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A Musical Genius, Remembered

A Musical Genius, Remembered
May 2016
Ninety years after the untimely death of Edmund Thornton Jenkins, Spoleto Festival USA premieres his unfinished operetta, Afram ou La Belle Swita. Learn more about the son of the world-renowned Jenkins Orphanage Band founder who became one of the first American composers to merge musical nuances of the black South with the concert traditions of Europe and quite possibly helped inspire the music of Porgy and Bess  

Supposition shadows history. “What if?” we often ask. Suppose this happened instead of that? 

It’s tantalizing to wonder how things, if a bit different, could have altered history. And it’s an inevitable question to ask about Charleston’s nearly forgotten man of music, Edmund Thornton Jenkins, who, despite dying at age 32, was, in the words of Charleston Jazz Initiative director Karen Chandler, “one of the earliest American composers to merge musical nuances of the black South with the concert traditions of Europe.” Some say his compositions influenced works such as Porgy and Bess. One can’t help wondering: what would have happened had he lived longer? 

Edmund Thornton Jenkins was born April 9, 1894, the seventh son of one of Charleston’s most famous black citizens, the Reverend Daniel Jenkins, and his wife, Lena James. Born into slavery in 1862, the elder Jenkins had made his way to the Holy City from Barnwell County in the 1880s, established himself in the lumber business, and become pastor of the New Tabernacle Fourth Baptist Church. It was while delivering a pile of wood in December 1891, however, that he found his true mission in life. Happening upon four cold and starving black children huddled together in a boxcar, he sought help for them through his church. Jenkins quickly realized that the problem was larger than those orphans—that, in fact, there were countless poor and defenseless children just like them. In July of the following year, the state officially chartered the Jenkins Orphanage. As the number of children in his care grew, the enterprising Jenkins secured the large but decrepit old Marine Hospital at 20 Franklin Street from the South Carolina Medical College as its home.

Three years later, the Reverend launched the first orphan band. Children of various ages were given discarded instruments, mostly brass (considered a way to build up lung power and ward off tuberculosis), to play. They paraded down the street and busked on corners. The bands—eventually there were as many as five touring the country at a time—became successful, bringing in much-needed funds while increasing visibility. A distinctive sound came from the players, and many “graduates,” such as trumpeters Augustine “Gus” Aiken (1902-1973), Cladys “Jabbo” Smith (1908-1991), and William Alonzo “Cat” Anderson (1916-1981), as well as drummer Thomas “Tommy” Benford (1905-1994), became well-known professional jazz musicians. Among their number must be counted Reverend Jenkins’s son, Edmund.

Read More: The Cradle of Jazz: Rev. Daniel Jenkins and his orphanage band - April 2005

The Jenkins family lived next door to the orphanage, and Edmund had grown up hearing the raucous sounds of the band echoing in his ears. As many of the orphans, along with some children placed in the bands by their parents, went off to perform in the St. Louis World’s Fair and in the presidential inaugural parade of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund stayed behind, graduating from Charleston’s Avery Institute and going off to Atlanta’s Morehouse College in 1908 at age 14. He was already skilled in playing the violin, clarinet, and piano. Indeed, the prodigy could play any instrument in the band. He was among the performers at William Howard Taft’s inaugural parade in 1913; and the next year, when the Jenkins Orphanage Band was invited to London to play in the 1914 Anglo American Exposition, Edmund went along as a conductor. He was just 20.

The ensemble was so popular that King George V determined to go to one performance, but the tour was cut short with the start of World War I. The Jenkins band went back home, but Edmund convinced his father to let him stay in London and enroll in the Royal Academy of Music, England’s oldest professional music school. The future conductor and cellist Sir John Barbirolli was a peer.

In his seven years of study at the Academy, Jenkins won nearly every medal possible, including those for singing as well as for clarinet and piano performance. Named a sub professor of clarinet in his first year, he earned a prize for composition in 1917 and a number of scholarships and certificates for excellence. Later, he was awarded the prestigious 1925 Holstein Prize offered by Opportunity Magazine (which encouraged the artistic flourishing of the Harlem Renaissance) for two of his compositions, African War Dance and Sonata in A Minor for cello.

