Willard Jenkins

Artistic Director, Writer, Broadcaster, Educator, Oral Historian, and 2024 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy
A man sitting at a table with hands croseed in front.

Photo by Jati Lindsay

Music Credits: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd I Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

“Hi-Fly” composed and performed by Randy Weston. Used courtesy of Eric Trosset, Planet Woo.


Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, This is Art Works. I’m Josephine Reed

Willard Jenkins: … being a presenter informs what I'm doing as far as writing. Because, for example, I don't know how many of my fellow jazz writers pay a great deal of attention to the audience and the audience response to what's happening on stage. I've raised issues before, publicly and privately with musicians, about their need to communicate with their audience. I think some of the most successful jazz musicians I've seen have been those who really communicate with their audiences.

Jo Reed: That is artistic director, writer, broadcaster, educator, oral historian, and 2024 NEA Jazz Master for Advocacy, Willard Jenkins. Long an influential figure in the jazz world, Willard Jenkins is one of the major voices celebrating the music and its importance to American and world culture. Currently the artistic director of the DC Jazz Festival as well as the host of the Ancient/Future program on WPFW, the only jazz station in the nation’s capital, Willard is an authority on the local, national, and international jazz scene. His career covers the breadth of a life intertwined with jazz, from journalism to  grassroots advocacy to leadership roles in jazz festivals and organizations where he’s created and implemented innovative programming. In this podcast , willard shares insights into his work with jazz legends like Randy Weston, his efforts to nurture emerging talent, and his commitment to preserving jazz's rich legacy. So, sit back for a deep dive into Willard Jenkins' enduring passion for jazz—beginning when he was a boy in his family’s home where jazz was a constant backdrop.

Willard Jenkins: Well, I was born in Pittsburgh and grew up in Cleveland.  Jazz was in the house. Jazz-- my mother and father, primarily my father as far as purchasing-- record collection. So they always had a record collection, and I was hearing these things and it started in Pittsburgh, but grew much stronger in Cleveland.

Jo Reed: What were you listening to? What kind of music did your father listen to? I mean, jazz has many faces.

Willard Jenkins: Well, my father listened to-- he liked Ellington and Basie and Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. He liked Miles Davis, and he liked Ramsey Lewis, and he liked Les McCann. He liked Jimmy Smith. He liked some of the soul jazz as well. But he did like a broad range of things.

Jo Reed: Do you remember a particular artist or music that you listened to? That sort of just made your head explode?

Willard Jenkins: It was just an aggregate. There was no magic moment or magic record or anything like that. It was just hearing the music in the aggregate and hearing it across different styles, as I reflect back on it, that really had an impact on me, hearing what my father was playing record-wise and what he was listening to on radio that it somehow got to my heart.

Jo Reed: Talk about jazz on the radio. Was there a jazz radio station?

Willard Jenkins: Yeah, there was. There was WCUY in Cleveland, which was a 24-hour commercial jazz radio station. What an oddity, right? Anyway, it was a great radio station. The one personality I remember the most was a man named Chris Columbi. He later turned out to be one of my journalism colleagues. But, at any rate, yes, we did listen to jazz on the radio. So we were hearing it in the car, you know what I'm saying, and in the house.

Jo Reed:  Were there records that were pretty influential to your listening to the way you sort of developed your love of music?

Willard Jenkins: Back in the day, in the 60s, whenever people made stereo purchases, they would often get these sampler records to go along with them. Some of them were almost like test records and whatnot. But some of them would be records of substance. I remember my father bought a stereo and brought it home. That was a big thing. It was one of those big consoles. He got a sampler, and it was Argo Jazz. It was a sampling of-- Argo was connected with the Chess label out of Chicago. This was a sampling of their artists, people like Ahmad Jamal, Ramsey Lewis, James Moody, a great James Moody record with strings. I would listen to that record. That gave me a broader sense of who was out there and who was doing what and it was great.  And then other records that he brought in that really struck me, like I actually played one on the radio the other day, which was Oscar Brown Jr.'s classic album, “Sin and Soul”. That had some of what we now know of as vocalese on it. That had his version of “Dat Dere,” the Bobby Timmons classic. So just hearing these kinds of things really got to me. This became the music I wanted to hear. Not to say that I would dismiss the music of my peers and the music  I was growing up with, which was Motown, Stax, et cetera, et cetera. I was into that, too. We used to sing The Impressions in the basement, you know what I mean? So I was into that. But jazz was really becoming important to me. 

