Jazz Lives in North Carolina

North Carolina Arts Council

Friday, April 22, 2022

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.

Jazz musicians

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.


Jazz education programs

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

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.


The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan by Larry Reni Thomas

November 23, 2019

The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan 

by Larry Reni Thomas


Lee Morgan, the fiery-hot, extremely talented jazz trumpet player, died much too soon. His skyrocketing career was cut short, at age 33, one cold February night in 1972 at a Manhattan, N.Y. club called Slug's. He was shot to death by his 46-year-old common-law wife Helen. At the time, Morgan was experiencing a comeback of sorts. He had been battling a serious heroin addiction problem for years, but, by most accounts, was drug-free.

His gig at Slug's was the talk of the jazz world and was a must-see for all of those in the know. There was always a packed house during his engagements at Slug's. He looked good, was well-groomed, sounded great and seemed destined for a fantastic future. Then the unthinkable happened.

How could it be? Why would Helen Morgan kill her constant companion? What happened in their decade long relationship that would cause her to do something that devastating to Lee and herself, and to Lee Morgan's legion of fellow musicians, friends, and adoring fans?

The only person who could answer such questions was Helen Morgan (aka Helen More or Helen Moore). She was arrested that day, February 19, 1972, served time in prison, and was later paroled. She lived in the Bronx, Mount Vernon, and Yonkers, New York, until 1978, when she moved back to her hometown of Wilmington, N.C. to be near her mother who was very ill and later passed away in 1980. Helen became heavily involved in the Methodist Church, spent time with her grandchildren, took classes at a local college and received a degree.

No one knew about her past other than some members of her family. She almost never talked about it. Yet, she still had friends in New York, like the late vocalist Etta Jones, whom she would telephone frequently to talk about old times. But almost no one, especially in the jazz scene, knew where she was. 

How did a country girl from rural North Carolina end up in this situation?

She talked about her life with Lee Morgan in a rare and exclusive interview in February 1996, about a month before she passed away of heart problems in a Wilmington, N.C. hospital. Her health had been in decline for years, and she explained that she wanted to do her one and only interview because she wanted to tell her side of the story. She was tired, she said, and knew she didn't have long to live.

Helen Morgan was born in 1926 in Brunswick County, N.C. on a farm near Shallotte, about 50 miles across the Cape Fear River, from the coastal city of Wilmington. By the time she was 13, the attractive, talkative, bronze-colored skin girl had her first child. A year later, she had another child. Both of her children were raised by her grandparents. She left them and moved to Wilmington at age 15 to live with her mother. When she was 17-years-old, she started dating a local bootlegger who was 39-years-old.

A few months later, they were married. Two years later, her husband drowned and she became a 19-year-old widow. Her late spouse was a New Yorker. When his relatives came down to take care of the funeral, they took her back to New York, when they finished with their business. She arrived in New York, in 1945, with the intention of staying two weeks. She ended up staying there for over 30 years.



She met and fell in love with Lee Morgan in the early 1960s when he was a full-fledged junkie. After he moved in with her, she helped him get off of drugs, cleaned him up and became his manager. Helen helped him restore his career. The good years for them were when Lee was working. He was making good money, had a young-much-in-demand band, appeared on TV, released several excellent recordings. and was touring all over the United States and aboard. They were meeting and greeting people who were mostly high-profile, show business personalities who they would sometimes entertain in their apartment. Late in their decade-long relationship, however, she noticed that his attitude changed and that he became more distant. Helen suspected that he was seeing a younger woman who she said she saw hanging around.

Lee started to run the streets a great deal and sometimes he wouldn’t come home for days. She began to wonder if their wonderful, fun-filled fast times were about to end. It was around that time that Helen began to ask herself: “Did I love him (Lee)? Or did I think of him as my possession? And I think part of that might have been my fault because I might have started being too possessive or too much like a mother to him. I was much older than Morgan. I thought about it. Like I made him. You know. I brought you back. You belong to me. And you are not supposed to go out there and do this,” she cited in the book, The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan.  

On February 19, 1972, she went to see Lee at Slug’s. During intermission. Helen saw that he was with a young lady whose name was Judith Johnson. Lee and Helen had an argument. He pushed her and escorted her out of the club. She came back in and shot him. He bled to death because the ambulance took over an hour to get there, due to the snowy blizzard conditions the city had experienced that day.  

In 2014, Helen and Lee Morgan’s time together was published in the book The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan (KHA Books) written by Larry Reni Thomas. The following year (2015), their story was the subject of an award-winning documentary movie titled “I Called Him Morgan” (www.icalledhimmorgan.com), which was directed and produced by the Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin.  


