A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine. Jazz has deep roots in our state, with some

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine. Jazz has deep roots in our state, with some

Our State Knows Best: Jazz

In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine.

Jazz has deep roots in our state, with some of the all-time great jazz musicians — John Coltrane, Nina Simone, and Thelonious Monk, among others — counted as North Carolina natives. But for those not well-versed in jazz, the music genre can be a little intimidating. Luckily, it’s less about what you know, and more about what you feel when you listen.

“There’s a story in every instrumental jazz song that’s not spoken to you in words, but in the language of music,” says bassist John Brown, vice provost for the arts, director of the Jazz Program, and professor of the practice of music at Duke University. “Art demands that you take time with it. The reward is tremendous when you stop and let an artist express themselves to you, and you really allow yourself to be in that space and say, ‘Wow, I hear what this person is saying. I can feel what this person is trying to make me feel.’ There’s an opportunity to have that shared experience.”

Want to get into the swing of things? We talked to Brown and three other North Carolina jazz experts and musicians — vocalist Lenora Helm Hammonds, director of North Carolina Central University’s Vocal Jazz Ensemble and associate professor in the Jazz Studies Program; bassist Steve Haines, a Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program professor at UNC Greensboro; and Steve Taxman, host of “Jazz Focus” at Durham’s WNCU radio — to find out their best listening tips and record recommendations for jazz newbies, where to experience the music live, and what makes jazz so magical.

Our experts

Lenora Helm Hammonds
Vocalist and associate professor in the Jazz Studies Program and director of the Vocal Jazz Ensemble at North Carolina Central University
Steve Haines
Bassist and Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program professor at UNC Greensboro
Steve Taxman
Host of “Jazz Focus” at WNCU radio in Durham
John Brown
Bassist and vice provost for the arts, director of the Jazz Program, and professor of the practice of music at Duke University

What do you remember about the first time you heard jazz?

Lenora Helm Hammonds: My father was kind of a renaissance man. As a little girl, I would sit on his lap while he painted, and he would play jazz music. I would just be so enamored with it. I didn’t understand it — I just knew that was Daddy’s music. Then, when I was 15, I was in a band in high school, and we would play at school dances and do the popular music [that was] on the radio. After our rehearsals every Saturday and Sunday, we would sit around and the parents of the members of the band would make us a big meal, and we would listen to jazz music. I became curious and fell in love with it for myself. I would go home and tell [Daddy] about new jazz records, and it was our way of bonding. I remember hearing a John Coltrane record, “Nancy (With the Laughing Face)” from his album Ballads. The way he played on that record was so passionate and beautiful — it just made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. In that same sitting, I heard Billie Holiday. I heard her sing, and all of the beauty in her voice and her tone and in the way she told the story was just so searing, so personal, and I thought, That’s for me

Steve Taxman: I was at Oberlin College in Ohio the first semester of my sophomore year, and my friend’s father had decided to switch over from vinyl to CDs, so I randomly picked a few of his albums, including the Ramsey Lewis Trio. The album was An Hour with the Ramsey Lewis Trio, and it was actually a full hour on a vinyl record — half an hour, each side — which is very unusual. The first tune on the album is a jazz standard called “Softly, as in the Morning Sunrise,” and that tune just knocked me out. I listened to it over and over and over; I didn’t even listen to the whole record. I mostly just listened to that one tune. Shortly after that, I heard Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, which my father had, and that’s still considered by many to be the greatest jazz record of all time — and, in fact, is the best-selling jazz record of all time.


What makes jazz special for you?

Steve Haines: First of all, it’s reflective of the blues and gospel music; it’s both creative and optimistic. Of course, there’s really serious jazz, but by and large, it is an optimistic music. What I love about jazz is that when it’s played at its finest, it’s very much in the moment — you never know what’s going to happen. A singer could sing something, or an instrumentalist could play something, and the music will turn suddenly. Nobody can script it, and jazz at its best is jazz that has risk. I think that might be a reason why, sometimes, jazz fails — because people are making up music on the spot. We’re like major league batters, where most of the time we swing and miss. But sometimes we hit. Sometimes we hit the ball. 