Jo Reed: College was pivotal for you, wasn’t it?  

Willard Jenkins: Yes. I went to Kent State University, a proud graduate of Kent State University. I’ll emphasize that because that was a place that really helped me become social, because I've always been an introvert, but I really became social when I went to college. It was as a result of so many factors at Kent State University, one of which was becoming an Omega Man.

Jo Reed: When you were at Kent State, did your love of jazz continue to grow and broaden, and if so, how?

Willard Jenkins: It did, because I was no longer under the same roof as my father's record collection. So now I had to get my own record collection. That's when the thirst really began to grow, because now I had to determine who was I going to buy when I went to buy records. That, of course, was in the day of the great old record stores. And so I began to build my own record collection there.

Jo Reed: You also began writing about jazz there, didn't you?

Willard Jenkins: I did. I did. I did. I did. And my roommates and my brothers, my Omega brothers, became my first audience, because they were into whatever I was bringing in. I was turning people on to different records and whatnot. And  I, being someone who at the time had decided, maybe I can write a little bit, and having my interest in the music, I volunteered to write record review columns for the our own Black student newspaper, the “Black Watch.” That's where it started, the “Black Watch” student newspaper, Kent State.

Jo Reed: Okay, here's my question. Did you have to develop a different way of listening--listening deeper in order to write about the music? What did you sort of have to grasp in order to be able to take something that's sound and turn it into text?

Willard Jenkins: Well, you should know something about the history. You should know something about the various styles and approaches to playing the music. You should know something about the sound projected by whomever is the leader of a particular recording and you should have some recognition of the cohesive nature of the band that's playing and all those kinds of factors. It's just an ongoing education of deeper listening. 

Jo Reed: You began working for the “Cleveland Plain Dealer”. When was this and how did that come about?

Willard Jenkins: Well, my father worked at the “Cleveland Plain Dealer.” He was a typographer. A couple of my earliest summer jobs at the “Cleveland Plain Dealer” were as a result of his connections there. Then when I graduated from Kent, my father had become aware, because I'd shared some of the things I'd written, he'd become aware of the fact that I was interested in writing about the music. I talked about it all the time, of course. So, eventually, he talked to the editor. The “Plain Dealer” had, still has, a Friday entertainment supplemental. The editor was a man named Robert Roach and he invited me to talk to him about my writing interests, and he decided to engage me as a writer about jazz. That gave the Plain Dealer the rare air of having two writers about jazz because the guy I'd mentioned earlier from WCUI, the radio station, Chris Columbi, he wrote about jazz records for the Friday Magazine.  But Bob Roach wanted me to cover performances and he wanted me to cover performances in a preview fashion, not a review. I did reviews later. But he wanted me to cover previews and to write about what was coming in the upcoming week as far as performances in the community.

Jo Reed: I'm curious, Willard, when you were early on beginning your career as a jazz journalist, were there any jazz writers you were reading that were influential in some way?

Willard Jenkins: Well, you know, Amiri Baraka was always very important. A.B. Spellman was important. Some of the more well-known bylines were important, like the Leonard Feathers. Leonard Feather was someone who was very kind to me. He sent me a couple of encouraging notes when I was doing my arts service work, my jazz service work at Arts Midwest. Dan Morgenstern was always very kind. Nat Hentoff called me a couple of times. So I was getting encouragement from people like that as well

Jo Reed: What was the jazz scene like in Cleveland then?

Willard Jenkins: Well, the jazz scene was good. Not great. But it was a good jazz scene and had some exceptional musicians. I had actually begun sneaking out to jazz clubs underage around Cleveland. There were some organ joints, where you'd have the organ and drums and guitar. There was a great organist named Eddie Backus in Cleveland and we used to sneak out to joints and hear him playing and hear various musicians around town playing. So we knew that there were high-quality musicians in Cleveland, operating out of Cleveland..

