Willard Jenkins: Chasing the Rhythms
Writer and activist talks about jazz journalism and his collaboration with Randy Weston on the pianist's autobiography
Willard Jenkins is an independent arts consultant/producer, writer and broadcaster under his Open Sky banner. Willard Jenkins’ current activity includes concert, festival, and concert series planning/development, artistic direction, consulting, music journalism, teaching, and broadcast work. Jenkins began his writing career with the Cleveland Plain Dealer in the early 1970s. He has contributed to numerous local, national, and international publications, including JazzTimes, Inside Arts, DownBeat, Schwann Spectrum, Jazz Report, Jazz Forum, The Antioch Review, Attache, Jazz Education Journal, All About Jazz and many others. Jenkins’ new media contributions have appeared in Amazon.com, NPRJazz.org, NetNoir.com, Impact247.com, and Africana.com. He also writes and edits his own blog The Independent Ear. He has been editor of several publications, including NJSO Journal and Lost Jazz Shrines. Jenkins is also an experienced interviewer who has conducted extensive oral history interviews for the Smithsonian Institution, the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, and 651Arts.
Recently, Jenkins has collaborated with pianist Randy Weston on his as-told-to autobiography African Rhythms (Composed by Randy Weston, Arranged by Willard Jenkins), published by Duke University Press in October 2010. He spoke with JazzTimes about his life as a jazz advocate and journalist.
When did you start writing about music?
In the ‘70s, I wrote for a few of the so-called alternative weeklies after I graduated from Kent State. Then I went to work for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
What was the first piece you wrote about music or jazz?
I don’t recall the exact subject. I know that it was about somebody who was performing at the Smiling Dog Saloon in Cleveland. It might have even been the first incarnation of Weather Report. Many of the giants of that time played the Smiling Dog. A funny name but it was a great club.
Did you have any formal training in journalism or even music journalism?
No, I went to school at Kent State and got a degree in Sociology. During the course of my studies there, I was always the guy who had the major record collection and the guy who had a great thirst for buying new records. I studied the records and the publications and basically educated myself that way. I always had an ability to write. Throughout school, whenever I had a course that required an essay test, it was always the easiest course for me, because those essays were a snap. I always knew that I could write. I began writing as an undergrad for a newspaper called The Black Watch, which was the black student newspaper at Kent State. I started writing about music and it escalated from there.
Why Randy Weston? What about his life and music most appealed to you?
I knew that I wanted to begin writing books, but I didn’t know what was going to be the first subject. It was serendipitous with Randy, because the relationship grew. One year Randy did the “Invitation Series” at the Montreal Jazz Festival. It was one week of David Murray and one week of Randy Weston. David Murray’s week ended with a duo concert with Randy Weston, which reprised the record they had made together for Black Saint. Then Randy proceeded to do four nights of different incarnations of his music. I was fascinated by these different facets of his music. I knew of him. I knew some of his music, including some of his classics like “Hi Fly” and “Little Niles” and “Pam’s Waltz” and those kinds of things, but I didn’t know the depth of his career. At that particular festival, I had a chance to meet him and we connected right away. As things evolved, I also met his music director, saxophonist TK Blue [formerly Talib Kibwe].
As I started thinking about writing a book, I was engaged by the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] and IAJE [International Association of Jazz Education] to write web site content for NEA Jazz Masters program. During the course of writing that content, I had to put together bibliographies, videographies, discographies in addition to the bios of all the masters at that time. While writing that, I was shocked by how few of these great jazz masters have had books written about them. For example, there’s no definitive Art Blakey book and that’s amazing when you consider Art Blakey’s career. I had that in mind. I began checking out Randy Weston even more. He and I developed a friendship to the point, where finally I asked if he would be interested in a book. He said, “Certainly.” He determined that he wanted that book to be an “as told to” autobiography and here we are in 2010 with the release.
The book is a hybrid of autobiography and oral history. Why that format as opposed to either one or even a straightforward biography?
First, we determined when we had our discussions about how this book would be shaped that he was very clear that he wanted the book to be an autobiography, him as told to me. Me translating his words into book form. To be honest, the combination of oral history and autobiography is not particularly an original idea. I got the idea of interviewing other people in the book from reading Quincy Jones’ autobiography. I was interested in his autobiography in how they would have these sidebar passages from people who were important in Quincy’s life. It really enriched the book and Quincy’s story. Doing my research, it was obvious that there were key people in Randy’s life who were still living and who would have some valuable insight into his development. I figured that we would tell his story and at certain points have what I referred to as these “other voices” to testify about these particular points in Randy’s life and the role they played in working with or being around Randy. I thought it was a good way to bring a certain fresh perspective to the book.