Steve Taxman: The improvisatory nature of jazz — it’s spontaneous creation. The first part of the tune is written out, and after that, anything goes. It takes a level of mastery that most musicians don’t even have. When done well, it can just completely transcend and take you to a different place. At its best, there’s a spirituality to jazz that I’ve rarely heard in music. When everyone’s connecting and the band is listening — the way they can react to each other can be absolutely mind-blowing.


Who are your favorite North Carolina jazz musicians? 

Steve Haines: Max Roach was born in Newland; Nina Simone was born in Tryon; Tal Farlow was a great guitar player, and he was born in Greensboro; Woody Shaw is a famous trumpet player who was born in Laurinburg; Percy Heath was born in Wilmington; Mary Lou Williams, who was highly influential as a piano player, arranger, orchestrator, and composer, eventually taught at Duke University. One thing that I think is really special about North Carolina is that our state really reflects the tradition of our music and that it is Black American music. In a lot of places, the music is kind of whitewashed, and I’m really proud of our community in North Carolina because the artists here have great respect for our history and our tradition of this music as Black American music.

John Brown: The favorite who comes to mind first is my favorite because he’s one of the most significant voices in music, and that’s John Coltrane. I have a particular affinity for Coltrane because one of the major blessings of my life and career is getting to play with Elvin Jones, who was one of Coltrane’s main drummers, and, notably, the drummer on A Love Supreme. I got to travel with Elvin and get even closer to what I would consider the Coltrane legacy. Of course, regardless of that relationship, John Coltrane was one of the leading voices on his instrument, in jazz and also in all of music. Someone else who I have a particular relationship with is Lou Donaldson, who is a native of Badina. Lou Donaldson is one of the pioneers of hard-bop jazz, which is kind of where I find my home and most of what resonates with me.

Can you tell us any interesting tidbits of North Carolina jazz history?

Steve Haines: It’s hard for people to think of women instrumentalists. We can imagine and think of many men who played jazz on trumpet, saxophone, trombone, guitar, or drums, but it’s hard for us to think of women who played these instruments. That’s because our culture has marginalized women so much, and we continue to do that with jazz education. For example, at UNCG, we had a white, all-women group in the ’40s called The Darlinettes. (At the time, the university only admitted white students.) They were not allowed to play jazz on campus — not even for fun, because it was considered “the devil’s music.” They practiced in the basement of the music building at midnight so that people wouldn’t catch them playing. Then they would take a bus and go play at clubs all around the state. They were a big band, but somehow, we’ve lost our narrative with all of the women who have been playing this music. That’s something that I think is kind of sad — something that we really need to rectify.

John Brown: In the “Chitlin Circuit” [performance venues located mostly in the South that were safe spots for Black musicians and entertainers to perform during Jim Crow], there were a lot of places in North Carolina that emerged as those that would be welcoming to musicians and be friendly places for them to go in their travels, where they would find audiences that were receptive to hearing the music. Places like The Frog & Nightgown in Raleigh were nationally known, and people knew that when they came to this area, there was a welcoming place for the music. Folks like Peter Ingram with The Frog & Nightgown, Stephen Barefoot and a place called Stephen’s, After All in Chapel Hill — they really put North Carolina on the map as being a place that gave musicians opportunities to perform and share with the community. 

Can you share the best spots to listen to live jazz … in normal times?

Lenora Helm Hammonds: You kind of have to put your ear to what the arts councils in your area are doing. Churches often have what we call jazz vespers: Jazz vespers services started in New York City when jazz musicians would stay up late on Saturday night and couldn’t come to church on Sunday. One of the pastors of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church would do a service called jazz vespers, and it was a way to have meditative jazz music while he would have a sermon. There have been a few churches here in North Carolina that do these services. You go Sunday at about 5 o’clock, and it’s like a regular church service except the music is jazz. 

Steve Haines: In Greensboro, there are a couple of places: At the O. Henry Hotel, the lobby looks like the Oak Room, which was a really famous jazz venue in New York City. The Historic Magnolia House also has jazz. It’s a really important part of Greensboro’s history because it was the place where many famous people — Black musicians and actors — would stay when they came through during segregation. The two prominent big bands in the state are the North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra and the Piedmont Triad Jazz Orchestra. Obviously, with the virus, things have changed significantly. For example, at the Sharp Nine Jazz Gallery in Durham, they’ve been putting together really beautiful streaming shows. People can support the club by paying to watch a live stream. 

