A composer's identity is everything. Debussy was a proud musicien franc,ais; Leroy Jenkins is a proud American violinist-composer who has established his identity by merging the European classical tradition with different ethnic music, defying categorization in the process. "Avant-garde" prefixes to either classical or jazz labels don't tell the whole story. Jenkins feels these merely cloud the issue, admitting "it's very hard to get untyped."
Tonight he brings a sampling of his atypical compositions to the Kennedy Center with his sextet Sting. The lineup of two violins, two guitars, electric bass and drums, the most commercial enterprise Jenkins has headed, developed from a workshop he held in his studio.
"I thought I'd get a lot of violinists, but it turned out I got a lot of guitarists," he recalls. "The object of the workshop was for me to write music like an exercise so they could get a chance to improvise. By accident the guitars on some of the sections I had written started sounding like trombones through their amplifiers. Manipulation of the amps made the guitar strings sound like a violin and a trumpet."
Sting has combined jazz, R&B, hip-hop and a smidgen of classical influences. The group's move in a more serious direction will be unveiled in the premiere of Jenkins' "The Journey," which, as the composer describes it, contains "music that goes places."
You didn't grow up in Chicago during the '30s and '40s without the blues. Jenkins was no exception. The music of Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rushing and Louis Jordan was part of his household. So how did he get interested in the violin?
"My aunt had a boyfriend who played the violin and he came over and played for me," he says. "I liked it, and I asked my mother to buy me one." Jenkins started at the age of 8, easing into the classical repertoire for 50 cents a lesson from the Rev. O.W. Fredrick at Ebenezer Baptist Church. His progress was swift, his dedication total. He eventually won a full scholarship to Florida A&M. But not for violin -- for bassoon. His high school didn't have a string program, so he picked up the instrument along with the clarinet and saxophone.
In college, it was music morning, noon and night. Jenkins played bassoon in the orchestra, violin and sax in the jazz band, clarinet in the marching band and sax for various R&B groups in joints around Tallahassee to support himself. Most important, he studied all the strings and composed. He credits his teacher Bruce Hayden with "legitimizing my violin training" and instilling a sense of pride. Black classical violinists in the late '50s, he points out, were rare in Chicago. In the South, they were "unheard of."
A black classically trained violinist with jazz experience and a desire to unlock all the potential of music couldn't have chosen a better place than Chicago in 1965. Jenkins, who had come home to teach, made contact through Hayden with Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell and the other charter members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).
Jenkins moved to New York in 1970, taking the excitement of Chicago with him. He worked with the most experimental musicians -- Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, for starters. His Revolutionary Ensemble (1971-77), a trio of violin, string bass and drums, provided the first viable outlet for composing, though he mentions that the instrumentation "only gave me a skeletal idea of what I really wanted to write." Jenkins' Mixed Quintet made up of flute, French horn, bass clarinet, clarinet and violin expanded harmonic and improvisational horizons. Here, necessity was the mother of invention. "I started to create my own ideas for ensembles. Nobody hired me or commissioned me, so I had to dream up what I'd like to hear and write for it."
Things have improved recently. In 1983, the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, with Jenkins as soloist, premiered his Concerto for Improvised Violin and Orchestra. The Mixed Quintet played the Houston New Music Festival. And last November, the Kronos Quartet debuted his "Themes and Improvisations on the Blues" for a Carnegie Recital Hall string quartet program he helped sponsor in his capacity as artistic director for the Composers' Forum.
And there's Sting. Jenkins wants to record with them before the year is out. The only problem is the name. He thought up Sting "as a philosophical metaphor for awakening." Instead, he feels he risks confusion with the ex-Police man whose modus operandi is now jazz-rock. "I think I'm going to have to change our name to the 'gut pluckers,' or something like that."