By Vergil Demery
Lenora Zenzalai Helm Hammonds is a singer, songwriter, composer, educator, and activist who has earned international acclaim for six solo recordings and is one of a handful of female, African American big band leaders.
“It's kind of exciting and scary at the same time,” she says. “It is a niche in that you don’t find a lot of women big band leaders and often they are instrumentalists,” she said. “A lot of times when people see a singer in a big band, they don’t assume that you’re the band leader. They assume that there is somebody in the band that is calling the shots.”
This couldn’t be further from the truth in the case of the upcoming Celebrating Nina Simone: Featuring Lisa Simone in Concert. Lenora handpicked the players that will be performing in the big band alongside Nina’s daughter Lisa Simone on Saturday, August 17 at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. All proceeds of the event will be donated to support saving Nina Simone’s childhood home in Tryon, N.C.
A trailblazer in her own right, Lenora sees the performance as an opportunity to honor the legacy of Nina Simone, a woman who fought and broke through many racial and gender barriers during her career. She hopes this performance will “give voice to and create that conversation around women in big bands and jazz in general so it doesn’t become something that is an anomaly or it's not so strange, but it can become more of a norm.”
As a child in Chicago at the age of seven, a time when most of us are still worrying about tying our sneakers correctly, Lenora wrote her first poem. At eight she decided to move from poetry to music a move that got her noticed. She was a teenager when she turned down a scholarship to Cornell University to attend the Berklee School of Music. After graduating she stayed in Boston to pursue a performing career where she faced one of her first career hardships.
She’d picked up a gig at a prominent club in a Boston suburb with her jazz trio, which was originally comprised of two white members and Lenora, a black woman. Despite the club not being known for its fondness for people of color, they hired her. However, Lenora’s agent also counseled that it would be in her best interest not to hire another black performer for the gig. She was a bit taken aback by the request, but this was a major performance and she decided to comply. She performed under the constraints and thrived, despite the circumstance. The people at the club loved her, and the trio was invited back for another performance. When the two white members in her band informed her they had another gig and could not perform, Lenora disregarded her agent’s advice. She hired two black replacements and returned to the club with an all-black trio. She performed that night but immediately after the show she was called and told that she would not be allowed to return.
“My booking agent called me. He said they’ll pay for the rest of the month, but they’re not gonna have you back,” she recalled. “That was the first time I ever encountered overt racism.” In an unfortunate way, this event gave her a closer connection to the struggles of Nina Simone, who was denied entrance into Julliard because of her race.
Knowing that you are being judged simply based on the color of your skin instead of the content of your character can be a shaking experience. Going on stage knowing that you will be judged harsher for being a person of color or a woman adds an immense amount of pressure. The feeling that you are not just representing you, but your entire ethnic group or gender can be crushing, but Lenora has never let that get to her. “I could think like that, but that wouldn’t be productive. We know that it’s there. We know that that exists, but it’s all about the music. One of my mentors, Dr. Ira Wiggins always says ‘keep the main thing the main thing.’ And the main thing is music.”
Helm lived in New York for 20 years while touring the country. At the height of her success, she ended up leaving the bright lights of the urban East Coast, to perform in a quiet southern state known as much for its tobacco fields as its music, North Carolina. In 2004 Lenora performed at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) for a Lyceum Concert series, where Dr. Ira Wiggins the NCCU Director of Jazz Studies was so moved that after the performance he called to invite her to take a position as a professor at NCCU’s vocal jazz program.
Lenora was initially skeptical about teaching. She had always seen herself as a performer and had been turned away from teaching due to the adage: “those who can’t do, teach.” She knew that she could do, and teaching would limit the amount of time she could spend performing. However, Lenora’s siblings changed her mind when they told her that she had always been a teacher. Helm recalls, “It got to the point that I was complaining that I was getting too much teaching work, and my brother was like ‘Are you kidding? You don’t remember making us play school when we were kids? You’ve always been a teacher.’” Her sister also chimed in saying, “Yes you did. You made us come to school at nine o’clock a.m. in the summertime and we had homework and a book and everything.” She had always been a teacher whether she realized it or not.
Since working at NCCU, her perspective on music has changed. When she first arrived, students would ask what the difference was between being a jazz vocalist and a classical vocalist. At first, the question perplexed her. Switching between genres was something that came naturally to her, but as she puts it, “When you teach you learn twice.” As any good teacher would, Lenora did the research to help her students.
The quest led her back to an answer she had always known. “Once I learned the difference and learned the distinctions I was like ‘Oh what's all the mystery about?’ There isn’t any. It's just a different way you use your voice and particular things you use in the style,” she said. She remembers a favorite Duke Ellington quote: “There are only two types of music: good and bad,” before going on to say, “When we think of voices like Louis Armstrong or Billie Holiday they didn’t necessarily have these voices that were nice to listen to, but it was how they said what they said on their instrument. It’s the passion and the rhythm and the feel that they gave you. I don’t care how many classical arias I can sing if I can’t make an audience move or feel it won’t matter what my training is. The person who buys a ticket to my concert – they don’t give a hoot whether I’m classically trained or not; what they care about is if the music feels good to them.”
No matter what the genre, if the audience doesn’t feel you, you can’t make good music. Helm feels artists should focus on making sure they capture the true spirit and essence of music along with mastering their technical skills. “I believe that you must endeavor to master your instrument, study to understand how to express creativity, AND make the audience feel good. I believe you must do the things Nina Simone did; bring excellence to the music, compose and sing songs that tell the truth, no matter if the truth is hard to hear, and be the kind of bandleader to inspire your musicians to give a heck of a show! That is what we intend to do on August 17th when we perform with Lisa Simone!”
Vergil Demery, a senior at North Carolina Central University, is studying English. He has been in the Triangle area since the age of three. Vergil, who loves to write, is crafting stories for the Come Hear North Carolina campaign, and he plans to go into journalism after graduating.