The book’s credit line lists you as the “arranger.” What was your role with this project?
During the course of our interviews, one of the very important people in Randy’s life as musician and person was the late Melba Liston. She was his long-time arranger, even after she became physically incapacitated. She learned to arrange by computer. Melba Liston continued to serve as Randy’s arranger for decades. As I interviewed Randy about his relationship with Melba and about how they worked as composer and arranger, it struck me that this was somewhat the same as the way he and I were working on the book. So just out of the blue one day, I said, “Why don’t we bill this book as ‘Composed by Randy Weston’ and ‘Arranged by Willard Jenkins’?” And he loved the idea.
How long did it take to put together?
We started in 2001, so it was nine years from start to publication. We actually started interviewing in earnest in the summer of 2001. Prior to that, I had done some interviews with Randy that primed the pump. In 1998 I was engaged as a consultant by an organization in Brooklyn called 651 Arts as part of their production of the recreation of Randy’s classic work “Uhuru Afrika.” [The 50th anniversary of this work will be performed November 13 at Tribeca Performing Arts Center in NYC.] They staged that work with a big band. Part of my responsibility was to conduct oral history interviews with some key people in Brooklyn, because Brooklyn is very important to Randy in his development. I interviewed a number of Brooklyn people, first and foremost, Randy. His story was so compelling and he had such a great recall, that that really primed the pump.
With an autobiography, there is sometimes this conflict, for want of a better word, between memory and reality. How did you deal with the issue of selective memory?
I was very fortunate that (a) he has excellent recall and (b) he has saved everything. He has stacks of notes and letters from different people from down through the years. I’m not going to give you the impression that all of this is tightly organized. He had to do some digging to find some things that were important to our narrative. But he does have it and he does have a strong collection of artifacts from throughout his career. That assisted things greatly because I would find certain things that would jog his memory about different issues and take us down a different avenue that perhaps we hadn't traveled.
Randy Weston is one of those jazz artists who is well known in jazz circles, but somehow isn’t a household name, at least in this country. Why?
Part of that is the fact that he lived in Africa for a number of years and he was out of the country. When you live in Africa, unfortunately as far as Western media goes, you are further away from the pulse, than say if you lived in Europe, where many jazz greats found refuge. Also there's the fact that he's never been part of the so-called jazz circuit. He's never been one who's played the major festivals in the United States. He's played pretty much all of them, but not as frequently as some artists of his vintage or of his skill. In an interesting kind of way, this book is not your basic jazz book. It's not the kind of linear book that deals with an artist's development and their schooling or how they learned to play the music and how they went off to work as sidemen and at a certain point they became a leader. It doesn't follow that linear progression. Also perhaps part of the reason that he was never part of the circuit was because of his message. His message has always been that he's an African living in America. That was a message brough to him by his father's teaching. What some, and I won't say all by any stretch, might view as radical viewpoints may have played a part in that he's not been one that has not played the circuit like some of the great jazz artists we refer to. You're right that he's not necessarily a mainstream jazz legend. But, I have also found that there is a universal respect and appreciation of his abilities, when you bring his name up. His name is not one of those that people mention regularly in the so-called pantheon, but when you do discuss Randy Weston, there's a great deal of respect. I find that across the board. I find that amongst those who are more in a traditional state of mind and also those who of the more adventurous sort in their interest in the music. It's an interesting dichotomy.
Randy Weston has in many ways been ahead of his time, particularly as far as making the direct connection with Africa.
There's a chapter toward the end of the book called "The Adventures of Randy Weston" and it deals with the fact that although he hasn't been part of the mainstream circuit, he's been a musician who has played places where other jazz musicians have never been. He's been in a lot of non-traditional places and a lot of non-traditional situations that I think are very compelling.
And we're now seeing the fruits of his labor and the fruits of other artists' labors with the growing internationalism of the music, with more and more notable jazz musicians coming from outside the United States.
I mention in the arrangers preface of the book that the first time I went to Morocco in 2001 with him, I was astounded by the response to him from the Moroccan people It was clear that he had a tremendous impact on that country and that culture and the people from the time he had spent in Morocco. For example, one afternoon we were in Marrakesh walking down a busy boulevard on our way to pick up a phone card so he could make some international calls, when all of a sudden, a motorcycle came screaming by. And the guy looked over and saw Randy and jumped off his motorcycle. He left the motorcycle in the middle of traffic and ran over to Randy and gave him a big hug and said, "Thank you, Mr. Weston, for what you've done for our culture." Incidents like that and the general response to him were amazing to me. It really drove home what can happen when someone goes to a country and immerses themselves in the culture and their interest in the people. And doesn't necessarily try to proselytize what they are and what they are bringing from the West, but rather shows a great interest in the people and in the culture. It really brought home that whole international aspect of his career.