Jo Reed: What was the hotspot? Smiling Dog Saloon?

Willard Jenkins: Well, the Smiling Dog Saloon-- now you're really talking about what became kind of HQ and became important in a number of different ways. The Smiling Dog Saloon is where I had the first opportunity to hear Miles Davis, first opportunity to hear Sun Ra. And Sun Ra  and the  Arkestra  were there for a month. They were staying in people's homes around the east side of Cleveland. I heard the original versions of “Return to Forever” with Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke. The original version of “Weather Report”. Mingus came through. The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra came through the Smiling Dog Saloon. Keith Jarrett, first gigs as a leader: Smiling Dog Saloon. So the Smiling Dog Saloon was a very important place. So we got used to all these things. And, unfortunately, racial politics played a role there. Because the Smiling Dog Saloon was located on the near west side of Cleveland. If you know anything about Cleveland in the 60s and the 70s, particularly, and certainly preceding that, but black folks lived on the east side, white folks on the west side and rarely the twain shall meet. It's a lot different now in Cleveland. Thank goodness. But, as a result, there was some tension in the neighborhood where the Smiling Dog Saloon was located. People in the community having issues with black folks coming over to their neighborhood. Eventually, the city councilmen, whatever machinations came up, they made it difficult for the Smiling Dog Saloon to renew its license, et cetera, et cetera. So we lost that. As a result, a group of us got together and formed the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society with the mission of kind of filling that gap of bringing touring jazz artists to Cleveland for performances.  So that was what the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society started. That was our original mission.

Jo Reed: At this point, Willard, did you think, “You know what, I could have a career in jazz”?

Willard Jenkins: I did not. I had already been writing. Then this opportunity came along with the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society to present performances. So it kind of broadened my outlook in the music. But still, I was still working nine to five.

Jo Reed: What were you doing?

Willard Jenkins: I worked for the Ohio Adult Parole Authority. I was a parole and probation officer for 10 years coming out of college. That still freed up my evenings, et cetera, et cetera, and enabled me to build up my craft as a writer and my opportunities as a writer. So, meantime, I was still writing. That's when I started writing for the “Plain Dealer” and various alternative weeklies around the community throughout the year. So I was doing my share of that. Then came the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society and the opportunity to present performances. As president, that's a spot I took for myself. So I began to learn the machinations, the insides and outs of presenting performances and I met a man named Dr. Reginald Buckner. He was a professor, a music professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and he took a sabbatical to teach at Cuyahoga Community College, which we call Tri-C in the community. We met and we became friendly. He eventually helped Dr. Thomas Horning to hatch what became Tri-C Jazz Fest. For the initial Tri-C Jazz Fest, they wanted a committee of people in the jazz community. So they invited me as president of Northeast Ohio Jazz Society to be on this committee to start the Tri-C Jazz Fest. Whole idea behind the Tri-C Jazz Fest was to establish a jazz studies program at Cuyahoga Community College, which it did royally. So Reginald Buckner and I, we continued to communicate and be friendly and whatnot. After his year sabbatical was up, he went back to Minneapolis to teach at the University of Minnesota. At one point, he contacted me and said, “Did you hear about this position that has just opened up?” The regional arts agency that represented Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio that was formerly known as Great Lakes Arts Alliance. They had put out a call for proposals for people who might be interested in conducting a regional jazz community needs assessment for a year. It was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. The more he talked about it, the more I said, “Wow, maybe this is how I get out of the Adult Parole Authority and do what I really want to do!” So it was still kind of a hang-fly kind of thing because it was only a year guaranteed. So I jumped on it and I got the position. The whole idea was that I would go out-- throughout those four states, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio, and interview jazz musicians, jazz educators, jazz radio people, any jazz writers in the community, and even jazz enthusiasts as well. So I came with a handy set of questions and I was meeting people and asking questions about what they felt were some of the needs of the jazz community as far as developing the art form and raising the art form’s platform and that kind of thing. So, at the end of the year, it seems that the evidence was so compelling that Great Lakes Arts Alliance said, “Oh, we want to have a jazz program. Let's institute a jazz program.” So the hang-fly attitude that I had at the beginning, it paid off, because they engaged me to run this new program.

