Collage of abstract jazz instruments. Jazz lives in North Carolina

Jazz Lives In North Carolina

Author: North Carolina Arts Council

The late jazz musician and critic Owen Cordle reminded us that “although the blues captivated many North Carolinians earlier than jazz did, the state nevertheless produced a long and impressive list of jazz musicians throughout the twentieth century.” Many of the most influential jazz artists—among them Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, John Coltrane, and Nina Simone—were born or raised in North Carolina. Additionally, the state is home to many jazz education programs and jazz festivals, and we even have a music park that pays homage to jazz greats.


Brian Horton | Kinston

Brian Horton is a jazz saxophonist, composer, and educator from Kinston. His sound is rooted in blues and gospel. Learn more about Horton’s explorations in Jazz Saxophone

Billy Strayhorn | Hillsborough

Duke Ellington’s longtime collaborator was among the most influential figures in American jazz. A versatile composer, arranger, and pianist, Strayhorn joined Ellington’s orchestra at the age of 22, in 1939, and worked with the bandleader for the rest of his life.

Billy Strayhorn

Thelonious Monk | Rocky Mount

An internationally renowned jazz pianist and composer, Monk pushed the boundaries of jazz, applying dissonance, improvisation, and minimalism in place of heavily arranged big band pieces, and helping to usher in a new era: bebop. Monk’s innovation lives on today through nearly 70 original compositions, many of which are now standards in jazz repertoires.

This 1966 live performance of one of Thelonious Monk’s most famous compositions, “'Round Midnight,” features longtime collaborator Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone, Larry Gales on bass, and Ben Riley on drums. Monk takes a solo at the 4:04 mark that offers up his signature stylings: understated and masterly and using his left hand to provide sparse, staccato accompaniment to a sometimes-twinkling, sometimes-stabbing right hand—a lesson in minimalism.

Roberta Flack | Black Mountain

Roberta Flack can do it all: she has recorded pop, soul, folk, and jazz records. In the late 1950s, Flack, the future star of soul music, became the first lead vocalist for the Monitors while living and teaching in Farmville, near Greenville. A native of western North Carolina, she graduated from Howard University with a degree in music education at the age of 19 and accepted a position teaching music and English in Farmville. She is the only performer ever to win consecutive Record of the Year Grammy awards, first for “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” in 1971, and then for “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” in 1972.

Roberta Flack Mural Photograph by Gary Warnimont
A mural of Roberta Flack in Black Mountain

Nina Simone | Tryon

In a 1984 interview at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London, Simone recalled her early ambitions to be the first Black classical pianist to perform at Carnegie Hall. In the summer of 1950, when she was 17, her hometown of Tryon raised money to help her attend a summer session at the Juilliard School before she auditioned for the Curtis School of Music, in Philadelphia. The trip probably felt like a step toward her dream, but despite what she recalled as a well-received audition, Curtis did not admit her, which Simone ascribed to the color of her skin. This event not only pushed her to the world of jazz, but also to her work as a major voice in the Civil Rights movement. Today she is remembered primarily for her impact on jazz and blues music.

John Coltrane | Hamlet and Hight Point

American jazz saxophonist John Coltrane was born in Hamlet and, soon after, his family moved to High Point. He helped pioneer the use of modal jazz and recorded with musicians such as Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. He is considered one of the most influential saxophonists in music history. Learn more about the master of the saxophone.

Dr. Lenora Helms | Durham

Dr. Lenora Zenzalai Helm Hammonds is a singer, songwriter, composer, educator, and activist. She has earned international acclaim for six solo recordings and is one of a handful of female, African American big-band leaders. Dr. Hammond is a professor in North Carolina Central University’s vocal jazz program. 


James Timothy “Tim” Brymn | Kinston

A jazz composer and bandleader, J. Tim Brymn wrote songs that became hits for performers of ragtime and other popular music styles. Born in Kinston in 1881, he studied at the Christian Institute, in Franklinton, and Shaw University, in Raleigh. He left for New York around 1900 to study at the National Conservatory of Music of America—the prestigious institution where Antonín Dvoˇrák had served as director a few years before. Learn more about the jazz composer.

Maceo Parker | Kinston

The international recording star, touring artist, composer, and arranger Maceo Parker—reputedly the most sampled musician in history—credits his Kinston hometown for the inspiration and training that would catapult him to stardom, first as James Brown’s most famous sideman and then as a wildly popular architect of funk backed by his own band. Parker’s musical story connects the dots between the urban South’s vernacular African American traditional music forms and styles—the blues, gospel, jazz, and rhythm and blues of home, church, and street—and the disciplined instrumentation taught by professional musicians in segregated Black schools. This native North Carolinian artistry rooted in the phenomenally strong musical heritage of eastern North Carolina has had an enormous and lasting influence on the popular music of America and of the world beyond our borders.


Nnenna Freelon | Durham

Nnenna Freelon, a celebrated jazz-soul singer and six-time Grammy nominee, launched her career in her adopted home of Durham. She has toured with Ray Charles, Ellis Marsalis, Al Jarreau, George Benson, Earl Klugh, Take 6, and other great jazz musicians. As stated on her website, her “accolades and awards have abounded, performances at the White House, headlining the Asia Pacific Economic Summit for three hundred Presidents, receiving the YWCA of North Carolina’s inaugural ‘Legend Award’ for her outstanding artistry and her dedication to education.” Most recently, Freelon and her son, Pierce, made history at the sixty-fourth annual Grammy ceremony as the first mother and son to be nominated individually in the same year.