Book cover for The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan



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).

The Master of the Saxophone: The Immortal John William Coltrane, Jr.

November 15, 2019

The Master of the Saxophone: The Immortal John William Coltrane, Jr.

by Larry Reni Thomas


John Coltrane, the master of the saxophone, was born September 23, 1926 to John R. and Alice Blair Coltrane, in Hamlet, North Carolina, in the rural, red clay farming region near the South Carolina state line. His grandfather was Reverend William Coltrane, a prominent African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) minister in Hamlet. 

When John was an infant, his family moved 85 miles north to High Point, N.C., in the Piedmont area of the state known for furniture manufacturing. His grandfather was Reverend John Blair, an elder in AMEZ church. Coltrane grew up on Underhill Street, performed in the high school band and graduated from William Penn High School in 1943.

John, whose father operated a tailor shop and played the violin, started playing the saxophone in High Point. He showed an interest in music and the saxophone at an early age, way before he became a teenager. Coltrane was a member of a community band, in addition to the school band. In 1938–39, both his grandfather and father died causing the shy John, who was around twelve years old, to become a little depressed. Four years later, days after graduating from high school, John Coltrane, like countless other blacks in the segregated South, went north. Coltrane joined his mother in Philadelphia.

It was during this period that the great saxophonist began to do what he would do religiously for the rest of his life. John Coltrane became an extremely dedicated musician who believed practice made perfect. He, according to several fellow artists, practiced on his instrument every day, all day.

“John Coltrane practiced more than anybody I knew,” said tenor saxophone legend Jimmy Heath, during an interview several years ago. Heath, whose award-winning autobiography, I Walked With Giants: The Autobiography of Jimmy Heath, mentioned his close relationship with fellow Philadelphian John Coltrane. Heath was a friend and leader of a big band that Coltrane was a member of during the late 1940s. “He would practice after the gig. When we got back to the hotel. He would practice. Play all morning. Then he would fall asleep with the horn still around his neck. John was very, very disciplined and never thought there was such a thing as practicing too much.”

Larry Ridley, the bassist and educator, who was also a friend of Coltrane and had sat in with him once in the 1960s at a New York City club, recalled a visit to Coltrane’s Long Island home, during an interview for the audio documentary “John Coltrane: A Great North Carolina Jazz Intellectual.” Ridley said that he and a group of musicians were sitting around John’s living room, talking and socializing, and when he looked around, he noticed that John had left the room. “Where is he?’ Where is John?’ Where did he go?'” Ridley asked. Then, Larry said he heard John in the back room, practicing on his horn. “He loved to practice. He was a practice fanatic,” said Ridley.

So, it was in High Point, a small city known more for furniture making, where all the practicing and spirituality, began. His grandfather’s joyful, uplifting church services and the supreme feeling he got from celebrating the spiritual side of life, all helped to make and mold Coltrane into becoming a well-respected, widely known, historic, influential, jazz giant. It was during those few years in his young life in High Point that Coltrane started his journey. It was one of the many turning points in his life, maybe the most important because High Point was where the spark was lit, and it stands to reason that High Point is where the local citizens should celebrate one of their own and have a festival. After all, High Point was Coltrane’s home.


John Coltrane statue in downtown High Point | Photo Credit: The Friends of John Coltrane
John Coltrane statue in downtown High Point | Photo Credit: The Friends of John Coltrane


For years, there have been people in High Point who have known that the famous, internationally known John Coltrane was raised in their hometown. Some noticed that for years, there has been a steady stream of tourists and researchers, visiting the house where Coltrane lived on Underhill Street. The first effort to honor him as a former fellow High Point citizen began in 2004, when a group, called The Downtown Improvement Committee, formed and lead a successful effort to erect a statue of John Coltrane in downtown High Point. The impressive, bronze statue, created by sculptor Thomas Jay Warren, and financed by grants from The Downtown Improvement Committee, The High Point Convention and Visitors Bureau, The High Point Museum, The City of High Point, The Guilford County Board of Commissioners, The High Point Community Foundation and private donations, was dedicated September 20, 2006, at the Coltrane Plaza, in downtown High Point, with a reading sent from musician Carlos Santana.

“The Friends of John Coltrane was formed in 2009,” said Joe Williams, one of the organizers, and a member of the group. “We thought that we would use the momentum of the statue being erected and try to organize a music festival that would involve the High Point community. We wanted the whole community to be involved. It took a lot of hard work, but we were finally able to present the first festival in 2011. It went well. A lot of people showed up from places like Boston, D.C., Atlanta, New York. We even had some folks from Japan contact us.”