Jo Reed:  And, soon after, the Great Lakes Arts Alliance merged with another regional arts agency to become Arts MidWest, correct?

Willard Jenkins: Yes. Unbeknownst to me in the beginning, because these are kind of board-level conversations, they had been having merger conversations with the regional arts agency of the upper Midwest states, Iowa, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Wisconsin, and they merged and they became Arts Midwest. A man named David Fraher was the director, was to be the director of this new agency, Arts Midwest. David and I had met. So he'd been clued into this work we were doing on behalf of jazz, and he determined that, “Okay, well, we're going to make this jazz program, we're going to make it a core program of Arts Midwest.” But the stipulation was, “You have to move to Minneapolis.” So I didn't know Minneapolis. I'd never been there. So they brought me up. I took a look around. It was a good time of year when they brought me, by the way. It was a-- 

Jo Reed: Happy January, Willard. 

Willard Jenkins: They didn't bring me in the middle of winter, that's for sure. So they brought me up and it was beautiful. I'm looking around all these lakes and whatnot, lakes are right near downtown, and it's beautiful, and quickly determined that there was a lot of community and civic support for the arts in this community. So we relocated. Suzan and I relocated to Minneapolis. And we spent four years there developing the jazz program at now Arts Midwest.

Jo Reed: What were some of the initiatives that you developed there?

Willard Jenkins: Well, being a writer, first thing we did was develop a quarterly newsletter. That created various spinoffs, because that gave us an opportunity to reach out to people around the region as far as contributing, and, in a way, assisted some of them of getting a byline and a foothold in writing about the music. So there was that, and we created a jazz community database. That was when that was a shiny new toy. Everybody had to have a database. We did that. We would do a series of technical assistance workshops around the region. We might do a series of workshops on musicians developing their career beyond the bandstand. So we would do workshops of that nature.  And one of the things that we eventually did towards the end of my time there, we had a Jazz Media Conference sponsored by Arts Midwest that was held in Chicago at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Part of the whole idea of that was to see if there could be some common ground between writers about jazz, jazz writers on the one hand, and jazz broadcasters on the other hand. Because, by then, I had been broadcasting for a while as well. The one great thing that came out of that was that was where the Jazz Journalist Association, also known as the JJA, was born.

Jo Reed: Why was it important for jazz journalists to come together and form an association? What does that give jazz journalists?

Willard Jenkins: Yeah, I think it was important for jazz journalists to come together because I had seen how associations were important in a lot of professional pursuits. I just kind of felt that journalists having a forum amongst themselves to discuss their craft, because as jazz journalists, there's kind of a lone wolf mentality. However, as I learned, there can be community. Because once I started writing about festivals outside of my home community and started traveling to write about festivals on assignments from magazines, et cetera, et cetera, invariably, at the performances, the journalists would be seated together or in the same proximity and whatnot. So you began to see some of the same faces and began to interact with people. I saw how interacting really was useful and helpful in the whole pursuit of writing about the music, and in knowing who's out there, and in knowing who's behind the other bylines that you're reading, because we're not talking about pop music where you have a horde of journalists covering the music, you know what I mean?

Jo Reed: You became director of the National Jazz Service organization. When did that happen? Give me the story

Willard Jenkins: That happened in 1989.  I left Arts Midwest to take an opportunity in Washington, D.C. at the National Jazz Service organization in 1989 and that was an opportunity to do these kinds of service activities that we had begun to foster at Arts Midwest, to do them on a national level. The National Jazz Service organization was endeavoring to pattern itself after what was the old American Symphony Orchestra League, and Dance USA, and the other arts service organizations on a national level. So it was an opportunity to bring some of the things that we had found to be successful, and were developing in their success at Arts Midwest, to bring them on a national level.

Jo Reed: How long were you there, and what did you particularly want to accomplish there?

