Leroy Jenkins Dies at 74

Arguably the most pivotal free-jazz violinist of the ’60s-internationally renowned for both his compositional and improvisational skills and vision in merging jazz and blues with a European classical sensibility-longtime AACM member Leroy Jenkins passed away Saturday, Feb. 24 in New York. Several sources report lung cancer as the cause of death. Jenkins was 74.

Perhaps best known for his work in the underrated Revolutionary Ensemble (with bassist Sirone and percussionist Jerome Cooper), Jenkins also collaborated with Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Alice Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Rashied Ali and many others. Since 1966, his diverse approach and singular style were in high demand from all facets of the experimental music world. Stuff Smith, Eddie South and Joe Venuti may have pioneered jazz violin, but Jenkins was responsible for injecting avant-garde ideas (such as sawing, use of distortion, atonality, string bending and plucking) into the instrument and expanding its vocabulary.

Born on March 11, 1932 in Chicago, Jenkins picked up the violin at the age of 8 and began performing at his family’s church. He studied both the violin and alto sax throughout high school, but dropped the sax when he enrolled at Florida A&M, where he achieved a B.S. in Music Education in 1961. Jenkins spent four years teaching stringed instruments in Mobile, Ala., before returning to the Windy City in 1965.

Although he continued to teach until 1969, shortly after his return to Chicago, Jenkins became involved with the fledgling Association for the Advancement of Creative Music, which at the time included founders Muhal Richard Abrams, Braxton, Leo Smith, Jodie Christian and Phil Cohran. Because he was the only violinist involved, the classically trained Jenkins’ services were much sought after, and he played on Abrams’ 1967 debut, Levels and Degrees of Light. He next appeared on Braxton’s 1968 debut, 3 Compositions of New Jazz.

In 1969, Jenkins joined the mass exodus of free-jazz musicians moving to Europe in search of superior pay and more playing opportunities. He ended up in Paris with Braxton, Smith and drummer Steve McCall, where they formed the short-lived but highly influential Creative Construction Company. Jenkins then went back to Chicago briefly, but settled in New York in 1970. It was there that he formed the Revolutionary Ensemble in 1971 with Sirone and Cooper, a stunningly original union that lasted six years and five critically lauded but commercially inaccessible albums. Reflecting their moniker, each member of the trio composed-and improvised-pieces encompassing everything from swing and blues to African and Asian rhythms and melodies to serialism and minimalism, each playing numerous instruments, often in the same composition.

After the dissolution of the Revolutionary Ensemble, Jenkins recorded one of his highest regarded albums in 1978, Space Minds, New Worlds, Survival of America (Tomato). He continued to collaborate with dozens of musicians throughout the ’80s and ’90s, most notably Taylor, Abrams, Joseph Jarman and Henry Threadgill, occasionally releasing albums under his own direction. During this period, Jenkins earned grants and commissions to compose for chamber ensemble, orchestra, dance and theater. Such illustrious outfits as the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Albany Symphony, the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, the Kronos Quartet, the Dessoff Choirs, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble and the New Music Consort performed many of these pieces.

For the past 15 years, Jenkins concentrated on composing for dance and theater and even some multimedia installations. Musically, he formed Equal Interest with pianist Myra Melford and fellow AACM journeyman Jarman in 1999, and most recently, a world music ensemble consisting of himself on violin, Jin Hi Kim on komungo, Ramesh Misra on sarangi and Yacouba Sissoko on kora. The Revolutionary Ensemble reunited in 2004 for a concert at Visions Festival in New York and a studio album for Pi Records titled And Now….

In a career spanning over 40 years and 25 albums, from solo violin to chamber orchestras, Jenkins never ceased to explore the possibilities of merging traditional and contemporary African-American music with traditional and contemporary European classical and folk music and beyond, garnering numerous awards and commissions from various organizations, such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim. He leaves behind a legacy of redefining the violin’s role in jazz, as well as a copious amount of recordings that reveal eye-opening surprises for adventurous listeners.

Photograph by Alan Nahigian