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In Memoriam: Leroy Jenkins 1932-2007

By Published: April 15, 2007
Leroy and I go back quite a ways. When I came to New York in 1974, I knew no one and no one knew me. He was the first musician with whom I came into contact and he welcomed me with open arms, giving me my first concert in the city, my first recording date and many subsequent gigs and tours. He introduced me to his illustrious colleagues, which led to more work. He performed on my first recording as a leader. He demonstrated the importance of expressing one's self as a composer. He hooked me up with my apartment on Bedford Street, which was directly over his. Given this proximity, we naturally became very close. In short, no one was more helpful to me than Leroy. There are probably ways in which he helped me that I am not aware of. Leroy was a very open, gifted, inquisitive, robust, giving and friendly man. He had his own sound, his own ideas and his own message/ statement which he conveyed so eloquently each time he picked up his violin or his pencil. I, along with all those who came into contact with him, have been most privileged and blessed to have shared this space and time with Leroy. He remains inspirational. To you and to your memory, beloved one - peace-love-music-light.


I had the honor to perform with Leroy at Lotus with Rich O'Donnell in a group called Unknown Unknowns ("things we don't know we don't know - Donald Rumsfeld) and again at the Community Church of New York (AACM) with Rich and Min Xiao Fen. A recording of the latter performance was released by Mutable Music as Leroy Jenkins' Driftwood: The Art of Improvisation. Leroy gave us a score for that concert. It read in part: "To Believe '" Pure Motion, quarter note = zero. Ever since, whenever I think of Leroy, I think quarter note equals zero.


The first time I heard Leroy perform, I was a young college student and had just begun studying jazz. I had never heard anything like his music before and had no idea what he was doing, but something inside me recognized it and the light went on. This was what I wanted to do with my life - find my own way of playing the piano, my own way of composing and improvising. Leroy was a musical shaman transmitting his masterful attainment of oneness with music, igniting my longing for such union. Since then, Leroy's music and friendship have never ceased to guide, inspire and encourage me. With love and gratitude - Thank you, Leroy!


Leroy Jenkins, composer, violinist, leader was unique. Music thrives through individuals such as him. His compositional development was as original as his improvisational language, which he developed to the nth degree. He will not just be missed but felt profoundly by those who have an ear to hear. There is not enough time or space to mention his contribution, or my personal thanks for having known such an individual.


Leroy Jenkins always seemed to be everywhere at once. He had already invented the postmodern conception of the violin, but he didn't stop there. He created operas, ballets, electronic music, video - you name it. For me, the mobile, ecstatic Leroy, conducting with arms akimbo, never to be held down, comes directly out of the Great Migration, when his great-uncle Buck hopped a freight train headed for Chicago. Buck sent for Leroy's dad, who married the boss's niece and, in 1932, the major improvising violinist of the 20th Century was born, soon to be playing his violin in church with Miss Ruth Jones, later known as Dinah Washington. Now that's mobility, right there.


The last time I saw Mr. Leroy Jenkins we were exiting together from the memorial for Jackie McLean at the Abyssinian Church in Harlem. We chatted briefly and departed. We seemed to be crossing paths quite a bit these past few years, including a double bill with Trifactor [Bluiett and Kahil El'Zabar] and Leroy with Joseph Jarman and Myra Melford. Leroy, I can honestly say, has been the single most influential person in my jazz violin career. I first heard Leroy with the group called the Creative Construction Company (with Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, Leo Smith, Richard Davis, Steve McCall). Never hearing a violin completely improvising like his, I was immediately impressed and attracted to his music. I decided that I must track this person down and I almost moved to Chicago to find Leroy and join the AACM. Fortunately for me, he came to New York; I still tracked him down and began taking private lessons. My music rapidly and radically changed due to Leroy teaching me classical training, especially how to shift into the upper positions. I knew he was very proud of my success - as time went by he would tell me, "keep up the good work. It makes me extremely proud to have known Mr. Leroy Jenkins. He and his music will be truly missed.


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