Willard Jenkins: Well, particularly wanted to accomplish a sense of community-- the whole idea of trying to build community on a national level for service opportunities, and help develop musicians' careers, hopefully, and try and develop more performance opportunities, because that's the main thing that musicians need and, also, with the whole idea of working towards audience development, because audience development is the biggest issue that this music always faces. We have no shortage of exceptional jazz musicians. There's no shortage of people out here to play this music. We know about the growing conservatory and music education community, and we know that there are young people all over the world wanting to play this music, learning to play this music. So we know there's always interest in this music. But we also know that not all of those students are going to be professional musicians. But we need them to become audience, and we need them to bring their peers into the music as well. So audience development has always been one of my biggest platforms, because as someone who presents performances, that's of such great interest, because that's the way we sustain what we do, the audience so often dictates the capacity of what we do.

Jo Reed: Well, you've been artistic director of many festivals, many events, and you're currently working as the artistic director of DC Jazz Fest. So when did that job begin? Let's talk about some of the work that you do there as artistic director, what your vision for it is.

Willard Jenkins: As far as presenting, and as far as working with festivals, curating festivals and whatnot, that began at Tri-C Jazz Fest. I spent 18 years as artistic director of Tri-C Jazz Fest in Cleveland. Then in 2015, the opportunity came to be artistic director of DC Jazz Fest. 

Jo Reed: Okay, let's talk about how you go about curating DC Jazz Fest, because to me, it strikes me as a very singular festival. You bring in international artists, national artists, but there is also such a focus on local artists. And you're putting all this together. Tell me how you go about it.

Willard Jenkins: Well, I'm working with our president and CEO, Sunny Sumter. Sunny and I sit down and determine what we want to do thematically. There’s a natural platform for what we refer to as DMV resident musicians, those living in DC, Maryland, and Virginia, because we have an exceptional community of musicians living right here in our community.  And one of the beauties of presenting this event in the nation's capital is the fact that we have a robust community of foreign embassies.  As I say, this music is an international language, jazz is, and not only do we have so many students learning this music here domestically, but internationally, there are conservatories that are churning out wonderful jazz musicians in every country. Everybody has musicians who are embracing this music and bringing their own cultural perspectives into the music. So, quite naturally, a lot of these embassies are interested in promoting their jazz musicians. So that's enabled us to have partnerships with the international community in Washington and have performances at the embassies themselves, but also to have performances conversely on our festival stages. When you're operating out of a place like DC, you have to have an international perspective and we do. 

Jo Reed: You have an emphasis as well on younger players. And how do you seek them out? Talk about that need to engage younger players and giving them a platform.

Willard Jenkins: You know as far as younger musicians, one of the things we've done at DC Jazz Fest, as far as younger musicians, is DC Jazz Festival has a program called the DC Jazz Pre, which is an emerging bands competition, and that's a bit different from the other competitions around the world. There are a lot of solo competitions around the world, but there are only a handful of us presenting band competitions. And that's what the DC Jazz Pre is all about, is emerging bands. We have the competition at the festival, at the wharf, on the big weekend at the wharf. We bring three finalist bands, and they perform. One band is selected, and the band that's selected gets a cash prize and opportunities to perform, performs at the very next festival, the following year's festival, and performs at Tribeca Performing Arts Center in New York through my affiliation there as artistic director of jazz there. That's the DC Jazz Pre. So that's one of the ways that we're trying to introduce new sounds and new musicians and new bands, and we're trying to emphasize the band element, because the band element in jazz is extremely important. That's the foundation of the expression of this music, is the band and the interaction between musicians on the bandstand. So we respect and appreciate opportunities to promote young soloists. But in this case, we're trying to deal with the whole democratic element of what we know of and love is jazz.

Jo Reed: Randy Weston—NEA Jazz Master and great pianist, great composer and someone you worked with very closely for many years.

Willard Jenkins: Randy Weston influenced me in so many ways, working with him on his autobiography, “African Rhythms”-- it really was life-changing.  One of the great fascinations that came out of my relationship with Randy was not only the African roots, but also the involvement of jazz musicians or the engagement of jazz musicians who, of course, learned and developed their craft here in this country, but the engagement of jazz musicians in Africa, some of the engagements that jazz musicians had in Africa, like Randy and his many years in Tangier, Morocco, and his travels around Africa

Jo Reed: How did you and Randy Weston come together to co-write his autobiography “African Rhythms”.