As early as 1916 and ’17, long before the Porgy phenomenon began and even before Gershwin debuted Rhapsody in Blue, Jenkins had been composing classical music incorporating African-American motifs, specifically those remembered from his youth in Charleston. He wasn’t the first, however. One of the earliest men to have done something similar was the British composer of African descent Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912); before him there had been the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904), whose New World Symphony supposedly included African-American melodies. (In another of those “what ifs” of history, one wonders what would have happened if Dvořák had followed the plan to come to the South Carolina Lowcounty in 1893, the year before Edmund Jenkins’s birth, instead of visiting a Czech settlement in Iowa.)

Jenkins’s Folk Rhapsody (On American Folk Tunes) premiered in London on December 7, 1919, at the Coleridge-Taylor Orchestral Concert, hosted by the Coterie of Friends, a group of like-minded associates Jenkins had helped found. Along with his own original themes, Jenkins’s work referenced the African-American spirituals “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Nobody knows de trouble I seen.” In the program notes written by Caribbean musician Wendell Bruch James, Jenkins was complimented on his skill in creating a piece full of “rhythmic and characteristically racial vitality.”

Composed about the same time (though it wasn’t performed until 1925, the year the novel Porgy was published and a full decade before the premiere of Porgy and Bess) was Jenkins’s tribute to his native city, American Folk Rhapsody: Charlestonia. The piece’s central theme—the tune “Br’er Rabbit, what do you do dere?”—was a popular song among mosquito fleet fishermen on the docks of Charleston Harbor. “Remembering the tune from my childhood, I was inspired to use it as the theme for my first rhapsodie,” Jenkins told his friend Gwendolyn Bennett from Opportunity Magazine. (George Gershwin would also come to compose a song based on Charleston’s fishing fleet for Porgy and Bess.)

More than a rising young composer in England, Jenkins was also politically engaged, working for civil rights. He became a member of London-based African Progress Union, an association of people of African descent who promoted African ideas, and he knew and worked with the leading luminaries of his day, including Benjamin Brawley, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Alain Locke. He also founded the Anglo-Continental-American Music Press to help promote the work of others of African descent. In short, Jenkins seemed to be the personification of the phrase later associated with Lorraine Hansberry, “to be young, gifted, and black”—this in the Jazz Age of Paris and London.

In the British metropolis, young sophisticates danced to the strains of the Queens Dance Orchestra, in which Jenkins played clarinet and saxophone; on their Victrolas at home, they could listen to him on the various records he cut. In Paris, he was a fixture in the clubs for the literati and their like of the “Lost Generation.” “Jenks,” as he was often called, cut a dashing figure in his luxurious car, a Talbot Darracq; he sported a platinum and diamond ring and carried a walking stick. Will Marion Cook, a famous African-American Broadway composer, past student of Dvořák, and friend of Jenkins, ran into him and wrote back to the Reverend in Charleston: “Want to congratulate you on your son… with whom I had a most wonderful association while in Paris. He is possibly the best Musician in the coloured race, the very best instrumentalist in any race, and one of the most perfect Gentlemen I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.”

Charleston, however, held no charm for its native son. (Jenkins had returned there in the summer of 1920 to find it segregated and sweltering and entertained himself by playing endlessly, even giving a concert in his father’s church.) Instead, it was New York that lured him away from Europe. Taking his Talbot Darracq with him in the hold of the ship, he was bound for Broadway, aiming to help with the musical direction of Cook’s new work, Negro Nuances. The production featuring Alberta Hunter and Paul Robeson was set to open January 27, 1924, but when it bombed, Jenkins began to work on other projects.

In New York, he revisited an idea that had come to him in Charleston: the founding of a black American musical publishing company. But neither investors nor his father were willing to back him financially. Additionally, the racial restrictions he encountered chafed. “It seems that having lived abroad for so long a time, he had forgotten the frightful prejudice that hounds the American Negro’s thought and action,” Bennett remembered of him.

