Artists Jazz Forgot
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Harlem by Langston Hughes (1951)
The life of a one-hit wonder is not easy. Many break into music with the hopes they will be one day counted among the greats of their time. And as they see their stars begin to rise, it’s likely that their hopes also become that, maybe, they be remembered as one of the greats. But sometimes, regardless of great talent and contributions, there isn’t enough room in the sun. Even if they do continue working and creating music, it can eat something special away from the work they make. What’s the point of being excellent and groundbreaking when no one can see you? These two artists, Jeanne Lee and Leroy Jenkins excelled regardless of how many eyes were on them.
Jeanne Lee is often described as a “cult favourite.” Meaning she was a brilliant vocalist with a sharp ear for music but she wasn’t as big as her peers so her fanbase tended to be small but focused. In a review of a Lee performance in 1981, playwright and poet Ntozake Shange states, “We got a woman among us who isn’t afraid of the sound of her own voice.”
Indeed, Lee wasn’t afraid of her voice and she followed it as it led away from vocal jazz into spheres such as dance, poetry, choreography and composition. However, observers of the day say she took jazz with her and never left it. In some corners, she is hailed as one of the most avant-garde jazz artists of her time and her improvisation and scat was second to none. Lee died in the year 2000.
Leroy Jenkins, also active around Lee’s time, brought the violin to jazz at the perfect time. The 1960s, though free jazz and experimenting were on the rise, belonged to saxophonists. The composer and violinist should be up there with the best jazz improvisers of all time. He wielded the violin like an elegant machete. Jenkins died in 2007, at which time he was most recognised for his classical music work. Jenkins was also an avid educator in both jazz and classical music.
Let’s make more room in the sun, our hearts and memories to honour jazz greats left by the wayside.