John Brown: Everywhere, but I encourage people to experience the music where it really developed and grew, and that is in smaller, intimate settings, where you’re just a few feet from the musicians. Wherever you can find those kinds of places, that kind of intimate experience really brings the listener into a more engaged experience where they are part of what’s happening in a way that’s different from all the other kinds of music that we listen to. When you attend a jazz performance, musicians are quite expressive through a range of emotions that you can see on their faces. In addition to that, you see folks in the audience who get to yell out or clap whenever they want to. In jazz, you’re welcome to express yourself as an audience member just as much as the musicians. It’s in those settings where you can really have that experience and really appreciate the essence of what the music is, how it was created, and how it’s a shared experience between the musicians or the audience. 

But where should a jazz newbie start? It’s overwhelming!

Lenora Helm Hammonds: Avoid the jazz police — those people who tell you, “That’s not jazz.” There are so many ways to listen to the music. It’s like an Easter egg hunt: Start with one thing, then let yourself explore. I always tell people to listen to Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin because it’s a beautiful record with Holiday singing with strings. I tell people to get Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. It’s not too complicated, and it’s a good entry point. Allow yourself to be curious. A lot of people love Ella Fitzgerald when they first begin listening to jazz because she has a way of singing that’s happy and makes you want to dance. With all her songs, you hear such sincerity. One of the great things about [streaming services] is you can make playlists, and then they’ll add things that are similar. Now, those formats will introduce you to new things — you don’t have to feel overwhelmed. 

Steve Taxman: The thing about jazz is that it’s not just one thing: There are some major subgenres, like bebop, which can be a little bit challenging and can be inaccessible to a lot of people. That’s true of John Coltrane, too. A Love Supreme is considered one of the greatest jazz masterpieces of all time. The first time I heard the record, I didn’t “get it”; I didn’t understand why people even thought it was a great record. Now, I’ve probably listened to it a hundred times, and I completely get it, but it can take a while for the harmonies to make sense to you. A lot of people, when they feel like they don’t appreciate jazz, they say they don’t understand it. But it’s about feeling it. If something is swinging hard and you can tap your toe to it, then you don’t even have to think about it. Duke Ellington said it best: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

What are the highs and lows of being a jazz musician?

Lenora Helm Hammonds: It’s a process. A lot of young people don’t have the patience, and they want to sound great right away. That’s not what it’s about. If you love this music, take the time to fall in love with the music. The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. It’s constantly evolving, constantly growing. There’s a song I put on my recent album called “I Didn’t Know About You,” and it wasn’t until I married my husband that I really understood what those words meant. I thought, “Wow, I’ve been singing this song for years.” You have to respect the music and the art form for what it is and keep at it. That can be really challenging, but I love the music. I can never not be a jazz musician. I told my husband I’ll die with my cold, dead fingers wrapped around the microphone. He’s like, “That’s dramatic.” The most rewarding thing is seeing my students who are now teachers and educators in their own right, and to see my students with their recordings. I have students who text or email me, saying their life was changed or that they now have something to talk with their grandfather about. That makes my day. 

Steve Haines: There are a lot of influences and peer pressure to sound a certain way. Miles Davis said that sometimes, it takes your whole life to learn your own voice. Isn’t that incredible? When Ornette Coleman played the saxophone, he turned the world upside down. Everybody thought he was crazy, but he was a genius, and he contributed so much to our music. It just takes a lot of courage for people to be themselves and to say, “This is my voice, this is what I want my music to sound like.” For me, the most rewarding part of jazz is telling a collective story that can give hope to people. You’ve got four or five different people in the band and everybody has their own voice, but then there’s this democratic-ness to the music, where everybody knows their role and their function. We all sort of affirm what we’re doing with each other, and we end up with this collective voice. Our music ends up telling a story that’s larger than the music itself.

This story was published on Jan 20, 2021

Caroline Farrell

Caroline Farrell was a fall 2020 editorial intern at Our State.