Joseph Wilcox Jenkins was born in the Philadelphia area in 1928. He started composing at a young age as part of his piano lessons. His future in music was uncertain at first: he studied pre-law at Saint Joseph’s College while also taking composition classes with Vincent Persichetti at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music. But composition was his calling: he went on to 2 further degrees at the Eastman School of Music, where he studied with Howard Hanson, Bernard Rogers, and Thomas Canning. Soon after finishing at Eastman, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he became an arranger for the Army Field Band. Doctoral work at Catholic University followed, then another stint in the Army, this time as head arranger for for the U.S. Army Chorus. Jenkins later received a Ford Foundation grant to serve as the composer-in-residence of the high school in Evanston, Illinois. In 1961, the same year that his Cumberland Gap Overture won an Ostwald award, he joined the music faculty at Duquesne University, where he remained until his retirement in 2000.
American Overture was Jenkins’s first work for band, written in 1953 when he was 25 years old. It came about during his first military stint. As an arranger for the U.S. Army Field Band, he composed the piece to match their instrumentation, which was idiosyncratic in many ways. For instance: he included not just a string bass, but also a cello; there are three distinct baritone parts; the flutes divide into 3; the clarinets and trombones each divide in 4. But the stars of this piece are definitely the horns. They famously leap an octave in the first measure. His original edition had the first note slurred to the second (written G4-G5), virtually guaranteeing a strident glissando. A 2003 revision eliminated this slur, but horn players everywhere still treasure or loathe that famous opening figure. The rest of American Overture is a high-energy expression of bold optimism that puts every section of the band in the spotlight.
And now a listen. This one features nearly professional-quality playing!