Williams, a Philadelphian who moved to High Point years ago, used his background in music promotion to book an all-star line-up for every festival since 2011.

“This festival is now a nationally recognized festival,” said Williams. “We have heard from people as far away as Canada, California, Massachusetts, and New York. We think that it’s very important that High Point residents get involved. Last year was good, great crowd, and the best part about it was that most of the people there were from right here in the area. Everybody is always looking for somewhere to go for The Labor Day weekend. We think that this is the place.”

“We have been very fortunate because most of these fine musicians are eager and willing to perform at the festival basically because they love John Coltrane and his music,” said Williams. “They understand what we are trying to do. We are also doing several things in the community, like helping to renovate his old residence, student essay contest, year-around events they help to keep John Coltrane’s legacy alive.”

Learn more about The John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival in High Point at: https://coltranejazzfest.com/  



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).

The Barn: Wilmington's Jazz Mecca by Larry Reni Thomas

November 5, 2019

The Barn: Wilmington's Jazz Mecca

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).

October. The Outer Banks. Jazz. Three quality reasons to attend the 2019 Duck Jazz Festival.

October 3, 2019

Fall is a beautiful time to visit the Outer Banks, and every year the Town of Duck hosts a free, public outdoor October jazz festival for beach and music lovers. On October 12-13, jazz music will fill the beautiful Duck Town Park. Find a full line-up of this Come Hear NC supported event here:


WUNC's The State of Things Takes a Look Back at Ocean City Jazz Festival

July 31, 2019

Last month Ocean City Jazz Festival celebrated its tenth anniversary. Founded in 2009, the festival raises awareness about the community's historic role as the first beachfront community in North Carolina where African American's could purchase property. WUNC's The State of Things invited Angela Thorpe, Director of the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission, and Carla Torrey, Ocean City Beach Citizens Council member onto their show to discuss the significance of the festival and the community it calls home. 

Listen to the interview here.

Honoring a Legacy: Lenora Helm Continues Down the Path of Nina Simone

July 24, 2019

Honoring a Legacy: Lenora Helm Continues Down the Path of Nina Simone

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 Helm sitting at her piano | Photo credit: Chi Brown
Photo Credit: Chi Brown

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.

Trivia Tuesday: Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane Create Lightning in a Bottle

July 23, 2019

Did you know: North Carolina jazz legends Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane played together? During the later part of 1957 Coltrane worked with Thelonious Monk at New York's Five Spot Café, and played in Monk's quartet (July–December 1957), but, owing to contractual conflicts, took part in only one official studio recording session with this group, which was released in 1961.

Jazz with a Higher Purpose: The Ocean City Jazz Festival Preserves North Carolina's Historic African American Coastal Community

June 26, 2019

Jazz with a Higher Purpose

The Ocean City Jazz Festival Preserves North Carolina's Historic African American Coastal Community

By Vergil Demery

When many families are just getting done with Independence Day barbeques and letting their kids bask in the excitement from the fireworks the night before, a small close-knit North Topsail Beach community will hold a music festival to preserve an almost forgotten piece of North Carolina history. On July 5 to 7, the Ocean City Jazz Festival will celebrate the story of Ocean City. Established in 1949, Ocean City was the first coastal community to allow African Americans to purchase property in North Carolina. In the late 1950s, it became the first community to have a black-owned fishing pier in the state. Now in its 10th year, the Ocean City Jazz Festival celebrates the 70th anniversary of the community by presenting a solid lineup of jazz and gospel musicians in the place where it all began. 

The story of the Ocean City community starts long before 1949. During WWII, the area now known as Ocean City was a part of 45,000 acres of land known as Camp Davis, that was once a training ground for Anti-Aircraft troops and at its peak was manned by over 20,000 men. After WWII it became the site of Operation Bumblebee, a U.S. project to develop rocket technology for surface to air missiles who’s findings would later be used by NASA to send humans to outer space. 

In 1948 the base was declared surplus by the U.S. military and dismantled. With the troops gone the beach abandoned the area was desolate and riddled with the scars of explosive testing. However, Edgar Yow, a white attorney from Wilmington, N.C. saw an opportunity and pitched an idea to Dr. Samuel J. Gray, a black client of his: a non-segregated beach that would allow African Americans to own property.

Interested but realistic about the demands of the venture, Gray felt that he alone could not undertake such a feat, so he approached his friends Wade, Bertram, Robert and Louise Chestnutt for help. Each bought a tract of land, Wade coined the area Ocean City, and development started. In 1949 Yow and his brother Circeo bought controlling shares in the remaining land, and Ocean City Developers Incorporated was formed, marking what had to be one of the earliest interracial business partnerships at the time. The corporation swiftly divided the beach into business and residential areas, and the first homes were completed in late 1949. As time went on they added a camp, motel, chapel, camp dormitory, and restaurants. By 1953 a mere 5 years after the military left, Ocean City had gone from a deserted military testing site to bustling African American coastal community. 

