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Willard Jenkins: Chasing the Rhythms

Writer and activist talks about jazz journalism and his collaboration with Randy Weston on the pianist's autobiography

Writer and radio host Willard Jenkins introduces Jason Moran & Bandwagon at the 2010 Rosslyn Jazz Festival

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?

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