By Larry Reni Thomas
During the 1940s and the 1950s when jazz music was as hot as hip-hop is today, Wilmington, North Carolina, was the place where jazz giants like Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, and Louis Armstrong performed at a local jazz club and ballroom called The Barn. It was located on South 11th Street, between Meares and Wright Streets, and was owned and operated by the late Mr. and Mrs. Charles Whitted.
The Barn was a place where folks dressed up for a swinging night on the town and where they went to see the big bands that were extremely popular during World War II. It was called The Barn because it resembled a tobacco barn and was large enough to hold some 2,000 people.
There was a large dance floor, a big bandstand, bars and several rooms for private parties. It was the place to be on a weekend night in Wilmington if you were young or young-at-heart and if you were a jazz lover.
“Lionel Hampton was a regular,” said Mrs. Gerrie Lemon, the Whitted's granddaughter, during an interview. “So was the Buddy Johnson Big Band, Louie Jordan, and Louie Armstrong. They would play the Barn at least once a year. My grandfather liked the big bands. He liked the 18-piece bands, plus a vocalist. He liked to see them all on the stage—and it was big. And we had dressing rooms on either side of it. And besides that, it had a pit. You could dance behind there too.”
Lemon said that her grandfather added rooms to the structure because during that time blacks couldn't go to the local hotels or motels. Sometimes they stayed at the Whitted's residence. Mrs. Lemon recalled waking up one morning when she was a little girl hearing Billy Eckstine singing to himself in the bathroom while shaving. At the time she didn't think much of it to see all those famous people in her house. But later, when she became an adult she realized how blessed she was to have been in the presence of such well-known musicians.
She also remembered that most of the people in the community looked forward to seeing the bands come to town and she smiled when she talked about the excitement that was in the air once the word got out that a good band was coming to Wilmington.
“My grandfather was a master promoter,” she said. “He knew another promoter in Kinston who would have the same bands at his place. They would both book the bands and promote them together. I was so proud of him because he was a pioneer in the field of promoting. He would travel all over the region, from town to town, nailing up posters and handing out leaflets. He was really a good promoter.”
Mr. Whitted was also a keen talent scout who knew what bands to bring to the area. He made contact with prominent New York agents, like Joe Glaser, who helped supply him with first-class acts like Armstrong and Hampton. He also had the Lumina, a large dance hall on Wrightsville Beach. Nearly all of the groups played at the Lumina, an all-white establishment one night and the Barn the next night. The late John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, the legendary trumpet player, remembered playing at the Lumina and the Barn during the 1940s and 1950s. He made those observations when he played at Thalian Hall. He said that they also looked forward to playing the Barn because that was where they had more fun and played a great deal better because they loved to see the people dance.
Jimmy Heath, the great saxophonist who is a former Wilmington resident and a 1943 graduate of Williston High School, recalled playing at the Barn about a year after he graduated from high school.
“I was playing with the Nat Towles big band then,” he said, during an interview at his Queens, New York residence. “We passed through Wilmington on a tour. The Barn had gotten a name as the place where big bands thrived, where the good times rolled and where the daring dances performed their feats. The place was known for great dancers and that is one of the things that really fires a musician up—good dancers. It was quite a thrill for me because I had gone to high school in Wilmington and knew what the Barn represented. I mean, all the great big bands that were popular at that time played there.”
Mr. Heath, a Philadelphia native, left Wilmington for the city of brotherly love shortly after he graduated from Williston. He has performed with Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, The Heath Brothers, and other jazz greats.
One of the most interesting facts about the Barn and its activities is that white people came to dance at the Barn.
At first, the blacks and the whites were separated by what was called "an imaginary line," but once the bands got hot and the music was swinging, the dancers, black and white, forgot all about that foolishness and hit the dance floor together and danced. This had to be one of the earliest examples of integration in Wilmington, N.C. and is a testament to how positive music is, especially jazz music, which the legendary bandleader and composer Duke Ellington called the “great equalizer.”
About the Author
Larry Reni Thomas is a veteran jazz writer, radio announcer and historian from Wilmington, N.C. with a M.A. in history from UNC-Chapel Hill. Larry has had a busy, colorful career that has spanned close to three decades, and has included stints at seven, mostly non-commercial radio stations, including WHQR-FM, WNCU-FM and WCOM-FM, where he is presently host of Sunday Night Jazz. He has written for downbeat, Urban Journal and All ABout Jazz.com and was appointed a North Carolina Humanities Council Road Scholar. Dubbed "Dr. Jazz," by musician Bro. Yusuf Salim, Thomas, who is the host and producer of The Carolina Jazz Connection, considers himself foremost "a gentleman and a scholar and a servant of the people." He is also the author of several books including Rabbit! Rabbit! Rabbit!: A Tale of the Wilmington Incident of February 1971 (2006).