Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Part 63 - Duke Jenkins
Pianist, singer and leader Duke Jenkins has been one of Cleveland's leading jazz performers for more than half a century by following a simple philosophy: perform melodic music that people understand and can relate to. His philosophy has carried him through an endless series of musical revolutions.
During an interview in his Cleveland Heights home, Jenkins said, "I don't understand what's happening in music. It used to be so great. Listen to Sinatra, Nat 'King' Cole and Tony Bennett and the great music they were doing. When we do those things now, people give us a standing ovation."
Jenkins' career began modestly after his family moved from Alabama to the Canton, Ohio area when he was five months old. He began playing piano in Canton when he was nine. "I had an uncle who could play by ear," said Jenkins. "He played 'Pinetop's Boogie Woogie.' I used to watch him play and he said, 'Want me to teach you how to play this?' I said, 'Oh, would you?' He started teaching me note for note how to play 'Pinetop's Boogie Woogie.' I used to play this thing all day. My mother used to run me out of the house, 'If you don't go out, I'm going to go crazy.' Before long, Jenkins' father said, "We better give this boy some piano lessons because he seems like he wants to play music." His parents hired a teacher to give the boy lessons.
He learned quickly. By the time he was in high school, he and his brother, Fred, had their own radio show on a Canton radio station. "They called it The Jenkins Brothers Show," remembered Duke. "I played piano and we would sing together and he would tap dance. We got to be the kings of the school. Everybody was let out of class to hear the 15 minute show every Thursday."
After high school, Jenkins went to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and sang with the outstanding college big band, the Miami Campus Owls. He also performed with a small group on campus. "I was playing for the fraternities," said Jenkins, "and they started calling me 'The Duke.' They were thinking of Ellington. Every week, my picture was in the campus newspaper."
Jenkins went to Miami in hopes of becoming a doctor. After he had made a musical name for himself on campus, the dean of the school of music asked him, "Jenkins, what school are you at?" "I'm in liberal arts," said Duke. "What are you doing in liberal arts?" asked the dean." "I said, 'I want to be a doctor.' 'You're going to be a doctor?' And he said, 'You want to be a doctor?' I said, 'My dad wants me to be a doctor. I want to be a musician.' The dean talked me into changing over to the music school."
But, it was the early 1940s and America was at war. At the age of 21, Jenkins went into the Army and played with an Army band at Camp Wallace near Galveston, Texas. "We used to play in all kinds of parades and stuff like that," he said. "In fact, when I got married, the band played for my wedding party." Duke played glockenspiel in the marching band and clarinet in the Army concert band. He and his wife, Christina, were married in 1943. But, he was soon sent to Europe. "It took us 17 days to go overseas and I was seasick 16 of them. I couldn't stand that. And coming back, we came back on a Liberty ship, and it took 13 days and I was sick 12 of them coming back." Despite his seasickness, Jenkins did manage to take part in jam sessions with members of the Stan Kenton Orchestra who were also on the ship.
Jenkins was stationed at La Harve, France where he played with the Army band and helped guard German prisoners of war. When he was discharged from the Army in 1945, he returned to Canton.
"I was walking down the street in Canton," said Jenkins, "and a fellow who owned a little club asked me to play piano in a group at his club." The group soon became the Duke Jenkins Orchestra. They played at the basement club for about two years and then moved to Canton's popular White Swan Club.
Jenkins left Canton in 1948 and went to Chicago with a five-piece band to perform at Chicago's Brass Rail, a top spot at the time. His wife, Christina, was with him in Chicago. "She went to a school to learn how to make hair pieces," he recalled. "One day, she asked the professor, 'Instead of weaving the hair together and making a piece that you pin on, why don't we take the hair and weave it right to the hair on the head and make it more permanent?' The teacher said, 'Gee, I don't think you can do that.' She said, 'I think I can do that.' And he said, 'Lady, if you can do that, you've got a fortune coming.' She started working with that until she did it. And we got a patent on the idea." They formed a company called Christina's Hair Weave. Other companies around the world began paying for the right to use her idea.
As the hair weave company grew, Duke and Christina Jenkins decided to move from Canton to Cleveland. From 1952 until 1957, Jenkins led the house band at the Majestic Hotel on East 55th Street and hosted the now legendary Rose Room Blue Monday Party jam sessions early Monday mornings -- jam sessions that attracted such traveling artists as Joe Williams, Nancy Wilson and Erroll Garner.
As a result of his popularity at the Rose Room, Duke Jenkins also had a regular television jazz program in Cleveland in 1955 and 1956. At various times, it was on all three Cleveland TV channels from one to two every Saturday. Duke persuaded touring jazz artists to appear on his local TV show.
In 1959, Jenkins decided to leave Cleveland and take advantage of an opportunity in Miami Beach. He recalled, "We were playing the Theatrical Grill downtown, Mushy Wexler's place. One night, he said, 'Duke, have you ever been to Miami Beach?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'How would you like to go?' I said, 'Oh, yes!' He said, 'Come back in the office.' So I went back in his office and he got Harry Musselman on the phone who was the owner of the Eden Roc. He said, 'Harry, I got a group here that'll just fit your room!' So Harry said, 'When can they open,' just like that. One week later, we were there." On opening night, actor Rock Hudson was in the audience. Jenkins and his group played six nights a week at the Eden Roc for three years.
Frank Sinatra was appearing next door in the Fountainbleu and Nat 'King' Cole was performing in another room at the Eden Roc. "He would catch us and we got to be good friends," said Jenkins. One night, Sammy Davis, Jr. walked in and asked, "Duke, can I play drums?" Jenkins said, "You got it." According to Jenkins, Davis played the drums with him for an hour and the people loved it.
Jenkins returned to Cleveland in 1961 and became a mainstay of area jazz rooms by practicing his simple philosophy of performing melodic music that people understand and can relate to.
Copyright 2001 Joe Mosbrook
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You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. Mosbrook's 1993 Cleveland Jazz History book, based on research for earlier broadcasts, is available at some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries and the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society (216-426-9900).