Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the June 2010 issue.
The ranch home of Bill Myers, set in a quiet, tree-lined area of Wilson, doesn’t look like the sort of place you’d find some seriously funky jazz. But walk through the back door and you hear it immediately: a loping piano line riding over a foundation of cymbals and snare. Myers looks sideways from his place at the keyboard and calls instructions to drummer Sam Lathan. The other members of The Monitors, a long-standing Wilson jazz band, haven’t yet arrived for their overdue practice session, so the duo practices Dave Brubeck’s iconic “Take Five” on their own.
Even with just Myers and Lathan, it’s cramped in this wood-paneled room, which belonged to Myers’s son before he grew up and moved out. The keyboard shares space with books, papers, and sheet music. A second keyboard, a turntable, and speakers are all within easy reaching distance. On top of the turntable is a toy white grand piano with two tiny snowmen on top. Lathan’s drum kit is set up right in front of a sofa. When guitar player Gerald Hunter gets here, he’ll have to maneuver over music stands, folding chairs, and horns to set up in his little spot over by the closet.
“It’s small, but we make it happen,” Myers says.
Myers has been with The Monitors for more than 50 years. Others have come and gone — Roberta Flack, for instance, sang with the band in its early days. The walls of this little space are covered with framed newspaper articles about the band, and about Myers himself. Myers, a keyboard player who turns 78 this year, can still lay down a funky ’70s groove or pull out a rare big band tune on request. He’s a musical time machine, and he’s just one of the many soulful voices and players with roots in this region who are being celebrated on eastern North Carolina’s newly conceived African American Music Trail.
“I want it to remind people of the music, of the history of the music and the musicians who made the music,” he says of the trail. “I think that’s one of its purposes. True, it’s only going through a few counties right now, but there’s a great deal of history there.”
Meet The Monitors in an Our State Exclusive Video
Hear the sounds of The Monitors, one of the groups featured along the new African American Music Trail that runs through eastern North Carolina. Visit with Bill Myers and others in the band whose musical roots run deep in this part of the state. This band played with the likes of Otis Redding and Millie Jackson and one of its early vocalists was Roberta Flack. Sam Lathan, the band’s drummer, and trumpet player Dick Knight played with James Brown early in Brown’s career. Video by Jonathan Weaver. To view additional Our State videos, click here.
Moving to the music
Working in conjunction with the Community Council for the Arts in Kinston and a number of statewide organizations, the North Carolina Arts Council developed the premise for the African American Music Trail snaking through eight eastern North Carolina counties: Edgecombe, Greene, Jones, Lenoir, Nash, Pitt, Wayne, and Wilson. Like the Blue Ridge and Smoky mountains, whose culture was both shaped and archived by bluegrass music, eastern North Carolina is a fertile swath that has been molded by its own distinctive musical heritage.
Sparked by gospel rhythms heard in countryside churches, and nurtured in front porch blues jams and tobacco field chants, that heritage influenced a number of predominantly African American musicians, from funk legends Maceo and Melvin Parker, who grew up in Kinston, to jazz great Thelonious Monk, who spent his early childhood in Rocky Mount. From the 1920s through the 1960s, the area was a hotbed of musical activity. Minstrel shows, traveling musical variety shows featuring African American musicians, influenced many, including Myers, who grew up in Greenville. “Pitch a Boogie Woogie,” a 1947 film produced in Greenville, features many of the musicians of the day. Nationally known musicians such as Cab Calloway and Erskine Hawkins regularly played at massive dances in local tobacco warehouses. According to field research conducted by the arts center, in 1933, Kinston had a population of 9,000, and, in that year, those 9,000 people bought 45,000 records.
The Arts Council hopes to revive that passion. North Carolina Department of Transportation funds will help support interactive kiosks in the participating cities, maps, and a travel guidebook to assist visitors in finding local musicians, venues, and other resources.
While preserving a declining music tradition is the primary purpose of the trail, injecting economic life into the area is the desired benefit. The Arts Council hopes that word will spread about the trail and that travelers on their way to the beach or north and south on Interstate 95 will stop in towns like Kinston, Rocky Mount, and Tarboro to listen, learn, and spend. The reward just might be an economic boost as well as a cultural one.
Wayne Martin, N.C. Arts Council Folklife director and senior program director for Community Arts Development, takes the idea a step further. “This may be a bold statement, but people will move to Kinston if we create a project that shines a light on these incredible cultural traditions.”
Black and white
Maceo Parker walks into the Community Council for the Arts in Kinston, just slightly late for his 10 a.m. appointment, and the thermostat seems to dip a few degrees. Except for a maroon shirt and a sharp maroon striped tie, he’s dressed almost exclusively in black, including a black leather jacket and black Ray-Ban sunglasses, which he won’t take off. His cap advertises a show that he played with one of his idols, Ray Charles, years ago in Cologne, Germany. The man who blew some of the hottest sax solos in James Brown’s musical canon, and whose name became a lyric in and of itself, epitomizes cool. Even someone who might not recognize him will know that he’s probably not here to look at the student art or join the noisy breakfast meeting going on upstairs.
Parker grew up in Kinston, and he remembers those warehouse shows, where as many as 5,000 people, segregated by race, would pack a space that days before might have been filled with bright leaf tobacco. Advertisements from the time mention “special seating for white patrons.” Parker remembers seeing Ray Charles at one of those warehouse shows.
“This is the stage,” he says, drawing out an invisible box on the table with his finger. “But they had a rope, a big thick, like a rope from a ship or something, all the way to the back. White people on one side of the rope, black people on the other side of the rope. A rope!
