and things like this. Walter Dyett had also been a former violinist, and he also had to teach. Because things started to change in Chicago. Talkies came in and they didn't have to use musicians as much as they did. So a lot of the players had to make allowances for that.

[Music: Electric Quintet, "A Prayer"]

Q: The AACM was a very important institution for you in your development as a musician.

LJ: Yes, it was.

Q: Would you talk about your introduction to the AACM and how it affected the course of your music?

LJ: Well, in 1964 I was still sort of pursuing bebop or whatever you want to call it . . .

Q: On the violin?

LJ: On the violin, right.

Q: A thankless task.

LJ: Yes, it was. I mean, I was trying to find a voice. Let's say I was doing that when I could, and trying to find a voice of my own in the meantime. What happened is that my teacher, Bruce Hayden, who was a teacher I'd had at Florida A&M, came to Chicago to work and play -- because he wanted to be in a city and play. Anyway, one night he had a gig with Muhal, and afterwards Muhal told him about the AACM and all that, and he came and told me about it. They were having a concert one night by Roscoe Mitchell, and I went. So my first introduction to the AACM was a concert by Roscoe Mitchell.

Q: In 1964?

LJ: In 1964.

Q: What did it sound like to you?

LJ: Oh, it was quite different. I mean, it was something I couldn't explain. It was something I had never heard before. I liked it, but I didn't know what they were doing. I remember during the intermission, my teacher, who I always looked to to give me answers, instead was asking me what was it. And I didn't know what to tell him, and of course, I knew he couldn't tell me. So we both were quite befuddled as to what was happening. But we liked it. It was very exciting, what they were doing. The instrumentation, two bass, two drums, a tenor -- it looked a little lopsided.

Q: Do you remember who was playing with Roscoe?

LJ: I can't remember exactly, but I think Kalaparusha Difda was playing, and a couple of drummers. I can't remember exactly . . .

Q: Alvin Fielder might have been one of the drummers.

LJ: Yeah, Alvin Fielder was one of the drummers. It wasn't Roscoe's regular group, because in the AACM there were so many drummers, or this or that. So every time a player, artist or composer was getting ready to do a concert, he could just have his choice of all these different people. But I remember Kalaparusha and Alvin Fielder. Anyway, that's been quite some time. But it was very influential.

Muhal was working the door. That was the policy at the time; they would always get another one of the brothers to operate the door to recruit. So I went up to him and asked him about maybe coming around and joining it, and he said, "Come around. Listen a couple of times before you play." Anyway, I had my instrument in the back of my car; you know, in Chicago you drive, so I had this car. So I put it in my trunk, and I went down without it. Then after a while I could see that things were loose and I should just go back. So I went upstairs and got my violin and came on down.

The guys immediately included me into the proceedings, which wasn't all the time reading music. Sometimes it was just different improvisations strung together under different instrumentations. I mean, it was very experimental. And Muhal was the director. Sometimes he would point to three of you, and three would play, and then maybe one would play, and then maybe everybody, and then everybody would fade into one. It was beautiful. I'd never heard anything like that. They were orchestrating right before your very eyes. Orchestrating improvisation. That's what it was like.

Boy, that was really something to me, even though I was playing in a little more orderly fashion than I am now, or let's say a more traditional fashion. These guys were squawking and squeaking and making sounds and doing different things, and I was still playing little snatches of changes because I didn't know anything else. Besides, in those days I didn't have an amplifier, so I couldn't be heard that much, especially on the loud parts when everybody was playing together. Anyway, I was still mystified and quite excited by the prospects of it. You know, there were times I thought I didn't know if I liked this music, or maybe these guys are a little crazy -- because they were of their little enclave, so to speak.

But they were all together, and that was something unusual. I mean, in those days where in Chicago drugs were prevalent and junkies were, too, to see musicians clean like that and together and pursuing something was a revelation for me. So I wanted to be around guys like that; you know, creative guys. That was really the thing that attracted me.

There were times we went to clubs and to the jam sessions, and we'd walk in, and all the beboppers would get off the stage because they didn't want to have anything to do with us. And we'd get up there and we'd play. Usually we'd just do a great noise; we'd start off in fortissimo and end in fortissimo! And sometimes I would look at my fingers, but I couldn't hear anything -- not myself; I couldn't hear me. But it was like a rage. And actually, when we played like that, loud, I know a lot of people thought we were crazy, but actually it became music. After a while, that loudness and that cacophony we were playing started to make sense. You know what I mean? I imagine you'd have to be in it in order to make sense out of it. I don't know. Maybe some people on the outside didn't enjoy it. I think that's why we weren't so popular in those days.

