I’ve probably told this story before, but one of the formative experiences which I like to think set me on the path to becoming a critic/historian of this music was a chance meeting with violinist and improvising composer Leroy Jenkins in the Spring of 2001. I suppose it wasn’t total chance – it was the evening of a solo concert he was giving at an art gallery in lower Manhattan, and I’d planned on going so I was in the neighborhood.
He was walking towards me on the sidewalk, uptown a bit from where the gallery was, and being a naïve skinny white kid, I said “Leroy Jenkins??” He answered in the affirmative and very graciously allowed me to stroll along to the space and pepper him with questions about “the old days.” It was a short conversation but it was an encounter that showed me that, not only could I be a fan of this music, but I could learn something from its practitioners and share these ideas with others. At that time I was also playing cello, and talking with a string player was of course very important. I was lucky enough to see Mr. Jenkins perform on several occasions – twice solo, once with the reformed Revolutionary Ensemble, in a trio with Myra Melford and Joseph Jarman and another time with guitarist Brandon Ross. Though I’ve certainly gotten to know other musicians more personally, the formative quality of my interactions with Mr. Jenkins made it especially sad when he passed in 2007 at age 74.
He was a special character who infused often very open, free music with the languages of both R&B and classicism, all applied to the somewhat surprising choice of the violin. Of course, the instrument has certainly appeared in jazz, despite being treated as a sort of gimmick in postwar Black music. Admittedly, it’s a sound that often requires a special context or mood to “hear right,” though it seemed like Jenkins was always able to either create or find that setting. His discography is rather large – in addition to the Revolutionary Ensemble and his own groups, he’s also worked in varying degrees of frequency with reedmen-composers Anthony Braxton (like Jenkins, a fellow Chicagoan) and Archie Shepp, string multi-instrumentalist and composer Alan Silva, cellist Abdul Wadud, drummer Rashied Ali and others.
On another encounter with Jenkins in 2002, I brought a relic of his past to share with him, something which I was always “going to get around to” copying for him (since he didn’t have one of his own), but never did. It was a 45 rpm single that contained his first recording from circa 1965, with the Jazz Prophets led by percussionist Ardell Nelson. This 45 was recorded before Jenkins had joined pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams’ Experimental Band or the subsequent Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) while an upstart in Chicago.
Joined by organist Mace “Something Else” Morgan (only slightly less obscure than Nelson, he made a couple of sides for the Ebony label around 1962), the Jazz Prophets were a very strange instrumental combo. Basically, the sound is somewhere in the left field of Sun Ra-like exoticism with a texture that’s just too clunky to slide around with club-ready grease. The A-side, “Swamp Chanting for Weedy,” is the real hit, with the flip “Eula” seeming like a foxtrot-ready bit of corn syrup gone only slightly “off” (though it has its place). The violin playing is brilliant throughout, and the threesome comes by wincing oddness quite honestly - Morgan and Nelson should not be discounted as they work a priceless vibe.
I’ve only seen this single a couple of times; it was given to me by soul archivist Dante Carfagna. Queried about the label, Lola’s Recording Co., Carfagna claims to have never seen the imprint on any other title. So it’s likely a custom-pressed and extremely scarce South Chicago oddity.
Here, for your listening and downloading pleasure, is Ardell Nelson’s Jazz Prophets.
Thank you to Leroy Jenkins and Dante Carfagna.