Born on March 11, 1932, in Chicago, IL; married Linda Harris; children: Chantille Kwintana. Education: Bachelor's degree, Florida A&M University, 1961. Addresses: Record company--Black Saint, P.O. Box 160402, Sacramento, CA 95816.

Known as a conceptual innovator with a nontraditional performance style, jazz violinist and composer Leroy Jenkins has served as a major player in the avant-garde music movement for more than four decades. Implementing various techniques on his instrument--including sawing, bending, and plucking of the strings--Jenkins is an adventurous player who folds elements of the blues, bebop, and classical music into his compositions. He assumed such a role first in his hometown of Chicago, in the mid-1960s, joining other like-minded artists as a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).

During the 1970s, Jenkins extended his reputation within the rising New York loft-jazz scene and as a founding member of the Revolutionary Ensemble. Since the 1980s, Jenkins, at a time when many players have returned to traditional jazz, has continued to perform and record in a more forward-thinking direction. He also has composed works for small and large ensembles, and he has explored new music and musical theater as well. Jenkins cites Eddie South and Jascha Heifetz as his primary influences on the violin. However, he also credits various other instrumentalists--Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, and John Coltrane, among other ground-breaking bandleaders--as significant stylistic inspirations.

Jenkins was born on March 11, 1932, in Chicago, where he regularly played the violin, an instrument he picked up at age eight, at church. While attending the city's Du Sable High School, Jenkins continued to study violin, as well as alto saxophone, with Walter Dyett. He also played clarinet with the marching band and bassoon with the concert band. Jenkins's musical talents ultimately won him a scholarship from Florida A&M University. There, he studied composition and the classical masters of the violin, earning a bachelor's degree in music in 1961. Meanwhile, in order to support himself financially, Jenkins played saxophone at local bars. After graduation, he taught music, specifically stringed instruments, in Mobile, Alabama, from 1961 until 1965, and in Chicago schools, from 1965 through 1969.

During his stint with the Chicago public school system, Jenkins also worked with the AACM. During this period, considered a creative peak in the association's history, the violinist forged relationships with such fellow members as saxophonist Anthony Braxton, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, trumpeter Leo Smith, and multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell. As the 1960s came to a close, Jenkins, along with other AACM members, relocated to Europe.

While residing in Paris, Jenkins met and played with saxophonist Ornette Coleman and founded the Creative Construction Company with Braxton, Smith, and drummer Steve McCall. The ensemble released two albums, Creative Construction Company and Creative Construction Company, Volume 2, both recorded at the same 1970 concert at the Peace Church in New York's Greenwich Village. Each recording comprises a single composition by Jenkins, music that reveals and explores the improvisational and free music visions set forth by the AACM.

Jenkins returned to the United States in 1970, living briefly in Chicago before relocating with Braxton to New York. Once there, he lived and studied in Coleman's home for three months, played briefly with Braxton and pianist Cecil Taylor, and subsequently worked with saxophonist Archie Shepp, pianist Alice Coltrane, and multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

In 1971 Jenkins formed--with percussionist/pianist Jerome Cooper and bassist/trombonist Sirone (born Norris Jones)--what would become one of the most exciting free jazz groups of the decade: The Revolutionary Ensemble. Before disbanding in 1978, the trio recorded several albums, including the 1975 release The People's Republic, considered a masterpiece by many. All three musicians, critics have asserted, wrote intriguing material and were fierce players, yet each realized the value of restraint.

After the members of Revolutionary Ensemble parted ways, Jenkins toured Europe and also formed his own quintet. The album Mixed Quintet, arriving in 1979, featured Jenkins on violin and viola, Marty Ehrlich on bass clarinet, James Newton on flute, John Clark on French horn, and J. D. Parran on clarinet. Another noteworthy recording by Jenkins during the same period, the 1984 release Urban Blues, displays a unique interrelationship between blues and the avant-garde.

During the 1980s and into the 1990s, for the first time in his career, Jenkins found it difficult to land gigs, as jazz had become more conservative. "Wynton Marsalis was in, and people started talking about going back to classic jazz," recalled Jenkins in an interview with Kyle Gann for the Village Voice. "We couldn't play in clubs. As soon as we'd walk in, the jazz guys, the beboppers, would walk out. We'd come in and make a big sound, and they didn't go for it. They'd say, 'Oh, the noisemakers.' They wanted chord changes. Our music was a result of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. And we prided ourselves on taking it further, because we studied Cage, and Xenakis, and Schoenberg, and all those guys. They were the ones who broke away from the old way in classical music, so we had to study them to see how we could break away."

Consequently, Jenkins, already trained in classical music, found refuge in the new-music scene, writing his first notated score for the Kronos Quartet. Thereafter, Jenkins began to receive commissions for theater-based work. In collaboration with choreographer Bill T. Jones, Jenkins composed the dance-opera Mother of Three Sons, a hybrid of African dance, avant-garde jazz, and folklore that tells the story of a woman who attempts to bear perfect sons by mating with the gods. After ten performances in Achaean, Germany, the opera debuted in the United States in 1991 at the New York City Opera.

Upon the success of Mother of Three Sons, Jenkins earned numerous commissions and grants to support new theater and experimental works from such organizations as the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Meet the Composer, and Mutable Music. These works include the cantata Negroes Burial Ground, featuring a libretto by Ann T. Greene, about an eighteenth-century slave graveyard unearthed in 1991 beneath property on Wall Street. It premiered in 1996 at the Kitchen in New York. Another important commission, Three Willies, a multimedia jazz opera about racial profiling written by Jenkins and Homer Jackson, appeared in 2001. In addition to work for the theater, Jenkins has also won commissions to compose new pieces for the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, the Albany Symphony, and the Lincoln Center Out of Doors.

Jenkins continued to record during the 1990s. Themes and Improvisations on the Blues, released in 1992, features strings, horns, bass, and piano covering four pieces. His 1993 album Leroy Jenkins Live! uses a conventional jazz rhythm section as well as synthesized textures. In 1998, with reedman Joseph Jarman, Jenkins returned with Out of the Mist, a progressive set that blends African and Asian styles, jazz, and European modern classical music.

Jenkins and Jarman subsequently formed a trio with pianist Myra Melford called Equal Interest. The trio released a self-titled album in 2000 that reflects the members' individual musical interests. "Jarman's devotion to Buddhism dovetails with Melford's interest in music for the harmonium, while Jenkins thrives on developing thematic patterns that span musical cultures from East Asia to Appalachia," wrote Down Beat reviewer James Hale. "Together, the three create music that defies categorization beyond the beauty and humanity that suffuse all of it."

by Laura Hightower

Leroy Jenkins's Career

Began playing violin, age eight; taught music in Mobile, AL, 1961-65; taught in Chicago public schools, worked with Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), 1965-69; founding member of the Revolutionary Ensemble, 1971-78; focused on composing and commissions for theater works, 1980s-1990s.

Leroy Jenkins's Awards

Earned grants from National Endowment for the Arts, 1973, 1974, 1978, 1983, 1986.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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over 15 years ago

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