Q: You were having big fun, though.

LJ: We were having big fun, boy. We were running people out of those places, clearing the bar!

Q: Making the club owners love you!

LJ: Yeah, they loved us. We used to clear the bar, boy; they'd get us out of there.

What I liked about these guys is that they felt like what they were doing . . . I wasn't fully won over at the time. When they walked in, Roscoe and Muhal and Kalaparusha and Thurman Barker and Malachi and all those guys, they were like confident that is what was happening, they exuded that confidence, it came over to you -- I mean, you could feel it. So I sort of got caught up in it. And after a little time with anything, you can sort of get an idea of what's happening, and then after that start to do something with it, which I did.

Before that I had been composing music, but mostly for school bands -- because I was a teacher for about eight years before that. But this time I was actually going to write music. Now, at the time, because we were trying to wipe out that vestige for a little while, there was no bebop supposed to be done. Like, sometimes Braxton and I would get together and play "Donna Lee," and Muhal or somebody would say, "No-no, no 'Donna Lee!'" They didn't want to hear it. Nothing like that. In other words, we had to be completely closed off from that. Because I'll tell you, everybody in that group had played bebop one time or another -- everybody.

Q: Why was Bebop a stigma?

LJ: It wasn't a stigma at that time.

Q: Well, whatever it was, why was it frowned upon?

LJ: Well, because at the time, they had joined the enemy camp. They were like the enemy. Because a lot of the big guys of bebop were putting it down. That's how it was. Even though I was a former bebop, now I called myself, we called ourselves making a step further, carrying this Music ahead -- you know, doing the same thing they did. And of course, we were going to get the same reactions they received, and probably from some of them, too. So they become the enemy, so to speak, even though you love them, even though you respect them -- which we did.

Q: You felt you had to do something else to get your own voice.

LJ: That's right. You have to get your own voice. We had to scream and holler and say "Okay, we're here," and that's what we were doing. I think in those days, when we were screaming and hollering . . .

Q: That was the '60s.

LJ: That's the '60s, boy. We were doin' it. I mean, after all, we were testing the fabric of society. And we were black, and we wanted to be equal, and all this was going down, they were killing our favorite presidents, they were killing our leaders. We had a lot to shout about. There was no time for regular orderly music then. We were supposed to shout and cry and stomp, and that's what we were doing.

I mean, it's not like that any more, because we are not like what we were then, even things maybe haven't changed that much. But we are just not like that. We are older, more mature . . .

Q: You hooked up with the people who became the AACM before it actually was the AACM, then the organization incorporated officially the next year, and you became a registered . . .

LJ: A charter member, yes. I kind of lucked out. Because actually, Roscoe and Malachi and Muhal and Joseph Jarman, those guys, they were there before me. But I came in in 1964, just when they were chartering, so I got to be a charter member. I was there all the time from '64 to '69; I was a full- fledged workin'-hard member.

Q: At which time you went to Europe . . .

LJ: Yes, with Anthony Braxton and Leo Smith. Sometimes it was Anthony's group, sometimes it was my group, sometimes it was Leo's group -- it was one of those kind of things. But we were the first or second group of our type in Europe in 1969, and we raised quite a bit of Cain.

Q: You and the Art Ensemble were over there at the same time.

LJ: Yes, they beat us over there by about a month.

Q: And it was also a time when people like Archie Shepp . . .

LJ: Archie Shepp.

Q: Lots of American musicians. Sunny Murray, Philly Joe Jones, Hank Mobley. . ..

LJ: Everybody was there. Philly Joe Jones was there. It was great. I played with Philly Joe! I made a record with him. That was great.

Q: The 1970 date with Julio Finn . . .

LJ: Yeah. Oh, that was wonderful. We had great times over there. We were like living the life of an artist. Braxton and I had a chateau. I mean, we were like big-time. Country boys from Chicago, we weren't used to that kind of thing.

Q: Conquering the Old World.

LJ: Right!

[Music: LJ with Jeffrey Schantzer, "Bluejay On The Fire Escape"]

Q: The Revolutionary Ensemble was the group with which you really entered the public consciousness in the United States in the late 1970s.

LJ: And Europe. All over. It was a very important group for me. A very important time for me, in fact.

