Edmund Thornton Jenkins, born Charleston, South Carolina 9 April 1894, was a son of Revd Daniel Jenkins founder of the Orphan Aid Society or Jenkins Orphanage of that city, and his wife Lena. Educated locally in black institutions, young Jenkins went to Atlanta in 1908 to study at Morehouse College with English tutor Benjamin Brawley and music tutor Kemper Harreld. Jenkins led some of the bands the orphanage sent out each summer to publicize and promote the institution which had dozens of inmates in Charleston and on a farm near the city.
In 1914 a band went to London to play at the Anglo-American Exposition, a contract soon extended into months due to the success – the band was billed The Famous Piccaninny Orchestra. Edmund Jenkins was one of the two clarinettists (the other, Emerson Harper, became a New York City resident and a good friend of poet Langston Hughes). In September 1914 the exhibition closed due to the war, but Edmund had registered at the Royal Academy of Music where, except for a few weeks of summer 1920 in the U.S.A., he remained until 1921.
In those seven years Jenkins studied composition with Frederick Corder, a Wagner fanatic. He took clarinet lessons with Edward Augarde, and studied the piano and French, adding a term of singing in 1915 (he was awarded a medal), and winning a bronze medal for the clarinet in 1916. He won silver medals too, and a bronze for the piano. He participated in student concerts, and composed (one work was for the organ). He edited a student magazine The Academite from late 1917, won a prize of books and music for composition, and in 1918 started to study harmony and won the Charles Lucas Prize. He was sub-professor of the clarinet from 1918 (his pupil was future concert pianist Anita Harrison whose career was to be in Sweden). In 1919 he was awarded the Battison Haynes Prize for his rondo for four wind instruments and piano, and won the Ross Scholarship for 1919 and again for 1920.
In December 1919, assisted by student friends — all of African descent, mainly from the Caribbean including Dominica, Trinidad and Guyana — Jenkins organised a concert at the Wigmore Hall, London. In an otherwise all-Coleridge-Taylor programme, his own Folk Rhapsody was performed. The manuscript is dated 1917. A modern recording of this work, which he retitled Charlestonia, is on Clarion CD CLR907CD Got the Saint Louis Blues: Classical Music in the Jazz Age. It lasts nearly nine minutes and confirms Jenkins was mixing black American themes in the European concert music tradition: an activity that has hitherto been thought to be originated by George Gershwin.
Elected an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music in 1921, Jenkins moved between London, the U.S.A. (1923-1924) and Paris, and he died in Paris, from peritonitis after an operation for appendicitis, aged 32 in September 1926. His theatre and dance band work in London — a common income-earner for trained musicians including Jenkins’ colleague John Barbirolli — led to a series of recordings in 1921 and helped pianist Jack Hylton to gain a toehold in London’s entertainment world.
Jeffrey Green, Edmund Thornton Jenkins. The Life and Times of an American Black Composer, 1894-1926 (Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1982) and “An American Band in London, 1914” in Musical Traditions, No 9 (Autumn 1991) pp 12-17 have more details. The Jenkins family has placed his remaining and somewhat fragmented compositions with the Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College Chicago; the papers located in South Carolina are largely at the Schomburg Collection of the New York Public Library; those have been copied and with some original documentation make up part of the collection of the Charleston Jazz Initiative, Avery Institute, College of Charleston, Charleston SC. Oxford DNB has an article on him (September 2010).
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