Leroy Jenkins was one of the most important people I’ve ever met. He helped to strengthen my belief in myself and in my abilities on the violin. I studied with him briefly, and he definitely helped me to establish and to understand the vocabulary of creative violin playing.
I studied with Leroy in the early ’70s. I would go over to his apartment on Bedford Street in downtown Manhattan, near where Sweet Basil was located. Of course, I knew of his music, like his early records as a sideman on Delmark from when he still lived in Chicago (Muhal Richard Abrams’ Levels and Degrees of Light from 1967, Anthony Braxton’s 3 Compositions of New Jazz from 1968). I was actually planning to go to Chicago to seek him out because he was the only person who was playing the style of violin that I liked and that I wanted to play. I was interested in improvised violin, especially when the instrument is upfront like the saxophone. That’s been my desire, and Leroy inspired me in that direction. And it was not only his playing that impressed me; it was the way that he interacted with the band. In other words, the violin was not in a supportive role. There weren’t many people at that time who were playing the violin in that particular way, not even Ray Nance, who played with Duke Ellington. I did admire Stuff Smith quite a bit, but no one really played the violin the way that Leroy did. And I was really intrigued by what he was doing.
Leroy’s playing wasn’t always about swinging and upholding the tradition and all that. He would play it inside and he would play it outside. He played creatively. Leroy had a very open-minded attitude toward the music, which was coming out of that whole AACM approach to music. And out of all the Chicago guys, he was the only one playing the violin, so I naturally gravitated toward him. He was the direct link to what I wanted to do. Studying with Leroy opened up a door for me conceptually, but he also improved some of my dexterity on the instrument. I was relearning the instrument on my own, pretty much, and he straightened up some of my technique.
Leroy and I saw each other often through the years, mostly on the road. We never recorded together, but Henry Threadgill hired both of us one time in the mid-’80s for his Situation Society Dance Band, which was a large group. There was one memorable performance we did with that band at S.O.B.’s in New York. I also remember one gig that Leroy and I did together, a double bill at the HotHouse in Chicago. He was with Joseph Jarman and Myra Melford, and I was with Hamiet Bluiett and Kahil El’Zabar in a band called Tri-Factor.
Leroy was just a genuine person, a great human being, and I just enjoyed his company. And the truth is, he always gave me the biggest smile. I remember one time him telling me, “Billy Bang, I don’t know what you’re doing out here, but people come to me after I play and ask if I’m Billy Bang.” So he always gave me little compliments like that and he led me to believe that he was very proud of what I was doing. That always touched me in a way. So it was especially satisfying and moving for me to have been asked to conduct the 50 Strings for Leroy Jenkins project, which was devised as a memorial to Leroy at the 2007 Vision Festival. There’s an opportunity for me to do that project again in Milan. And I’d love to do that, to keep Leroy’s legacy alive. [As told to Bill Milkowski]