Dr. Juan Álamo | Chapel Hill

Dr. Juan Álamo is an internationally known performer, composer, and educator. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music; his doctorate in musical arts, with jazz as a related field, is from the University of North Texas. Marimjazzia is his name for his experiments with and blending of the musical traditions he has studied and performed throughout his career: Latin music, classical music, contemporary classical marimba music, and jazz.

In the fall of 2013, Álamo recorded Marimjazzia at Sound Pure Studios, in Durham. The album is a mixture of jazz standards and original compositions.


ZOOCRÜ | Durham

ZOOCRÜ creates from the core belief that all American music is born from the seeds of Black music. Drawing from this dynamic musical legacy, ZOOCRÜ blends all popular American genres into a sound best described as Black American music. Jazz serves as their foundation because all members are classically trained jazz musicians. Their music also fuses elements of hip hop, blues, rock, and gospel. The group has been particularly influenced by artists such as Roy Ayers, Thelonious Monk, A Tribe Called Quest, J Dilla, Jimi Hendrix, Wu-tang Clan, Radiohead, Herbie Hancock, and Miles Davis. Visit their website to learn more.



North Carolina Central University

In 1979, NCCU became the first university in the state to offer a bachelor of music degree in jazz studies. The program has since evolved to include comprehensive vocal jazz courses and the master of music degree in jazz composition and jazz performance. The Jazz Studies Program at NCCU is dedicated to fostering quality education, shaping the future of aspiring musicians, and preserving the integrity of a great art form. Learn more about how the commitment of the jazz and funk musician Donald Byrd to training younger musicians at Historically Black Colleges and Universities led him to a celebrated residency at NCCU in the late 1970s.

University of North Carolina at Greensboro

According to the school’s website, “The Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program at UNCG is a unique and innovative undergraduate jazz program designed to emulate the traditional process of learning jazz, through a combination of mentorship, real-world playing experiences, and a communal approach to learning. The Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program provides an immersive learning environment.” Learn more.

East Carolina University

According to the school’s website, “The mission of the East Carolina University School of Music Jazz Studies program is to provide a comprehensive experience in the study of jazz for jazz instrumental and vocal majors at the baccalaureate and masters levels.” Students can earn a performance degree with a concentration in jazz, participate in one of the university’s many jazz ensembles and combos, take private lessons, or enroll in one of many jazz courses focusing on jazz history, improvisation, composing/arranging, and more. Learn more.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

There is a strong tradition of high-caliber jazz performance at UNC-CH. The Jazz Studies area gives students opportunities to perform in the UNC Jazz Band, UNC jazz combos, and Charanga Carolina. Course offerings include private lessons, jazz theory, jazz improvisation, jazz history, jazz arranging, and the UNC Summer Jazz Workshop. Learn more.

University of North Carolina at Pembroke

According to the school’s website, “The UNCP Department of Music boasts an active and vibrant Jazz Studies program, offering a broad array of academic and performing experiences to students.” Learn more.

JazzArts Charlotte, Jazz Arts Initiative

The Jazz Arts Initiative—led by a talented husband and wife duo, the woodwind player Lonnie Davis and the percussionist Ocie Davis—is cultivating the next generation of jazz musicians. Jazz Arts Initiative offers education-based programming through its JAI Jazz Academy workshops and summer camps. The Jazz Academy offers in-school programs, free community master classes, jazz youth ensembles, and summer jazz camps. Students are taught by prestigious local, regional, and international jazz educators and performing artists. Among JAI’s past guest clinicians are the internationally renowned artists and educators Delfeayo Marsalis and Jamey Aebersold, recipients of Jazz Master awards from the National Endowment for the Arts.


Kinston Music Park: A Celebration of African American Musical Heritage is at Spring Hill and South Queen Streets, in the Sugar Hill district that once was a vibrant hub of African American music venues, where such musicians as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong played. The park serves as a regional gathering place to celebrate the rich African American music of eastern North Carolina.

music park reflection


Photos by Rhonda Birtha

The signature element of the park is a 12-foot-high, 23-foot-wide sculpture with images of famous jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, and gospel musicians from Kinston and surrounding communities. Created by the sculpting team of David Wilson and Brandon Yow, the piece consists of glass panels showing historic photographs, vintage maps, and original artwork that all pay tribute to Kinston’s African American musical community.

Mosaic Sign


The park also displays large, colorful tile mosaics honoring the style of the North Carolina painter Romare Bearden that Kinston students created. The mosaic project was spearheaded by the artists September Krueger and Anne Brennan through an after-school program of the Community Council for the Arts. Among the trail-blazing local musicians featured is Nathaniel “Nat” Jones, the acclaimed musical director of James Brown’s band during the 1960s. The adjacent tile depicts the Kinston musician and James Brown band member Dick Knight, who appears with his group, The Bossatettes. Another mosaic tile refers to the Uptighters, a 1970s band led by Tyrone Greene, of Lenoir County, whose father, Zack, influenced many Kinston players. Ira Wiggins, of Kinston, made his debut with this band.

Women in jazz are featured on another mosaic, which depicts the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a multiracial, all-female jazz band of the 1940s to 1950s. Geneva Perry retired from the Sweethearts and then taught music and directed the band at Adkin High School, in Kinston. Among her students were Sonny Bannerman, Nat Jones, Thornton Canady, and other well-known Kinston musicians.