So Jenkins returned to Europe. Back in Paris in 1924, he began composing again, first writing the libretto of an operetta—not just riffing on African-American life, but African life as well, with parts of it influenced by his most recent visit to the Lowcountry. There would be scenes in cotton fields, among Carolina palmettos and pines, and even confrontations between smugglers and the Coast Guard. He titled the still-unfinished operetta Afram ou La Belle Swita; but its epic nature made it too expensive to mount. Jenks was despondent over that but thrilled with the ecstatic reception of his earlier symphonic piece Charlestonia. In writing reflectively to his father of his musical career, he told the Reverend that he had to stay abroad, realizing, as Daniel Jenkins did, too, that he could no longer live in that part of America in which he had been born because it was not “safe” for him. “If I had a little money behind me, you would hear of me throughout the length and breadth of the country, but as I have not I shall have to wait and wait until I get the chance. The chance I am sure I will get in Europe and that is why I look upon it as the only possible place for me to live.”

But the chance did not come. In July 1926, he was admitted to a hospital in Paris, where records show he was operated on for appendicitis. It could have been complications from that surgery, combined possibly with tuberculosis (which had taken the lives of many of his siblings) that led to his death on September 12 of that year. He had not reached his 33rd birthday.

Jenkins’s body was brought back to Charleston, and his second funeral took place in the Humane and Friendly Society Cemetery. In the segregated South, his death was not mourned in the larger cultural community, but he was too important to forget. Thanks to the efforts of the Charleston Jazz Initiative and scholars worldwide, Jenkins’s works are being revived. More than 70 years following its 1925 Brussels premiere, Charlestonia was performed on October 4, 1996, by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the late David Stahl. It was an event during the “Edmund Jenkins Homecoming Month” that had been proclaimed by former Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. (Likewise, it took Charleston 35 years to mount a production of DuBose Heyward’s collaboration with Gershwin, Porgy and Bess. Premiering in 1935, it did not debut in Charleston until 1970.) On October 25, 2014, Charlestonia was performed in the Holy City for the second time by the Colour of Music Festival orchestra.

Now in 2016, 90 years after Jenkins’s death, the time is ripe for a revival. As Spoleto Festival USA gives his unfinished operetta, Afram ou La Belle Swita, its world premiere in sold-out performances in his native city, one cannot help but wonder what Edmund Thornton Jenkins would think. Would it be the production for which he once hoped? Will it hint at an answer to one of history’s favorite games: What would have become of the composer had he lived?

Resurrecting an Operetta
How the Spoleto Festival USA found and finished Afram ou La Belle Swita

“The story of Edmund Thornton Jenkins has been forgotten for too long,” says Spoleto Festival USA general director Nigel Redden, who first learned of the composer and his Charleston connection through a friend. After doing some research, reading about Jenkins’s unfinished composition, and locating its score at Columbia College’s Center for Black Music Research in Chicago, Redden pulled together an expert team to reconstruct the work for the Spoleto stage.

“We are giving Afram ou La Belle Swita its world premiere 90 years after it was written to tell the story of the native Charlestonian and to give our audience a glimpse of one aspect of the musical world that, in some ways, inspired George Gershwin to compose Porgy and Bess,” he explains.

Charleston-born composer Thomas Cabaniss, who teaches at The Juilliard School, adapted and arranged the score, and a bevy of talents from Porgy and Bess will be involved. Chorus master Duane Davis serves as music director, and director David Herskovits will guide the performances of the cast members (also from Porgy and Bess), including pianist Tuffus Zimbabwe, a Berklee College of Music graduate who also happens to be a great-nephew of Edmund Jenkins.

Although the performances for the June premiere are sold out, CBS correspondent Martha Teichner will lead a discussion with Davis and Zimbabwe as part of the festival’s “Conversations With” series on Monday, June 6, at 3 p.m. at the Charleston Library Society. Tickets are free, but they must be reserved in advance. (843) 579-3100,