“I remember I had this kind of thing about the rope,” Parker says, slapping his forehead. “It was kind of like, you’re hearing the same music, you’re reacting the same way, and to the point you almost can’t even see the rope, but you know it’s there. White people on one side. Black people on the other.”
While those touring shows inspired Parker and other local musicians, the church provided the initial creative spark. There is blues in Tarboro, jazz in Wilson, and funk in Kinston. But there is gospel everywhere. Gospel sings, including dozens of area groups, occur frequently in tiny far-flung communities such as Snow Hill and Trenton. Bishop Faircloth Barnes of Dortches in Nash County has toured the world in support of his smash gospel hit “Rough Side of the Mountain.” St. John AME Zion Church, Jackson Chapel First Missionary Baptist Church, and Calvary Presbyterian Church, all near Pender Street in Wilson, have become well known for their gospel choirs.
“In the church, singing goes along with it,” says Barnes. “You pick up a church program, you’ve got a song by the choir. It’s difficult around here to have a service and don’t have no singing at all. The people are looking for some singing somewhere in that service, even if it’s a funeral.”
Although he now lives and writes film scores in Los Angeles, composer and keyboard player Earl Wooten returns to Maysville several times a year. In August, he’s planning to bring his choral group, Ebony Voices, for a performance at the Jones County Civic Center in Trenton.
“Really if you think about eastern North Carolina, especially Jones County, there really isn’t a lot of social engagement,” Wooten says. “When I grew up there in the late ’60s and ’70s, there was nothing really for people to be engaged in other than the church. On Sunday afternoons, there were gospel groups that would go around from church to church and give performances. It was a really big thing to have people get together and sing. And that’s really what it was all about: to get together and sing and raise a little money.”
Kinston native Ira Wiggins, who now heads the Jazz Studies program at North Carolina Central University, remembers playing in his brother’s R&B group in the ’70s and making a good living from the various clubs in the area.
“We played in Rocky Mount, Wilson, all the small towns, as well as Kinston, Goldsboro, Washington,” he says. “There was a lot of work for live musicians at the time. I think that’s one of the reasons we were inspired by a lot of the older musicians that were passing the music along to the younger generation, and these people really play.”
But a series of events and cultural changes, including the demise of the tobacco industry and even the advent of disco, helped decimate what was once a thriving musical circuit for African-American musicians in the area. Wiggins remembers seeing gigs dry up as club owners decided to hire DJs, who came cheaper than a full band.
“We were a pretty good group at the time,” says Wiggins. “We would play the same thing the DJ played, and everybody would sit there. As the DJ played the same tune, everybody would get up and dance. It was a kind of dichotomy: The older generation didn’t want to go out and hear records, and the younger generation didn’t want to go out and hear live music, so eventually I think a lot of the clubs died out because of lack of support.”
These days, the area’s rich African American musical history is a little more hidden. One of the goals among the trail’s organizers is to reach young people, many of whom have no clue about the rich musical heritage of their own hometowns.
Parker, in particular, remembers working with a group of students in Kinston. Afterward, one of the organizers told him something he simply couldn’t believe.
“He said, ‘Maceo, you’re not going to believe this. One little black kid came up and said, ‘I never knew black people played saxophone.’ And he was sincere.”
“We want it also to inspire youth,” says Myers, of The Monitors. “People still want to come up to us and touch the horn, hit the drum, and stuff like that. I did that as a child myself. And that’s inspirational. ‘If he can do it … then maybe I can do that.’ ”
Inspiration and motivation are abundant at the Community Council for the Arts in Kinston. In a renovated historic grocery store across the street from boarded-up buildings and lots still empty after being devastated by Hurricane Floyd, the arts council plays host to a youth jazz group on Wednesdays, affording middle and high school students of all races the opportunity to learn and play.
In one recent youth group session, longtime Kinston High School band teacher Charles Richberg, seated in front of the students with an electric bass in his hands, calls out, “Who wants to do a solo?” One boy with a trumpet speaks up. The others are shy.
“Come on,” says Richberg. “This is what jazz is about!”
His passion shines.
“There’s so much pulling our young people away from music itself and telling them you have to be ready for the 21st century,” says Richberg, who taught Maceo Parker’s children and often jams with musicians in the area. “But nevertheless musicians are still going to be here, no matter how advanced in technology we become. We’re still going to need musicians.
“Will it ever come back? I’d love to see it come back, but that’s going to be a long-traveled road and old diehards like me, Ira, Maceo, we still keep digging at it to make it happen. I don’t think it would reach the mass of people like it did then, but it will be a part of this community.”
Experience the music
This rural county is home to several local gospel groups, many of which perform at the Greene County Museum. The county also plays host to entertainment at the North Carolina Sweet Potato Festival, scheduled for October 29 and 30.
Like Greene, Jones County is rural and features a strong gospel community. Maysville native Earl Wooten, who works for Wells Fargo in Los Angeles and writes movie scores in his spare time, is scheduled to perform with his choral group, Ebony Voices, at the Jones County Civic Center in Trenton on August 14.
The Pitt County Arts Council is working with East Carolina University to document the stories of musicians living in the area. The arts council is also interested in re-showing “Pitch a Boogie Woogie,” a 1947 homegrown movie featuring many local African American musicians of the day.
The Arts Council of Wayne County will bring the Smithsonian Institution’s New Harmonies exhibit, celebrating American Roots Music and offering communities a chance to celebrate their own music traditions. The exhibit runs from early August through mid-September, and will host a kick-off concert on August 7 with bluesman George Higgs of Tarboro and the Donald Thompson Band. Goldsboro also plays host to an annual jazz concert, Jazz on George, each April.
Karen A. Mann is a freelance writer based in Raleigh. She writes about area music on her blog, “Mann’s World.”