Jazz on the violin? For Leroy Jenkins, that rare blend works beautifully
New York — In the world of jazz well-known violinists can be counted on the fingers of one hand - Joe Venuti, Stephane Grapelli, Stuff Smith, Ray Nance, and perhaps one or two others. And certainly in the realm of new and experimental music, they're scarce as hen's teeth.
Violinist Leroy Jenkins is one of those hen's teeth, and he's not exactly a newcomer on the jazz scene. Although he has been hailed as one of the most important figures in new jazz (he placed second in the violin category in the 1982 Down Beat magazine jazz critics poll, just one slot behind Stephane Grappelli), he is actually a longtime innovator and participant in experimental music. Whether you want to call it jazz or not, Jenkins sees himself as a creative musician and composer.
''That doesn't mean any particular type of music,'' he said in an interview at his studio here, ''because I just create music.''
Since his early involvement with AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Music) in Chicago, Jenkins has worked in a variety of contexts - from solo to sextet and beyond, ranging from the Creative Construction Company (with reedman Anthony Braxton) to the Revolutionary Ensemble (co-founded with bassist Sironecq and drummer Jerome Cooper) to his Mixed Quintet (consisting of French horn, reeds, and violin) to his current group, Sting.
''I had a real bad lull there for a while,'' said the softspoken Jenkins, ''so I decided to advertise and get a workshop going. I got four guitarists and a bass. So I started writing for them right away. I wrote the music with the concept that the electric guitars, with melodic lines, and single lines together , might sound like horns, or trombones, or anything you wanted to imagine. So we had a rehearsal and played it back on the tape and it came out just like I said.''
Although people tend to lump his music under the questionable umbrella of the avant-garde - a term which puts some listeners off - Jenkins says his music is accessible and that people naturally like it. He believes the fault lies more in presentation, distribution, and advertising than it does in the nature or quality of the music itself.
''After [John] Coltrane and Ornette [Coleman], it wasn't swinging any more. It got too complicated. It got to be a little ivory-towerish. The only people listening to it were college-educated people and the middle class. The black community certainly wasn't listening to it. They don't even listen to bebop - they're listening to disco.''
In an attempt to broaden his audience and understand what people look for in music, he ''hit the streets'' and the discos to, as he describes it, ''Pick up on the vibes.'' His current band, Sting, which he put together last June, is an outgrowth of this desire and willingness to share his music. The group, with its mostly string format - two violins, two guitars, electric bass, and drums, with violinst Terry Jenoure adding vocals, could hardly be described as ''avant-garde'' or ''esoteric,'' yet it's certainly not old-hat or unoriginal. The music swings, even stomps at times, and one is occasionally reminded of some of Charles Mingus's early rhythmic and melodic eccentricities.
Nevertheless, Jenkins did have his day with the so-called ''new music,'' or avant-garde of the 1960s, that rebellious foray into chordless, beatless, melodyless, yet nonetheless often exciting cacophony. He reminisced: ''It was kind of exciting, the so-called 'black movement' - it was a revolutionary spirit going on there. But people weren't ready to accept it from a commercial point of view, the record companies. Everybody would say, 'This stuff don't swing' - even the beboppers would say it. They didn't like it, they didn't understand it.''
The musicians who played this music were ultimately ostracized from the clubs , so they had to seek out new places to play. Many ended up in the lofts in New York - large warehouses where the musicians themselves often lived and performed as well. Others moved to Europe.
Jenkins mused on the plight of the creative musician - ''They are afraid because they don't know how they're being accepted. On one side they're being honored, and on the other they're being treated like dogs. But we have to deal with it.
''Even the people I've played with before may put me down and say I'm selling out because I'm doing Sting. My duty is to keep myself current and in the race at all times. If you're not strong enough to survive all these little idiosyncracies in the music, you should get out of it.''