I first saw Ike Jenkins as simply a spectator. It was May 1992, and I was in the midst of the interview process for the music position at La Colina Junior High School, to replace the retiring legend, J.B. Vander Ark. I had done my first round of interviews, and Van said to me that if I really wanted to see what this job was all about, come and see him perform at the Santa Barbara High School Jazz Festival. So I did. I saw all the bands, I was blown away by Van’s La Colina band, and I stayed for the entire festival. After all the competing bands finished, it was time for the host band to perform. Out came the SBHS band and this man, this elegant man glided onto the stage in a maroon-colored shirt that moved and flowed with every gesture. And his movements had a line and a flow, and they were deliberate and understated, as if they were choreographed. I knew this was something special.
They had all the trimmings of a show band but they were a real jazz band. Solid, confident, prepared. They soloed, they played shout choruses, they swung. They had the craft and the style, and those were two things that I learned from Ike before I even got to meet him. And then this man strode to the microphone, and with a glint in his eye he spoke through a wide grin. The voice. It was captivating. Like Duke Ellington — suave and sophisticated. Three years into my La Colina tenure I saw his Independent spread as Local Hero and the impact he had on his students and the community — this was Mt. Everest and I was now a colleague. And with my move to Dos Pueblos in 2002, I got to see how he did it.
He was part-time by now, teaching jazz choir and orchestra at DP, so we would collaborate on projects. We combined our groups to play “An American in Paris.” I conducted, he played the double bass. Unforgettable. I saw how dedicated his students were both to him and the music. It was Zen like. All playing, with a few well-placed words of wisdom, and always asking for students to contribute their ideas. Symmetry. One day there was panic in the “P” wing. Counselors had come over. Ike was in deep distress. He had yelled at a student and was distraught about it. I’m thinking, he’s this upset about something I do all the time! There’s a lesson for me; there’s a chance to climb one more foot up that mountain.
The Santa Barbara music community has a rich tradition of mentorship. Our dearly departed Mike Ray and David Hartman, dedicated and generous directors like Dr. Chuck Wood, Jim Mooy, and Dr. Jon Nathan, and Nick Rail with an organization always at the ready for all of us. Our community. Our fraternity. When Ike finally retired, he would continue to come and clinic my DP band. He was Mr. J. He would stroll about the room, pensive, head to the side, hand on the chin, deeply involved, finally taking his place in front of the band and through that smile delivering his thoughts. The kids were mesmerized; I took notes. I continued to look to him for that final validation before a big concert or festival, to let me know that we were ready. Maybe not perfect, but ready.
He of course remained a fixture in our community as festival clinician, helping to revive the jazz choir program at DP (one that Courtney Anderson now directs so magnificently), leading the SBCC jazz choir, and, of course, Monday Madness. What struck me about his retirement years was the next lesson I learned from him — he showed up. He came to concerts, he came to festivals whether as clinician or spectator, he came to parades, he came to marching band competitions, he came to football games. He came to support the students, he came to support his colleagues, he showed up.
After I retired in 2016 I found a new home at Santa Ynez High School. I started a jazz club and took over the band. This past October 19, Santa Ynez was playing at home against, who else? Dos Pueblos. I was really looking forward to a reunion with DP colleagues, but I wasn’t expecting to see Ike Jenkins. So when we saw each other it was just hysterical — two jazz guys meeting up at a football game — one jumping back into the fray, and one showing up to once again support students and colleagues. And we caught up.
I had prepared the band for a half-time show, and I invited my DP colleagues to come to our side to see the show. But I did one extra thing for Ike. Two minutes before half-time, I directed my drum major to march to the visitor’s side, go up to “that gentleman in the white cap,” and say, “Mr. Jenkins, Mr. Rose would like to personally invite you to come to our side and see our show.” And so Ike and the DP contingency came over. I asked Ike, “How’d you like the VIP treatment?” He laughed. We performed our show, they really enjoyed it, we all schmoozed for a while — Ike, Diana Hemsley, DP Principal Bill Woodard, Santa Ynez Principal (and former DP principal) Mark Swanitz, and me. And Ike turned to me and said in his classic fashion, “I like what you’re doing with this band.” Wow. Even after 30 years of teaching his validation meant so much — just as it had to all his students all his life. And it showed again why he was and will always be a Local Hero. And that was the last thing he ever said to me. I feel lucky to have seen him before I ever stepped foot into a Santa Barbara school district classroom, I feel lucky to have such a vivid memory of his last words to me, and I feel lucky for all the memories in between. Thank you, Ike, for the lessons: Know your craft, convey with finesse, give ’em a good show, and show up.
How do we honor Ike Jenkins? What honor is grand enough? Do we name a building after him? A stadium? He did so much for so many schools, which one should get the honor? It’s obvious to me. The Santa Barbara High School Jazz Festival was his Madison Square Garden and he was the Ringmaster. How about renaming the festival the “Ike Jenkins Jazz Festival”? Then, when band directors tell their students that they are going to the Ike Jenkins Jazz Festival, no doubt at least one student will ask, “Who’s Ike Jenkins”? And that band director will tell that student who Ike Jenkins was, and Ike will be able to continue to touch students for eternity. And he’ll like that.