Four decades in, North Carolina Central University's jazz program continues to make history

John Clark Image
Wednesday, February 21, 2024
Four decades in, NCCU's jazz program continues making history
"It's not only Black music," Dr. Lenora Helm Hammond said. "It's American music. It's American history!"

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- You might find the musical heroes of 23-year-old Elijah Henderson surprising.

"Sammy Davis Jr., Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams," Henderson told ABC11. "I mean the list just goes on and on and on."

Henderson, a Charlotte native, is a second-year jazz vocal performance student at North Carolina Central University in Durham in the master's program.

He wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

"I ended up here for my master's to really learn the art of it and get into the academia side of jazz," he said.

Back in 1979, NCCU became the first university in the state to offer a Bachelor of Music degree in Jazz Studies. The program has expanded and matured since those early days, winning national and international acclaim.

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Dr. Lenora Helm Hammonds, the department chair and a celebrated vocalist in her own right, said the program has a proud legacy.

"The ability to keep it going as an HBCU -- one of the very few HBCUs in the country that offer a bachelor's degree in jazz studies - and the addition of the Master of Music program," Hammonds said. "Now an online program as a Master of Music in Jazz Studies and Composition & Arranging takes a lot of fortitude, a lot of stubbornness, and a joy for the music."

She said some graduates go on to perform full-time, while others use their knowledge to teach new students.

"Our alums are in other universities across the country as doctorates, running programs, creating jazz programs not only in elementary and middle and high schools but in other colleges," Henderson added.

This reputation brought Raleigh drummer and music teacher Jon Hill to NCCU. He's also pursuing a master's degree in jazz.

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"I came here because I'd heard a lot about the program from other musicians in the state," Hill said. "A lot of fellow drummers came through the program and told me a lot of good things. The faculty is amazing. Great opportunities to work with people like Branford Marsalis."

Yes, that Branford Marsalis.

The renowned saxophonist and composer is on the NCCU faculty as an artist in residence.

"I love these kids," Marsalis said. "I enjoy my interactions with the students. We have a lot of laughs. I tease them a lot. I kid them a lot. I make fun of their weaknesses so they can learn how to laugh at them. Because they're there - let's fix them!"

Marsalis can only be at Central seasonally since he is still an actively touring musician. But he said the students are always in good hands.

"The faculty that are here with the students all the time, they are superb," he said. "The students love them. And we just keep getting really good students. That's the key to it. I mean, it can only go as far as the students will allow us to take it."

NC Central jazz groups have performed at the White House, at prestigious jazz festivals and with legendary recording artists. They have won accolades and honors.

In January of last year, an NCCU student ensemble won a Jack Rudin competition at New York's Lincoln Center.

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"It was a very special moment," Hammonds said, "because we were the only HBCU there... we were representing much more than just the state of North Carolina. We were representing the promise of jazz as an opportunity. Getting a degree at a university level, making the idea that jazz is important and necessary as American music."

That's an idea that hits all the right notes not only during Black History Month but throughout the year.

"It's not only Black music," Hammonds said. "It's American music. It's American history."

Some NCCU students studying jazz perform on Thursday nights at Missy Lane's Assembly Room, a new jazz lounge in downtown Durham.

They call it "Eagles Nest Jam." It's open to the public.

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"This isn't just Black history. These are kind of missing or faded-out pages of American history."

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