Willard Jenkins:  In 1998, Randy was one of the invitation artists at the Montreal Jazz Festival. The Montreal Jazz Festival is one of the world's great festivals, and they did this thing called the Invitation Series, and they still do. That's where they bring in artists to come and play over a succession of nights, to come and play in different contexts each night. That particular year, they invited David Murray and Randy Weston to play the Invitation Series. Randy did a succession of evenings of different configurations, including the first night, did a beautiful recording with Christian McBride on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums, and an orchestra, and that was released on Verve Records eventually. So then there was a succession of nights. There was a blues night with Johnny Copeland.  And then the final night was to be with Moroccan musicians. He was going to be working with the Gnawa Master Musicians of Morocco. I had met him some years before, but I didn't really know him that well. And Susan and I walked up to him, and we wanted to shake his hand and say how much we'd enjoyed his nights at the festival. He had a powerful impression on me, because I'd always loved his music from “High Fly” on, always loved his music. But he made a real powerful personal impression on me. Then I got an opportunity to write some website content for the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Thelonious Monk Institute, and that was the beginning of the web presence for the NEA Jazz Masters program. So in writing that web content, it was about writing bios, but also doing a complete bibliography and a videography. As I was doing these bibliographies, I noticed how few of these great masters had even biographies, much less autobiographies. I mean, my goodness, no definitive biography of Art Blakey? All these different things. I continued to communicate with Randy and also became very friendly with his music director, saxophonist by the name of T.K. Blue. That's what he goes by professionally. We know him as Talib Kibwe. So, at one point, I asked Talib,  “You think Randy would be interested in working on his memoirs?” He said, “Randy talks about that sometimes.” So, one thing led to another, and I approached Randy and he was all for it. So we were all over, we were off. Took 10 years, but because neither of us was retired, both of us are still working. He's still working. I'm still working. So but it took 10 years. But sometimes when things take longer than one might expect, the experience is all the more rich. So that experience became so rich. I'll give you a classic example. Early on, it was clear that I was going to have to be in Africa with him at some point to understand the depth of his immersion and to grasp more deeply a lot of the cultural perspectives that he was giving me in our interviews. So my dad passed in May of 2001. After the services and all that experience of his endgame, we came back home from Cleveland. It was Memorial Day, 2001. So I'm just sitting in my living room, just kind of contemplating all that had happened over the last couple of weeks and the phone rings and it's Randy. And he says, “Are you ready to go to Africa?” So I'm thinking, “Oh, boy, is he joking me?” I'm thinking, “I'll play along. Okay. Yeah, I'm ready.” He said, “We go on Thursday.” I said, “What?” So then he explained that a Moroccan television crew wanted to make a documentary film, particularly focused on his relationship with the Gnawa, but more broadly, Randy's relationship with Morocco. So, unbeknownst to me, he had insisted to this camera crew, these producers who were bringing him there to make this film. He insisted that they bring, as he put it, his writer, that being me. He said, “We got to bring my writer.” So he arranged for me to come along. We spent an amazing two weeks filming him and his relationship with the Gwana. We went to the Gwana Festival in Essaouira, Morocco. So I experienced that. Went nuts from Morocco because Susan and I went back almost every year for the next six, seven years to Morocco. (laughs) One of the real values of that trip to Morocco with Randy as part of our book process was the fact that this was an opportunity to conduct really in-depth interviews, totally uninterrupted. Because when we were in Brooklyn, at his house, during the many hours of interviews that we did there was always the phone, or there was always someone popping up, someone coming by. It really, really jump-started the book process.

Jo Reed: Well, speaking of a book process, “Ain't But a Few of Us,” is your recent book of interviews with African-American jazz journalists. Tell me how this came to be and what your thoughts were as you put this book together.

