Celebrating a lifetime of achievement Story by Sherry Thomas • photos by Josh Hawkins
Grammy Lifetime Achievement winner Ella Jenkins arrives at the Chicago Historical Society's Big Shoulders Café wearing a necklace of brightly colored beads and a denim shirt that reads: "I love my job for all the little reasons."
The news of Jenkins' Grammy came in early December, just days before the Chicago native sat down with Chicago Parent to talk about life, music and her favorite subject of all:
"Whenever I receive an award like this, I feel the children are right up there with me," she says.
You're immediately overwhelmed by her warmth of spirit and by an accent that sounds, at times, almost exotic. She orders a Perrier—-no ice—before lunch, then proceeds to fill the room with slow rhythmic stories of her fabled rise as a children's recording legend. To her they are simply "vignettes,"—fragments of memory that make up her life so far.
Here are just a few of our favorites:
Growing up in Bronzeville
The first of May was always moving day in Jenkins' neighborhood, the day kids tumbled out on their stoops to watch the big trucks with loads of furniture. "The idea was to keep moving south, if you could," she explains. "We started out on 35th Street, moved to 39th—-3948 S. Indiana; most of it is torn down today—-from there to 40th Street, from there to East 56th Street— 340 E. 56th St., near Washington Park in Bronzeville, where they hold the Bud Billiken parade."
That's also where she learned to play table tennis. "I ended up playing so well, I was playing table tennis all over the city. I still have lots of trophies and lots of medals."
Her first harmonica
Some of Jenkins' earliest musical memories are of her harmonica-playing uncle, Floyd "Uncle Flood" Johnson.
"He used to work in a steel mill in Gary, Ind. He'd come home from work, take a bath and have a hearty dinner." Every night, there was a ritual. "Before he sat down, there was a clothes rack with a pinstriped vest, and he kept his harmonica in there. He'd pull out a harmonica from his pocket and begin to play. He wasn't a professional, but he played better than most professionals today."
More than anything, Jenkins wanted her own harmonica to play along with Uncle Flood. "My mother said, ‘I'm going to put in some extra hours, so maybe.' " That Christmas, Jenkins received her first harmonica—-a shiny new Chromatic like her uncle's. "Later that day, we went over to Aunt and Uncle's house, and we took a taxi. We hardly ever took taxis, but it was Christmas Day, so we did. And, well, I left my harmonica on the cab seat."
Jenkins still remembers how sad she felt, and how, on that Dec. 25 she made this promise to herself: "I said, ‘I will one day play the harmonica because my mother sacrificed to get me this harmonica that I have lost.' "
Working at the gum company
Jobs were scarce when Jenkins graduated from DuSable High School in 1942, especially, she says, "for black youngsters." But, one day, she walked into the Wrigley Gum Co. on 35th Street.
"There were only white girls filling out applications. As they disappeared, one by one, I was the last one there." A woman came out and asked Jenkins for her paperwork. "I didn't fill it out," Jenkins told her. "I said, ‘Do you have a job for people like me, of color?' " The woman disappeared for a moment and then returned. "Well, we have a job for you,' she said, "but we have to phone your mother.' " Mrs. Jenkins said her daughter could start right away. And so, that afternoon, Jenkins went to work-hot waxing seals on military K-rations-which at the time included such essentials as cigarettes, Spam and Wrigley's trademark spearmint gum.
A few years later, Jenkins went to work in the mailroom at the University of Chicago's metallurgical laboratory. "I was delivering classified mail to physicists and scientists. I'd see names like Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi … and I'd take them to the various offices," she says. "We still didn't know back then they were working on the atom bomb." It was also there that Jenkins met and befriended the women who encouraged her to go to college. "They were all Jewish girls; one's name was Ida Patinkin." The girls asked her: "Why aren't you in college?" "I said, ‘I can't afford to go because I have to work,' and they said, ‘You could go to junior college.' " And so, in 1945, Jenkins followed her brother Tom to Wilson Junior College and later Roosevelt University before getting the urge to "go west." But she never forgot Patinkin or the others. "Years and years later, when I was working at the YWCA, I came across the name Patinkin." So eager to find her lost friend, Jenkins called Chicago theater luminary Sheldon Pati nkin to say: "Your name is very striking. Do you know Ida Patinkin?' He said, ‘That's my sister.' "
Jenkins says she just wanted to call and thank Patinkin for her friendship and encouragement, but Patinkin begged her to please visit in Denver.
The San Francisco years
In the late 1940s Jenkins went to California, where she enrolled at what was then San Francisco State College. At first, she commuted back and forth across the Bay. Then one day, she stumbled across the Emmanuel Residence Club near campus. "I saw this big house with a Star of David of top," she says. "The lady who was the director was Mrs. Michaels. I called and told her I was a student at San Francisco State and said I'd like to know if she had a room for rent. She said, ‘This is a Jewish residence club.' I said, ‘Do you have to be Jewish? I'm colored.' She said, ‘Well, I just don't think you'd fit in. We have Kosher this, and we sing Jewish songs,' and I said, ‘I love Kosher food. I love singing,' and she said, ‘You'd better come over and see me then.' "
Mrs. Michaels found Jenkins a room in the basement.
"I became very much a part of it," she says. "I learned a great deal. There was such an international feeling, girls from many different parts of the world. Some spoke French and some spoke Russian." By the time Jenkins graduated in 1951, with a major in sociology and a double minor in child psychology and recreation, she was fascinated with folk and world music. She took to playing a Chinese tom-tom drum.
The rest of the story
After four years in California, Jenkins came back home to Chicago to stay. On weekends she sang (and played her signature harmonica) in coffeehouses. During the week she taught and developed Latin and other multicultural music programs for children at the YWCA. And, by 1957, Jenkins found herself in the original egg-carton-lined (for acoustics) studios of Folkways Records-with a crew of 3-year-old preschoolers singing backup-recording what would be the first album of her legendary folk and blues career.
"Each day I am serving children, I feel I am aware in a great way," she says. "There are a lot of new people who are coming into the field. It is becoming more popular than ever. I just always hope they don't take children for granted."
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