In the late 50’s Ocean City became the only community in North Carolina to have a black-owned fishing pier. While the pier may have been black-owned it was open to everybody and allowed Ocean City to draw in a strong tourist crowd. One North Carolina resident George Hall Lewis called it his “Secret fishing hole” and stated that the pier “had the best fishing bottom on the entire island.” Ocean City continued to grow and shine as one of the few tourist destinations that all North Carolina residents could enjoy. 

As time has marched on, Father Time and Mother Nature made preserving the legacy of Ocean City a tough feat. Hurricanes are expected when you live on the coast but sometimes the damage is something not even the most vigilant of residents can’t prepare for. The fishing pier had to be torn down in the ’90s after Hurricanes Fran and Bertha and many more buildings needed extensive repairs after subsequent hurricanes. And yet, a tight-knit group of Ocean City descendants has remained committed.

The Ocean City Beach Citizens Council who built the chapel in 1949 is the same organizing body that puts together the jazz festival. Mother Nature stops for no one and hurricanes will continue to come, so a major goal of the Ocean City Jazz Festival is to raise funds to ensure that repairs on community buildings are affordable and to ensure that new residents are people who want to maintain the areas rich culture and passion for inclusion. While the community was founded on the hard work and sweat of a core group of community leaders, beachfront property is still beachfront property and the Ocean City community occupies desired real estate. Upkeep on beachfront homes can be astronomically expensive and many of the descendants of the original residents may not necessarily see the point in keeping a home they no longer visit. Ocean City Jazz Festival aims to ensure that the original residents hard work doesn’t go to waste, or as the festivals Co-Chair Craig Torrey puts it, “We want to make sure that landowners don’t lose their property and if so we want to be in a position through the jazz festival to have enough funds to purchase any distressed properties.”

When asked why the Ocean City Jazz Festival was so important to the residents, Torrey responded, “What it means to us is carrying on and preserving the legacy of those folks who sacrificed so much to give us the opportunity that we have now to have a beachfront property and be treated like anyone else.”

Ocean City is a resilient community and the jazz festival is a mechanism for supporting hat vitality. This year’s festival will feature many North Carolina natives including the John Brown Band, Marcus Anderson, and Richard Dawkins.

For a full schedule and a link to buy tickets visit www.oceancityjazzfest.com 














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.

Charlotte Jazz Festival Kicks Off Today!

April 29, 2019

April is national Jazz Appreciation Month and there’s still time to recognize and celebrate the extraordinary heritage and history of jazz in North Carolina with the Charlotte Jazz Festival that kicks-off today.

Scheduled in Uptown Charlotte, the week-long event features Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, Broadway songstress Patina Miller with a tribute to Nina Simone, dynamic performances at The Jazz Garden Tent at Romare Bearden Park and free jazz concerts all week long.

Events run through Saturday, May 4 and kicks off Charlotte SHOUT, a celebration of art, music, food and ideas that runs to Saturday, May 11. This is the grand finale of CLT250, the celebration of Charlotte’s 250th anniversary, so pack your bags and head to the Queen City.

With more than 75 events on tap now through May 11, many of them free, there’s no planning and no reservations!

Spend your lunch at the Jazz Pavilion on the Levine Center for the Arts plaza for a free concert featuring some of Charlotte’s best jazz artists plus some special guests daily. Food trucks will be on site. Concerts run from 11:45 a.m. to 1:15 a.m. and include: Airstream (alternative jazz) on Tuesday; Ariel Pocock Quartet (classic soul jazz) on Wednesday; Shrimp and Grits (modern jazz) on Thursday and Pharez Whitted Group (straight ahead/modern jazz) on Friday.

Another free opportunity to experience amazing music is Jazz at the Pavilion on the Levine Center for the Arts plaza on Thursday and Friday night at 5:30 and 7 p.m. and all-day Saturday! From 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Click here for the artist line up

Late Night Jams are scheduled in the Knight Underground, the speakeasy-themed hideaway located below the Knight Theater! Musicians performing as part of the Charlotte Jazz Festival will keep the jazz going late into the night. These fan-favorite jam sessions are high-energy, totally improvised and the perfect nightcap. Here's an itinerary to explore the music scene in Charlotte.

Charlotte Jazz Festival

For a complete list of Charlotte Jazz Festival events click https://www.blumenthalarts.org/charlotte-jazz-festival/


Subscribe to #jazz