The Coolest Instrument

Members of the Portland Cello Project, including Douglas Jenkins (back row, right) Photograph by Tarina Westlund

One day not long after he arrived at the UO as a freshman in 1994, Douglas Jenkins ’98 needed cash. He headed to Eugene’s Buy and Sell Music Center to sell a vintage 1964 Fender amplifier, and spotted a relatively inexpensive cello. He couldn’t take his eyes off it.

Jenkins had never played a cello, but “I knew it was the coolest instrument in the orchestra.” Classical music echoed through his childhood home on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, out of the radio and from his father’s Tchaikovsky records. It provided a refuge for the scrawny kid who felt like a misfit in Hawaii. “I was the haole guy who’s really skinny and never fit in,” he remembers. “So I grew my hair long and hung out with the punk rock kids. But I didn’t fit in with them either. I wanted something more intellectual. [Classical music] was an escape, but I also truly loved it. I was enraptured.”

So when he spotted that surprisingly affordable cello, Jenkins decided to trade the amp for it. Accustomed to teaching himself to play instruments, he picked up some used instruction books—but after a few months of sawing away on his first bowed instrument, it was obvious he needed help. He turned to the University, heading to the UO’s Community Music Institute, which offers music instruction to children in the Eugene area. The staff there pointed him toward CMI’s director, Sylvie Spengler—who happened to be the Eugene Symphony’s principal cellist. In 1995, Jenkins tried playing for her one of the famous J. S. Bach solo cello suites.

“Doug was very determined to play the cello and it was very charming,” Spengler recalls. “He was able to teach himself, and he obviously had talent.” He also desperately needed proper instruction.

Most of Spengler’s students were children, as young as eight, and the older ones generally had years of playing behind them. But touched by his eagerness and resolve, she agreed to give Jenkins private lessons, teaching him proper posture and other rudiments—starting with “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

“He was so determined and enthusiastic about learning the cello that when he couldn’t afford lessons, we would work out some trade,” says Spengler, who also gave him her complimentary ticket to symphony concerts and wound up renting him a room in her house.

Along with studying for his bachelor’s degree in English, he spent his undergraduate years practicing cello, learning how to write arrangements from orchestration textbooks, and studying basic music theo-ry. He also learned by doing—in public, applying his lessons to scores for “crazy experimental films,” playing in rock bands, even composing a surprisingly effective two-cello score for himself and his strict yet generous teacher to perform as live accompaniment to a 1920s silent film, Sunrise, at a UO Cultural Forum film series event.

Following his graduation, Jenkins studied with UO cello professor Steven Pologe for a year, then moved home to Honolulu and enrolled in graduate school there. But he wasn’t happy, he confided to Pologe during a visit to Eugene. Then why, his old teacher asked Jenkins, was he going to graduate school? At this stage, if Jenkins wanted to play in an orchestra, Pologe said, he just needed to practice and take auditions—a graduate degree wouldn‘t help him get such a job. 

His teacher’s advice struck home and made Jenkins wonder if an orchestra job was really what he wanted anyway.

Jenkins eventually returned to the mainland and earned a master’s degree in education from Portland’s Lewis and Clark College, then began teaching English in Lebanon, Oregon—a nonmusic job that provided needed balance to his hours of self-guided cello practice. He found an apartment in a farmhouse that would let him practice all night without disturbing anyone. Now he just needed to figure out what he was practicing for.

A few days after Jenkins took a teaching job at a Portland high school in 2004, a chance encounter with an old bandmate from Eugene, Dan Enberg ’01, ’09, led to their forming an ensemble, Bright Red Paper, committed to playing their own sounds. Jenkins was back in the music world—on his own terms.

The band played improvisational, cello-driven rock, winning raves from Portland’s music press. Eventually growing into a guitar-bass-drum-vocals-cello quintet, the band wound up touring nationally.

But just when BRP seemed poised on the brink of a breakthrough, Jenkins was invited to join a start-up side project by another cellist, who wanted a band where cellists could play together for fun. The group included the now-renowned solo cellist Zoe Keating and a couple other veteran cellists who’d ventured beyond classical boundaries. In October 2006, nine of them performed in a Portland bar, Doug Fir Lounge. The show drew 200 fans, entirely by word of mouth, because the press couldn’t figure out how to cover an unknown band of cellists that played classical music—Handel, Vivaldi, Villa-Lobos.

After the founder of what was now officially dubbed the Portland Cello Project left the city a few months later, Jenkins (who had experience with booking and publicity via BRP) took over. Members of the city’s burgeoning indie rock scene started sitting in, and collaborations grew as quickly as Jenkins could cook up arrangements of songs by everyone from some of Portland’s best indie musicians to Britney Spears (“Toxic”), Beethoven, Michael Jackson, and others. The ensemble gained broad exposure when Portland’s Dandy Warhols invited PCP to join them for a studio session at Southern California’s influential KCRW radio. Portland Cello Project played to all of Jenkins’s lifelong strengths—his do-it-yourself attitude (rather than relying on institutions) and his love of both classical and pop music. Now he wouldn’t have to choose between them.

PCP’s ascent in the five years since its founding belies any notion that the ensemble’s success may be due to its novelty alone. The band’s first CD, released in 2009, consisted entirely of collaborations with pop musicians. Its roster of partners includes Peter, Paul, and Mary’s Peter Yarrow, Sleater-Kinney indie queen Corin Tucker, and many more.

PCP’s tour last winter took the cellists to New York, Calgary, Montana, Idaho, Baton Rouge, and beyond. Now a licensed LLC business, the group faces the same challenges any touring band does—dealing with club owners, tight margins, and so on. Continuing his lifelong DIY inclinations, Jenkins still does most of the management and publicity himself, and the band has invested in a touring van large enough to hold the players and their cellos (that require purchase of an extra seat on airplanes) and now stays two to a room in “nice” hotels, he says. Last summer’s tour actually made a little money—an unprecedented outcome that told Jenkins that the band had really made it as a professional ensemble, although none of the twenty cellists on his roster (they usually tour with six to eight) has yet quit a day job. Jenkins says he reinvests half his take in the band, and continues to teach English when possible at a Portland high school.

Now thirty-five, Jenkins maintains his connections with Eugene, taking occasional lessons from “my mainland mom” Spengler. Portland Cello Project performed this summer at the UO’s Oregon Bach Festival. “It was such an honor to have been invited,” he says, and he celebrated the occasion by scoring out a flurry of fugues drawn from hip-hop music, which the band performed in an all-acoustic show in the Hult Center lobby. And he got to see every cellist’s hero, Yo-Yo Ma, again. They also played at the annual Art and the Vineyard outdoor festival, synchronizing their version of “America the Beautiful” to the July 4 fireworks display.

“That’s the best thing about Portland Cello Project,” Jenkins says. “We’re lucky enough to play serious music at the Bach Festival, and then play completely different crazy pop shows at clubs. It’s the best of all worlds, for sure.”

In the fifteen years since buying that first cello, the skinny kid from Hawaii is approaching rock star status. The group releases its fourth CD, which will be split between hip-hop tracks and music by classical composers such as J. S. Bach and Lili Boulanger, next spring.

By Brett Campbell, MS ’96