What did you learn about Randy that surprised you?
The whole depth of his experience in Africa and his experience with mystics and Sufis, that was kind of new to me. Before I had connected with him on the book, I had never been to Africa before. Now I've been about 13-14 times and that's a direct influence from him. That opened up a new world for me. We would do these lengthy interviews on tape just so that I could go back over certain things and see if there were any new revelations about things we had talked about before. I would often go back to different aspects of his life and ask him in different ways to see if there was any new information he could share. So often in those conversations he would say something that would take me down different avenues of discovery. For example, one time we were having an interview and just out of the blue he casually mentioned that he had relationship with Ruth Ellington, Duke Ellington's sister. That took me down the whole Duke Ellington avenue and his relationship with Duke. I knew Duke was one of his influences from early interviews, but I came to find out that Duke took some of Randy's compositions and published them with his publishing company. Duke championed Randy and arranged for Randy to make a solo piano recording on what was at the time his label, for which he also recorded Abdullah Ibrahim, who was Dollar Brand at that time. So the whole Duke Ellington element, the depth of that relationship, came out of a casual remark.
Was there any material you left on the cutting room floor, so to speak?
The details of certain things you have to make more succinct in order to write a book that is not too unwieldy. Certain details fell on the cutting room floor, but the major aspects are all there.
You often describe yourself as a cultural warrior or champion of jazz. You wear a lot of hats in the jazz community, both locally and nationally. You do all sorts of things other than writing, such as booking festivals, DJ-ing, consulting with jazz organizations. How do you avoid conflict of interest situations?
I try to avoid those kinds of conflicts as much as I can. I remember someone asked the NCAA college basketball commentator Billy Packer a question in much the same way and he laughed and said "I'm a walking conflict of interest." There have been aspects of my work and my career that have intersected in ways that some might consider a conflict, but I've tried to avoid conflict as much as I can. I'm sensitive to that.
The conflict of interest issue comes up most with criticism.
I have never considered myself a jazz critic. I consider myself more of a journalist. That's one way that I've avoided a certain level of conflict.
If you had to choose between say, working full-time as a festival presenter or working full-time as a jazz writer, which way would you go? Is there one area that you prefer most?
If I could choose, it would depend whether I was able to make a decent living! It's the nature of this business that sometimes you have to wear a lot of hats in order to make a living. As you say, I'm a consultant, a freelancer, a contractor, so I have to do a lot of juggling. But the aspect of my work that I like the most is putting artists on stages for an audience. I do appreciate the presenting aspect of my work probably more than anything else. I like the aspect of engaging artists for programs and having an audience come and enjoy that performance or not, whatever the case may be. I like the aspect of putting on public performances.
Presenting shows can be a real kick.
It is. Sometmes when we write, you feel like you're writing in a vacuum, because you're not sure who's reading what you're writing, until somebody comes up and says, "I read your stuff all the time." That happens, but you don't get the same kind of feedback [from writing] that you get, positive or negative, from presenting a performance.
Over the years, you’ve interviewed many musicians. Is there one interview that sticks out for you? And, if so, why?
There have been many of them, but a few stick out. I think about the interview I did with Miles Davis in the early '70s before he went into that semi-retirement during those so-called dark days, during the time he was recording Agharta and that kind of thing. He was at the Smiling Dog Saloon. I had an opportunity to interview Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul together and that was very memorable. Interviews I did with Betty Carter were very memorable. I remember an opportunity to visit Abbey Lincoln at her home and getting an expansive conversation with her and she showed me her artwork and so on. I interviewed the Heath brothers and that was a very important intervew for me. There have been a number of interview situations that have been very rewarding.
All of those subjects are pretty feisty, for want of a better term. They are all strong personalities.
Like the Heath brothers, for example. Interviewing Jimmy and Percy was hilarious.
You have a blog called The Independent Ear, in which you post reviews, interviews and news.
Technically it's a blog, but I think of it more as a webzine. If you think of a blog, you think of something that you refresh on a daily or weekly basis. I might put something in there new every two weeks or so. What I put in there are not small bites that you would commonly find in a blog.
There is always a lot of discussion about whether or not people will want to read in-depth material online. My feeling is that there is room for longer form pieces on the Web. What’s your feeling about that?
I think there is a danger when we get into a mindset where we want to dumb down the public in a blanket kind of way. There are and there will always be people who will appreciate a certain depth. I understand the whole Twitter culture of 140 characters. Maybe that’s why I haven’t yet used Twitter.
