Most of us can vaguely remember the first time we picked up an instrument as a child—whether for school or for lessons our parents dragged us to. But for the Menken Brothers Jazz Trio—twins Harry and Charley, and younger brother Billy—they can’t remember a time when they didn’t play music.
Parents Dan and Fiona Menken signed the boys up for Suzuki piano lessons around the time they hit age 3 or 4. Harry and Charley are now entering 10th grade, and Billy is entering ninth, but at age 4 they were all sitting on the piano bench, and by kindergarten Charley decided he was ready for the next step: electric guitar. “Charley really wanted to do rock and roll,” Dan says. “It wasn’t easy, but we found him a teacher.”
There was a pretty obvious reason it wasn’t easy to find a teacher, Fiona says. “People kept saying they don’t teach that young.”
Once Charley decided he was learning electric guitar, Harry followed suit. “Well, I might as well play the electric bass,” he says. Billy joined as well, picking up the drums, and the three formed a rock band. “So we played a lot of Green Day,” Billy says. “And we did a school talent show performance [while the three were in third and fourth grades] and we played ‘Flying Purple People Eater.’”
“The teachers loved it,” Charley recalls.
From rock and roll, the three moved to jazz, as Charley picked up the saxophone, Harry picked up the upright bass, and Billy continued in the rhythm section with piano and drums. And they’ve evolved from their school talent show days.
In 2015, the Menken Brothers Jazz Trio was the opening act for the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, and they’ve had several paid gigs. “I’m in Minnesota Youth Symphonies (MNYS),” Harry says, “and a lot of times people call MNYS and ask if they have any performers that can perform, so that’s how we get most of our gigs.”
While Harry spends his musical time with MNYS, Charley played in the Minnesota Youth Jazz Band Supersax, a jazz band made up of saxophones and percussion, and now plays with North Metro Honor Jazz. The three brothers play together for gigs and for fun at home, but this fall all that will change.
“In seventh grade I filled out an application to get a Caroline D. Bradley scholarship, which basically pays full tuition to any high school in America,” Billy says. “I ended up getting it. Only 29 people in the entire United States won.” This gave him the chance to look at boarding schools, and he landed on Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts. “Those are arguably the two best boarding schools in America,” he says; his final choice was Phillips Exeter.
So while Billy heads out to the East coast, “we found a new piano player,” Harry says. The music making will continue, along with their other interests.
“Soccer is probably our biggest extracurricular activity,” Billy says, also mentioning music, math and science. Harry and Charley also are both in the robotics club. Harry wants to be an aerospace engineer and own a business making rockets, while Charley wants to be a doctor or electrical engineer. Billy isn’t sure yet, but something involving math is likely on the docket since he took calculus in eighth grade.
But regardless of where their futures take them, they will always have music. “I always say I’m the luckiest mother in the world,” Fiona says, “because I get serenaded every night.”