African American Studies
Interviewee: Arthur Jenkins
Interviewer: Dr. Mark Naison, Maxine Gordon, Dr. Brian Purnell
Summarized by Alice Stryker
Arthur Jenkins is a musician who grew up in the Morrisania section of the Bronx. His mother’s side of the family moved to New York City from Houston, Texas. His grandmother had moved the family to Harlem, where his mother met his father. When Jenkins was born, his family was living in Harlem and shortly thereafter moved to the Bronx. His father worked as a garment presser and worked for a tailor.
He first began playing in bands when he was attending Junior High School 40. At this time he was learning to play the Alto Saxophone from teachers inside and outside of school. The kids in his neighborhood listened to and admired Latin Music and because of this Jenkins began learning Latin styles. There were gangs in his neighborhood, but he claims they never bothered him because he was a musician. He lived on Union Avenue, between 169th and Boston Road. There were many musicians who lived near him on Union Avenue and who also went to junior high with him, many of which turned out to be professional musicians. Additionally, his mother played piano and always encouraged him to be a musician.
Right around the corner from his building was a club called The Royal Mansion. Jenkins remembers going there at a very young age and listening to the Latin music, which had a big effect on him. When he got a little older and was forming a band with his peers, they would practice at this club as well and play during intermissions.
Another bar he played at, and eventually became apart of their house band, was the Blue Morocco. He describes the layout of the bar and how he met the people that introduced him to this club. He could play either Latin or Jazz depending on who was singing and the style the singer wanted. Additionally, he could incorporate Latin styles within jazz, something he was renowned for. When playing for Irene Reed, he could slip in Latin styles while still playing Jazz, for example. The club attracted a more sophisticated crowd than other clubs in the area, which Jenkins believes is due to the clean and well-decorated interior.
When Jenkins would play Latin music, he was generally playing with a Latin band and for Latin people. He was always valued as a musician for being able to incorporate subtleties from other genres of popular music at the time. When playing Latin music, he would incorporate bebop licks and as mentioned earlier, when playing jazz he could incorporate Latin licks. One of the big Latin gigs he played at was the Taft Hotel. The people there were really dressed up and it was a very fancy ballroom. His first recording was on a Latin Music record.
He wants to set the record strait that African-Americans frequently were involved with Latin music. They played and were recorded with Latin Bands all the time, something the Latin community is hesitant to mention. Additionally, he would see many African-Americans dancing to the Latin music he was playing.
He talks about the many talented musicians he networked with and played with. He also talks about the gigs he played at in all 5 burrows. One of the nicest venues he ever performed at was called Town Hill on Eastern Parkway. He also worked with pit orchestras for plays, sometimes as a musician and other times as a director. In the early 1960’s He began making arrangements for Harry Belafonte and working on a new style of music called “rock steady,” which was the precursor for reggae. He would also play on some of these tracks and worked with many prominent reggae artists. In the late 1960’s he headed back to New York.
When he moved back to New York, whether this was from Jamaica or LA is unclear, he got involved with making jingles. At this time he continued to do studio work with many musicians in many genres. Most notably, he played Latin drums for John Lennon on his last two albums.
Jenkins, Arthur. December 14, 2005. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project. BAAHP Digital Archive at Fordham University.
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