Willard Jenkins: Well, I mentioned  traveling to festivals and quite often, I'd be in the company of other journalists. So, you're going to concerts with basically the same group of people, particularly when you're overseas. Americans tend to hang together a lot. Invariably, I would look around and think, “Hmm, it's interesting. I'm always the only Black writer here. Where are the other Black jazz writers?” That became all the more peculiar when you think about the origins of this music. Now, this music we call jazz stems primarily from the African experience in America. So, I just kept noticing that there were so few, if any, other Black writers. On occasion, I'd meet someone, but just through the years, that lack kind of echoed with me and, eventually, I decided to do a series of interviews, to start a series of interviews with those that I knew and branch out from there with those that they might introduce me to or others whose bylines I might read in various publications. So, this was when I started my Open Sky Jazz website. I started a blog base called the Independent Ear that I kind of referred to as a webzine. The main idea of the Independent Ear was doing interviews. I just began having some very productive interviews with various Black jazz writers and various Black music writers and common themes came up and common experiences came up.  So these interviews continued, and it was suggested by a couple of participants, and I was thinking that way myself, that it seemed like this might be a book. So it became a book. “Ain't But a Few of Us” is the name of the book. And I have to emphasize it's not a book of writers expressing grievances and gripes. It's not that at all. What it is is writers expressing their story of how they achieved bylines writing about this music specifically, and about music in general, because many of them have branched out to write about other forms beyond jazz. There's a variety of experiences expressed in that book, “Ain't But a Few of Us”.

Jo Reed: You also have a group of, I guess you would call them seminal essays, in the back of the book by Black writers writing about jazz, they were fabulous.

Willard Jenkins: Well, in addition to these contemporary interviews with living writers, we would also have an anthology of Black writings on jazz. That was the place that we had to have the Amiri Barakas and A.B. Spellmans, et cetera. Having that anthology is very important to express the fact that, yes, we may be small in numbers, but there have been some wonderful expressions on jazz and experiences expressed on jazz from the African-American community.

Jo Reed: We've mentioned broadcasting and radio. When did you first get involved in radio?

Willard Jenkins: I first got involved in radio, once again, Kent State University.  So I started doing a program called Exploration Jazz and that's where radio started for me. Then in Cleveland, a great friend of mine, Dr. Larry Simpson and I started doing some programming at the African-American AM radio station, WABQ. We started doing a new album feature, a new jazz album feature. Then that just kind of branched out, because when we moved to Minneapolis, I started programming at KFAI, Fresh Air Radio. I programmed there for years, the years that we were in Minneapolis, and then when I got to D.C., I met a man named Tom Porter, who invited me to WPFW to check it out, to be interviewed. Eventually, I got my own program and been there ever since.

Jo Reed: How long ago?

Willard Jenkins: Thirty-five years at WPFW. And I have been on different time slots and actually created a jazz game show called Jazzology on WPFW. Now Jazzology, we do it online now. But the radio experience has been very important to me. And I should mention, I can't forget, as far as radio goes, I did spend some time at that great radio station in the Crescent City, W.W.O.Z. in New Orleans. So radio is kind of in the blood. And I've never made a dime doing radio. The only time I've ever been paid for doing radio was writing scripts for NPR jazz documentaries and whatnot. But otherwise, I've always been in community radio.

Jo Reed: What is it about radio that you love so much? How does it feed your creativity and also help you with that love of music and sharing that?

Willard Jenkins: The thing about radio is, and anybody who's done radio can tell you that it gets in the blood. Doing radio really gets in the blood. I don't know if that has to do with the fact that at least this one time-frame, you've got a broad public listening to what you have to say or what you have to play. It just becomes a good platform for expressing yourself on your sense of the music, your sense of who people should hear, your sense of who's coming up, your sense of the music, your sense of paying homage to those who pass or your sense of stylistic development and expressing that on the radio. It becomes something that is a part of you. 

Jo Reed: Willard, you have done a great deal of oral history. You've really helped preserve the stories of so many jazz legends. First, how did you begin to get into oral history? And then who are some of the organizations you've compiled oral histories for?

Willard Jenkins: Well, the two primary entities that I've conducted oral history interviews for have been the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project and the old Rhythm and Blues Foundation. My wife, Susan, was the director of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation for a few years and I was able to work with a man, a producer named Lex Gillespie, to do oral history interviews of great R&B legends. Of course, working with the Smithsonian oral history program, has also been very rewarding as well. I haven't done any in quite some time but I have done a significant number of oral history interviews and one of the things that has been great about working with the Smithsonian on their oral history interview projects is the fact that they have a standard for what constitutes an oral history and having that standard in mind and working from that template is good in terms of getting a real substantive kind of oral history. We've done them with the DC Jazz Festival as well.