By 1970, I was thoroughly indoctrinated into this music and knew exactly what I wanted to do -- and I came to New York looking to do that. Luckily, I ran into Sirone, the bass player, and later Jerome Cooper. So we got together and practiced every day. In fact, we were rehearsing on 13th Street there every day, five days a week, anywhere from 11 to 2 o'clock. I mean, we just hung out. We just played and played, and my art of improvisation got tremendously better, and the group got beautifully tight. And we did a little something, created a little scene around New York, around the East Side, West Side and so forth. We played a lot of places and we had a good time. We did quite a bit. I think we were together maybe about seven or eight years.

Q: Now, you got together a little bit before the real influx of musicians to New York from the Midwest and the West Coast.

LJ: Right. I was here in '70. I was the only one from the AACM here in 1970.

Q: And you participated in the first New York AACM concert, which was later documented on Muse Records as the Creative Construction Company.

LJ: Actually, I got that together. I was working in connection with Kunle, who was running an art shop, kind of an artifacts shop called Liberty House on Bleecker Street. I was working there. I mean, he played Art Ensemble records, played all the AACM records, he had rugs, different little artifacts, incense -- it was a beautiful shop. And all the musicians hung out there. I met a lot of musicians. Cecil Taylor came through there, Albert Ayler. I got a gig from Albert Ayler. He came in one time; he was looking for a violinist. He'd heard about me. My friend Moravia brought him in. So he said he'd like to hear me and find out. So we said, "Well, we've got a place upstairs . . ."

Q: Albert Ayler had been using violins in his ensembles since the mid '60s.

LJ: Right. So we closed the shop, went upstairs and started playing. He said, "Okay." So we had a gig. I did a gig with him in Springfield, Massachusetts. And I was going to work a little more with him, but as you know, he died around that time. I mean, he mysteriously died. It was kind of mysterious at the time. Very frightening, too, at the time, because I was new here, and when I heard that happened, I said, "Wow! Maybe I bit off a little too much coming up here to New York."

Q: Ornette Coleman was playing a lot of violin then, too, and the Artists House thing was very active.

LJ: Right. Ornette plays the violin backwards.

Q: How so?

LJ: Well, he has the G-string . . . I mean, he plays it left-handed. He's self-taught, so his style is completely unique. Completely unique. Whatever he does, you can believe it's not happening nowhere else. He's bad! I stayed in his house when I first got here, for about three months or so, and I played that violin. He had very good violins. He had very fine violins, in fact. And I played his violins while I was up there, practiced a lot when I was living in there. I was answering the phone for him when he got out of town, stuff like that. But not only that, it was a musical thing, but I was able to help a little -- because he was besieged, of course. I didn't realize he was so famous until I got here, really, to tell you the truth. I thought all the guys that were playing this kind of music were scuffling, you know. But when I came here, I saw he wasn't. I mean, he said he was scuffling, but to me, on my level, he wasn't scuffling. He had this great, beautiful loft . . . Oh, it was just a great period. We used to hang out up there. Dewey Redman, Braxton, Cherry, Blackwell, all those guys used to hang out with him. It was a very nice period.

Q: Getting back to the Revolutionary Ensemble and the piece "Chicago," which we'll hear performed by your electric quintet, whichyou've been working with for ten years or so, on several recordings. Have you been able to function with this band a fair amount?

LJ: Well, not really. I think the reason why I haven't is that I haven't been in a position to really try as much as I could, because for the last four, five, six, seven years, I've been doing a lot of composition, and it's kept me kind of busy and it got me out of the performing thing. However, over the years, I have been hitting three, four, five times a year with them. Of course, I do a lot of different formats. But whenever I do make a tour like this, where I can use the band, then I'll use this instrumentation.

Q: What is it about this instrumentation that appeals to you so much?

LJ: Well, the violin, I think, has to rely on electronics for the sound, as far as the volume, to compete with the drums. The guitar, too. The synthesizer just naturally has that sound. And then you have the electric bass. The sounds are very clear. You don't have to do a lot of other things to make the sound come out. Actually, we do it just to kind of get the clarity, for the most part. I mean, when we get a good sound check, I think the electronic instrumentation does this well. It gives it a kind of balance without having to press for it. The violin that I'm using now is actually a solid state violin, like a guitar. It's made out of the same kind of material as a guitar; it's very shiny and everything, and it's solid state. And the sound comes through the amplifier more than the violin.

