08/31/11 By Tom Wilmeth
A Conversation with Leroy Jenkins
Interview by Thomas Wilmeth with the late violinist and composer from 1979
In the fall of 1979 I had been interested in the current jazz scene for several years, but nothing had prepared me for the far reaches of the music universe that Leroy Jenkins explored one night in Minneapolis. I was told that Mr. Jenkins would have a few minutes before his solo concert at The Walker Art Center. I had heard his latest album and looked forward to speaking with this unique artist, an avant-garde jazz violinist.
If the music of the avant-garde is often purposefully formless, the same cannot be said of Mr. Jenkins’ thoughts, which were focused and articulate. He possessed an unhurried and reflective attitude, choosing his ideas and words with care. Jenkins was patient with the limitations of a young man from the Midwest that night. I think he knew that I was trying and that I was sincere in my interest of jazz.
By 1979, Leroy Jenkins had been a professional musician for well over a decade. He would continue to be a leader of the avant-garde for another quarter century, until his death in 2007. The following previously unpublished interview is a brief encounter with the artist on his musical journey.
Tom Wilmeth: You have been associated in the 1970s with ensemble performances. How long have you been giving solo concerts such as the one you are giving tonight?
Leroy Jenkins: I’ve been performing concerts solo now for about two years. Probably before that it was a little more . . . spaced. It was now and then, but now they are coming a little more frequently. I do a lot of them.
TW: So you are on the road quite a bit of the time.
Leroy Jenkins: With solos, yes. Or the trio that I use – piano, drums, and violin.
TW: I have to admit that I am not aware of many of your solo albums except the newest one on the Tomato label. [Space Minds, New Worlds, Survival of America, 1978] Have you made many solo LPs?
Leroy Jenkins: Yes. I have a recording on India Navigation a couple of years old [Solo Concert, 1977]. I also have a trio on Black Saint called Ai Glatson . And plus For Players Only is a JCOA recording . And then of course I recorded about five records with the Revolutionary Ensemble.
TW: That group broke up a while back . . .
Leroy Jenkins: It’s been 2 years ago now.
TW: Was it because people wanted to pursue their own interests, like your solo concerts?
Leroy Jenkins: Yes. It ceased to be a cooperative.
TW: It would be best for everybody to go their separate ways.
Leroy Jenkins: Seems like it.
TW: Your latest album – the first side is a lengthy piece and is the title selection. You use Richard Teitelbaum on synthesizers. He was here with Anthony Braxton not too long ago. Have you been associated with Teitelbaum for very long?
Leroy Jenkins: Well, he’s on the New York scene. He plays with a lot of my contemporaries and friends. He has sort of the same musical sensibilities that I have and being that I was going to make records dealing with the synthesizer—not necessarily electronics, but synthesizer – I could think of no better player than Richard.
TW: This may be an unfair question, but do you have any preference as far as the acoustic side or the electric side of that album?
Leroy Jenkins: No, I don’t really. I planned them both as they were, one to be one thing and one to be the other. I probably like both sides.
TW: When you recorded that album, did you have any plans to tour with either of those groups, or was that strictly a studio session?
Leroy Jenkins: No, no. I perform with Andrew Cyrille [drums] and Anthony Davis [piano] regularly right now. They belong to my group that I regularly travel with when I do trios and also George Lewis, the trombonist. We play a lot together. Richard Titelbaum was the only one that I got to play for me on the recording only. We hardly ever play together.
TW: You spent some time with Ornette Coleman’s group . . .
Leroy Jenkins: No. I never played with Ornette. I just lived at his house when I first came to New York. He was very instrumental in helping me out when I first came there. He sort of put me into the mainstream of the music business. And of course I was influenced by a lot of his musical discoveries.
TW: New York Times music critic Robert Palmer says that you play the violin like a violin and don’t try to make it sound like a horn. Could you comment on that?
Leroy Jenkins: Well, I’ve studied the violin and I think that instrument has more . . . things that can be brought out other than just the saxophone sound. I mean, I’m not necessarily playing any particular type of music except improvised music. Of course it’s necessary to be able to play the violin to get out all these different qualities, effects, and techniques I bring out. And I was fortunate enough to have a good background—good training.
TW: Speaking of improvising, being very important in your approach to your instrument: Tonight when you go out, will you have set pieces in mind?
Leroy Jenkins: Oh yeah.
TW: Pieces that you’re going to be improvising around.
Leroy Jenkins: Oh yeah.
TW: So it’s a . . .
Leroy Jenkins: Motifs, mostly. Some are melodies. Some are motifs. . . . Then there are others . . . just an abstract improvisation.
TW: You are an individual, as there are not very many violin players doing what you’re doing. In fact, there are very few violins in jazz music. Do you have any opinions about Jean-Luc Ponty’s approach to the violin?
Leroy Jenkins: Well, he’s sort of like . . . Well, I don’t relate to him except that he plays the violin and people often mention him to me. But I don’t relate to him because, you know, he’s not . . . well, we are completely two different types of players and all. Hard to listen to his music. I mean, his music is the type of music that I really don’t listen to that much. It’s fusion, and the fusion stuff I don’t really listen to.