I tweet, but do my best to keep the posts coherent with proper grammar and syntax. It’s a sentence, basically.
Let’s face it, we’re old school. But I think there are enough of us around to make an in-depth approach palatable.
Perhaps the most notable feature on The Independent Ear is that you speak with other African-American jazz writers in a series called "Ain't But a Few of Us." What are some things you’ve learned from those interviews that you didn’t already know?
I've learned that there is a certain commonality. I've learned that it has been a struggle for certain African-American writers to write about this music. I've learned that one of the commonalities, and it's very peculiar, is the fact that because there have been so few African-American writers writing about this music historically, often when we approach the subject, there’s a certain higher level of proving ground, in terms of us having to prove our bona fides in order to write about the music.
From the subject?
For example, we had a book signing last week in Brooklyn and I was talking to a black woman who has authored a couple of books about black women jazz musicians. She said she ran into obstacles from some of the people she wanted to interview. She felt as if she had to prove herself to them. They simply weren’t used to an African-American writer approaching the subject and asking the kinds of questions she was.
Why aren’t there more African-American jazz writers out there?
It dovetails with the age-old question of why there isn’t a larger African-American audience for jazz. And we could go on for the next ten days answering that question.
Which jazz writers influenced you as you were developing and coming up in the world of jazz journalism?
Obviously some of the masters like Amiri Baraka, Leonard Feather and Dan Morgenstern. Leonard Feather was always very kind to me and I appreciated that. He would compliment me on things that I’d written and he was interested in programs that I was doing. At the time I was coming up, remember there was no JazzTimes, so DownBeat was the bible. Many of the people who wrote in that magazine were influential to me.
Whom do you enjoy reading now?
There are certain reliable bylines. For example, if I see Robin Kelley’s name, I know it’s going to be something interesting. If I see Farah Jasmine Griffin’s name, I know it’s going to be something interesting. If I see Bill Shoemaker’s name or Bill Milkowski’s name, I know it’s going to be worthwhile reading. And Dan Ouellette. And among the younger writers, I really enjoy John Murph, Nate Chinen and David Adler.
What literature outside of the world of music do you admire and find yourself rereading?
I tend to read non-fiction, but I do enjoy certain novelists. I enjoy James McBride and the series of books he’s written. I enjoy fiction from a very good friend of mine by the name of Robert Fleming. I think that Robin Kelley’s book on Thelonious Monk is one of the best jazz books that I’ve ever read. I really enjoyed Bill Milkowski’s biography of Jaco Pastorius. I enjoyed Ashley Kahn’s books on the making of those two classic records—Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme. And Gwen Ansell’s book Soweto Blues opened up a new world for me. Before Robin Kelley’s book, one of the standard bearers for the music was George Lewis’ A Power Stronger Than Itself about the AACM. And the very valuable book Satchmo Blows Up the World by Penny Von EschenAnd Paquito D’Rivera’s book My Sax Life is full of hilarity. The non-music stuff I read is generally fiction.
What are your feelings about the future of the print media (newspapers, magazines and books) and its effect on jazz and music criticism?
The print medium is still very important. Although there are those who want to suggest that magazines and the print medium in general are an endangered species, I tend to take the viewpoint of what I think is a brilliant advertising campaign for the magazine industry, that the development of instant coffee did not overtake people’s desire for real coffee. I think there is always going to be an interest in magazines in that tactile sensation of actually holding a publication in your hands to read.
Do you use a Kindle or iPad?
I do have a Kindle, but for me that’s more of a convenience tool, because if I go on the road, I don’t have to tote a bunch of heavy books. I can have as many books as I need right there in one device. I still like to have books and reference materials, which are print.
Here are some questions that I get asked a lot. As a writer, DJ and presenter, you get a lot of promotional copies of CDs – probably a few hundred a month, right? Do you listen to them all? What do you with them after you’ve reviewed or played them?
It’s impossible to listen to them all because there are so many of them. There are certain things you look for that entice you to listen and certain things that you can see without even listening that it’s not going to be something I’m particularly interested in. I’ve been known to give recordings to friends and family. I’ve been known to give recordings to WPFW, recordings that I might not have interest in, but might fit the particular format of what they’re doing. Long story short, it would be impossible to actually listen to everything that came through here, because there is such a glut of product. Which is interesting because we have the well-chronicled demise of record labels, but along with that we have an increase in product coming down the pike. I’m getting recordings from people who are interested in airplay, print coverage and performance opportunities. I’m getting them from a variety of angles.
What’s next as far as another book project?
I really don’t know yet. I do know that it will not be another “Great Man” book. Beyond that, I can’t say yet.