Jo Reed: Looking back at your career in jazz, how do you think your various roles as a journalist, as a broadcaster, as an artistic director, as an arts administrator, how have they complemented each other and worked together?

Willard Jenkins: They all inform each other. Having a knowledge about the music and a sense of who's out here from the journalistic perspective and from the broadcasting perspective, that's invaluable to bring those elements to your work in curating and presenting the music. For example, being a presenter informs what I'm doing as far as writing. Because, for example, I don't know how many of my fellow jazz writers pay a great deal of attention to the audience and the audience response to what's happening on stage. I've raised issues before, publicly and privately with musicians, about their need to communicate with their audience. I think some of the most successful jazz musicians I've seen have been those who really communicate with their audiences. I think about how great communicator Cannonball Adderley was as a kid when I was checking him out. Audiences appreciate that, how they like to be brought in some sense, how they like to get a sense of who it is that they're hearing and what they're thinking. So I've seen that again as part of our need to further audience development for this music.

Jo Reed: Willard, you know the NEA Jazz Master Program so well, You've worked on biographies of previous Jazz Masters for our website,: you coordinated the NEA Jazz Masters On Tour Program and now you are a 2024 Jazz Master. It’s clearly so well-deserved, but I wonder how are you taking this in?

Willard Jenkins: Well, first and foremost, I'm proud to be receiving the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Advocacy, because A.B. Spellman is a hero of mine from writing and from arts administration perspective. See, there's a kidship there when I think about the fact that I used to read A.B. Spellman in “Downbeat” and “Metronome”, et cetera, and then A.B. Spellman became this wonderful arts administrator and a senior director at the National Endowment for the Arts and such to the point that when the NEA determined to have an advocate category, they named it after A.B. Spellman. So that's a wonderful thing to me. This whole NEA Jazz Masters Award has been just so refreshing and so wonderful. Just delighted to have this level of recognition.

Jo Reed: That was artistic director, writer, broadcaster, oral historian, and 2024 NEA Jazz Master for Advocacy Willard Jenkins.   The Arts Endowment in collaboration with the Kennedy Center will celebrate the 2024 NEA Jazz Masters with a free tribute concert on Saturday, April 13 at 7:30 pm. The concert is free and open to the public. You can get ticket details at Kennedy-Center.org. And if you can’t make it to DC, don’t despair, the concert is available through a live webcast and radio broadcast at arts.gov.  You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple—it will help people to find us. The music is “Hi-Fly,” composed and performed by Randy Weston.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.


We’re taking a deep dive with Willard Jenkins into his life in jazz. Jenkins discusses his early exposure to jazz in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, crediting his parents' record collection for his initial fascination with the genre, and the profound impact local jazz scenes and radio had on his musical journey. He recounts his transformative college years at Kent State University, detailing how his love for jazz deepened, his early forays into jazz journalism, starting with writing for his college's Black student newspaper, and his progression from journalism including his time at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. We talk about his extensive efforts in promoting jazz, from founding the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society to spearheading jazz programs at Arts Midwest and serving as the artistic director of major jazz festivals, including DC Jazz Festival, which strikes a balance between local talent and international musicians while still maintaining a focus on emerging artists. Jenkins also reflects on his close collaboration with NEA Jazz Master Randy Weston, including co-writing Weston’s autobiography African Rhythms. We dive into Ain't But a Few of Us,  Willard’s book that compiles the interviews he conducted with the few African American jazz journalists working in the field about their experiences. We also hear Willard’s reflection on his years of  radio broadcasting, and his contributions to oral history projects, stressing the value of capturing the stories of jazz greats. And finally, Willard reflects on his deep appreciation for receiving an award named for one his heroes: the  A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Advocacy.*


*The Arts Endowment in collaboration with the Kennedy Center will celebrate the 2024 NEA Jazz Masters  with a free tribute concert on Saturday, April 13 at 7:30 pm. The concert is free and open to the public. You can get ticket details at Kennedy-Center.org. And if you can’t make it to DC, don’t despair, the concert is available through a live webcast at arts.gov