Q: Is this the violin you're performing with in most situations now?

LJ: No, no. I still play acoustical.

Q: So with the electric band you're using it.

LJ: Yes. Or with a band where I have a lot of instruments that I have to sort of blend with, yes, I use that.

Q: How long have violins like that been available? How did you get turned on to them?

LJ: Well, they haven't been available that long. When I first came to New York, I didn't have anything. I just thought I'd be able to play acoustical violin. But I soon found out that it wouldn't be possible to do that and come through. So I started using a pick-up. So I did that with the Revolutionary Ensemble; I used an old pick-up that I kind of wrapped around my tail-piece in some precarious way. Sometimes it would fall off. Then after a while Barcus- Berry I think came up with one where it was in the bridge, it was more stable, and it had a pretty good sound. It was a little heavy on the lower strings and a kind of brittle. Then after a while, I guess ten years ago, maybe more than that, the violin company that I'm now using, Zeder(?) Violin, they've come up with this instrument . . .

Q: Where is that made?

LJ: It's made in Oakland, California. And a lot of violinists are using them. Even some classical players are using them, because it has a very good sound. It sounds like a violin, and you don't have to press as hard, and it sounds very even from the top to the bottom.

Q: Will this make Stradivariuses obsolete?

LJ: Oh, no way. Give me a Stradivarius any time. I think if I had a Stradivarius, I might be able to deal without amplification, because they're so powerful, and I wouldn't have to kind of worry . . . Well, I probably would maybe a little bit, because the decibel level of a Strad compared to what we're doing nowadays, I don't think it would stand a chance.

[Music: L. Jenkins Electric Quintet, "Chicago"]

Q: A caller wanted to know to what degree your music is notated and to what degree improvised.

LJ: I have never really measured it as such. But since improvisation is my main point in music, I try to always employ it. I employ it in everything. When I write music even for the classical people, I put improvisation in there, and they usually scream like banshees.

Q: Still?

LJ: Still.

Q: How do you find the classical musicians now? I'd think they'd have some orientation towards it.

LJ: Well, the reason why they don't have it is because when you say "improvisation," that means to them jazz, so to speak, playing in 12-bar or 8-bar or something like that. That's what they think. But with me it's not that. I mean, with the knowledge they have of their instruments, they could improvise. But they just don't have the concept. All they have to do is just try to play something that would match what's going down in the music at a particular time. What I'll always do, if I'm writing for classical people, I'll have a strain running through the improvised part for them to kind of hang on to. I don't know what it might be, but it will be something that they can hang onto and probably improvise off. Whereas if I write for a group that improvises, I don't have to worry about that.

But answering that question, my string quartet, "Themes and Improvisation on The Blues" for the Kronos Quartet, they're not into improvisation per se, but they were able to do it because I always laid down something that they could hang onto, that they could try to create some interest from that. The improvisation doesn't have to be about bars or anything. It's about feelings, about what you feel you can get out of what's going on. That's what improvisation is about, trying to get something across at a particular time, whether it be changes or non-changes. And it's not free either. Because what I write is usually not free. It's usually contained in a certain amount of bars or the idea that's behind it ends at a certain point.

Q: It's a defined segment.

LJ: It's a defined segment, yes.

Q: The next piece comes from a forthcoming solo violin recital for Lovely Music. You recorded a solo violin concert for India Navigation back in 1978.

LJ: Yes, at Washington Square Church. I sponsored the concert and everything. It was one of the most successful ventures that I had gone into up to that time.

Q: Solo recitals were another aspect of the AACM, on every instrument.

LJ: That's right.

Q: When did you first have to do one?

LJ: Well, I'll tell you, I didn't do any until after Braxton. Braxton did one. It was his idea at first to do this. You know that recording he did for Delmark? He did this solo album [For Alto. I thought he was crazy when he did it, boy, but it turned out so beautifully. It's a great idea. So as a result of that, I went into it.

Q: Is this a pastiche of live performances, or was it taken from one concert performance?

LJ: This is taken from one concert performance. And this particular piece is called "Umm-Chop-Ta-Chum," which is the rhythm behind what I'm doing here.

Q: And this has the "Jehovah" theme which you've recorded in a number of situations.

LJ: Yes, that's my theme. I like that.

Q: "Through The Ages, Jehovah," it used to be called.

LJ: That's it. "Through The Ages, Jehovah," that's what it is. And I should have had that down on this current record, but I didn't. But it's the same.

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