Turning Corners

The Life and Music of Leroy Jenkins
By Carl E. Baugher Cadence Jazz Books

King (queen?) of classical music, the violin has had a checked history in jazz. Saddled with the reputation of having a tone too quiet for raucous syncopating and demanding extensive study to play correctly, the number of improvising violinists has always been pretty limited. Joe Venuti, Eddie South, Stuff Smith, France's Stéphane Grapelli and Denmark's Svend Asmussen are the few cited in histories of Swing and Bop. Michael White, Jean-Luc Ponty and Michael Urbaniak — the later two more-or-less lost to fusion — took the fiddle into the 1960s and 1970s. Only with the rise of pure improvised music did strings finally come into their own. Today the improvisations of such violin and viola players as Billy Bang, Matt Maneri, Phil Wachsmann and Mark Feldman are as valued as other instrumentalists' contributions.

Surmounting this group, and the link between jazz's earlier and its modern traditions, is 69-year-old Leroy Jenkins, who pioneered a dominant role for four-string concert instruments in creative music. Carl Baugher's long-in-the-works biography offers the definitive portrait of this accomplished composer and improviser.

Written in simple, workman-like prose, Baugher takes both parts of his subhead very seriously. Moreover, once Jenkins starts to record — at the shockingly late age of 36 — the writer begins to offer a detailed assessment of all his work, whether it's commercially available or not.

The reasons for Jenkins late entry into the spotlight were a combination of racism and personal problems. Born and raised in Chicago, he seemed to have developed a Jones for serious music and hard drugs at about the same time. A checkered period as a scholarship music student at Florida's A&M, a long stretch teaching music in Mobile, Ala.'s segregated school system, the extravagant habits related to a steady income — he also played R&B gigs as a saxophonist — and too few jazz opportunities, didn't help matters much.

Sobriety relating to both his personal life and music came when he returned to the Windy City in the mid-1960s. Impressed by the work of such committed thinkers as multi-reedist Roscoe Mitchell and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, he became a charter member of the infant Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), carving out a place for violin in that rapidly changing scene.

Soon he was lauded in Europe, where he first traveled in a band with fellow AACMers trumpeter Leo Smith and woodwind experimenter Anthony Braxton, and later still in Jazz's centre of the world: New York. Sidemen gigs with the likes of pianist Alice Coltrane and saxophonist Albert Ayler soon gave way to membership in the legendary cooperative, the Revolutionary Ensemble, with percussionist Jerome Cooper and bassist Sirone.

Finally Jenkins went out on his own, putting together his own bands, ranging in style from bluesy to experimental, and often featuring a chordal instrument such as a guitar or piano in the front line to counterbalance his violin and viola contributions. Most recently, he has jumped bow first into so-called "serious" music, giving solo recitals, accepting commissions to write for chamber ensembles and New music groups, as well as creating the score for an opera.

Baugher's comprehensive familiarity with Jenkins — he has produced and recorded sessions for him, as well as extensively interviewed the violinist and other participants — gives this volume the kind of authority more distanced observers lack. There's no sycophancy however, with the author explaining which Jenkins' recordings aren't worth investigating — due to less than appropriate musicians or imprecise sound —and which are clearly essential.

However, the constant itemization and analysis of so many unreleased or "audience" tapes throughout sometimes give this volume an air of fanzine fetishism. We would hope that Baugher wouldn't want to be compared to those obsessives who insist that the only way to really appreciate the Rolling Stones, for instance, is to hear a bootleg tape of a warm up club performance recorded by a roadie in the weeks following Altamont. Often, the book appears to mention more unavailable music than accessible sessions. To take the most charitable view of his opinions on these numerous private sessions, perhaps they pinpoint the wealth of first rate material that could be released by committed record companies that would add to our appreciation of Jenkins' artistry.

Some of the most interesting parts of TURNING CORNERS come in those large sections when Baugher quotes extensively from Jenkins himself. Nonetheless, the volume does lose something as it progresses and narrowly concentrates on the man's musical career. Minute discussion of the music and recordings subsumes the man's personal story.

Granted, Jenkins expresses much of himself in his compositions and performances. Yet it would be interesting, for example, to explore the feelings of someone who, after a successful second marriage became a first time father at 46. Or to find out his take on a situation that suddenly dubs his art "serious" because of its new, Eurocentric concert hall association, after a lifetime working in the Black vernacular tradition.

Still, this is the essential volume for anyone drawn to either Jenkins' work or who appreciates the sound of the violin in jazz.

— Ken Waxman