TW: As you have found, I’m sure—the reason you have that name brought up to you so much is that there are so few violins . . .
Leroy Jenkins: Oh yes. I understand why they do it.
TW: Do you enjoy being out on the road or is this a necessary evil?
Leroy Jenkins: Oh yes – a necessary evil. You know, I sort of enjoy it. The fact that I do have to make a living. And the fact that somebody wants me. It’s a great feeling to be wanted. And yes, it gets boring a lot of times. Off the stage.
TW: Like exactly what we are doing now—talking to someone who is not totally familiar with your career. I’m sure this gets old after so many . . . .
Leroy Jenkins: Well, I’m in the business of education. Being the music that I play . . . most people who know about it, they usually have been educated by one of my contemporaries or myself. Or, they are the type of person that has . . . who has their ears on the ground, so to speak. And are really music lovers . . . who like good listening music and good modern contemporary music. And so I understand that there are a lot of people in this world that don’t know about me. I understand my position in the spectrum of the music society, and I go along with the problems and the good parts of it. So sure, I’ve repeated what I’ve said—and I’m sure the questions that you’ve asked have been asked of me a million times, but I’ve been a million places.
TW: Speaking of music that you listen to, if you are home do you ever put on something like Air? Or what type of albums would you pull out?
Leroy Jenkins: Well . . . I don’t listen to records a lot. I listen to radio a lot, mostly FM stations. I listen to traditional jazz. I listen to all, all jazz. I listen to classical music. I sort of can concentrate better on classical music because I’m not too involved in it. Or let’s say bebop; I can sort of read and probably even write music with it on. It’s background. Now, I wouldn’t dare listen to Air or The Art Ensemble [of Chicago] or to [Anthony] Braxton. I couldn’t concentrate.
TW: Is that because you can’t . . .
Leroy Jenkins: It’s because I’m too close . . . I’m too close to it. I understand what’s happening. It’s very . . . a lot of feeling to it. It’s really not the type . . . this music is like television. You have to really . . . it demands your attention. Not only me, I mean everybody. It demands your attention. It’s not the kind of thing . . . it’s cerebral. It’s about listening, and trying to find out some corners that may attract you or may remind you of something in your life or may guide you to some point where you would like to be . . . or where you wouldn’t like to be. You know, it’s not like music that has a finger-popping effect, or that music that they say swings on 2 and 4. This music swings, all right, but not the way it used to. There’s a mental swing about it now—one that you feel, rather than pop your fingers or pat your feet.
TW: So, correct me if I’m wrong here—you say that you put on the classical and the bebop because it doesn’t demand the attention that Braxton . . .
Leroy Jenkins: The classical does demand attention from people that are really interested in it. But I mean it’s passé with me. And bebop is also passé with me. I used to pop my fingers to it. I can put the volume down low and listen to it. But not my music—I mean Braxton. I can’t do it! You know, my ears are out listening for things. Because I know there’s always something out there to be heard. No matter how many time you hear it, with this particular type of music that we are doing.
TW: As an educator, do you have roots in things such as Duke Ellington’s work?
Leroy Jenkins: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I’ll probably be playing one of Ellington’s tonight. I’m rooted in all the masters. Ellington, sure.
TW: So with Ellington you could put it on low and not worry about it, you could also still turn it up and get something new out of it.
Leroy Jenkins: Oh yeah. But I mean it wouldn’t affect me . . . Well, Ellington may be an exception. He’s so strong, you know? Ah, and he’s so modern. It’s something that I respect greatly. I respect Bach. Mozart. Those guys. Any great master. In the Master Class. I respect them all. It’s just that they’re passé now. Where maybe some stuff by [Philip] Glass or somebody like that, man, . . . it’s too disturbing !
TW: It makes you sit up and pay attention.
Leroy Jenkins: Sit up and Pay Attention! If I’m doing some [writing] I wouldn’t . . . I wouldn’t dare put on a Glass or Braxton record.
TW: Do you have any comments about the ECM label? It seems to be bringing a new type, or a recently unheard type of music more prominently to the states.
Leroy Jenkins: Well, the only thing ECM has been doing is that they have a big distribution. That way they would get to more people. But there were many other record companies before them. I mean he [Manfred Eicher] happens to be lucky enough to have gotten Warner Brothers as a distributors. And that’s why you can say he’s bringing out all these people. These people were not brought out by ECM. They were brought out to the general public, more or less, by ECM. There were other record companies who introduced them to ECM.
TW: I don’t want to take up too much of your time. As I said earlier, I know this gets old for you—an endless stream of people with microphones.
Leroy Jenkins: Well, that’s OK! It’s part of the job. I mean it is a job . . . that I enjoy. You do have access to people’s ears here. I just hope that the people will enjoy what I do tonight and . . . maybe they can bring back somebody else—one of my contemporaries, or even me again.
TW: Great. In some ways it comes down to what Gary Burton has said: So much is ruled by the great court of public opinion: Is there an audience? I mean, you are here tonight, obviously, because there is an audience for your music.
Leroy Jenkins: Yeah! An audience! Some person who knows about the music wants to bring it to the people! That’s where it is! That’s how we are educated. That’s how we find out things!