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The Daily Tar Heel

Triangle jazz scene embraces vibrant artists and an evolving genre

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CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the year Ira Wiggins began his role as the Jazz Ensemble and Jazz Studies Director. The error has since been resolved. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.

In 1979, N.C. Central University was the first university in the state to offer a bachelor of music degree in jazz studies.

NCCU was at the forefront of providing jazz education to students in the Triangle and is located in the center of a flourishing jazz scene in Durham.  

The genre, which was invented and innovated by Black communities in the early 20th century, found a home in Durham, which has a strong history of Black achievement, success and involvement, Brevan Hampden, a jazz percussionist based in Greensboro, said

The jazz scene in the Triangle became as colorful, vibrant and connected as it is today because of the efforts of members of the jazz community in the late 1970s, such as piano player Brother Yusuf Salim.

Instructors and their students across universities in the Triangle performed together at clubs and bars — a tradition that continues today. Hampden said everyone played different styles of jazz together, which created understanding and camaraderie among musicians. 

He said that the jazz programs and bands at universities in the Triangle pass down the traditions of jazz music to younger generations, allowing the music to evolve

Ira Wiggins, a saxophonist, flutist and educator, was the jazz ensemble and jazz studies director at NCCU from 1986 to 2021. During his 34 years at NCCU, he said it was a challenge to get students to buy into jazz music, as many had never been exposed to it before. He said he taught students the necessity of learning the language of jazz before innovating and pushing the music in new directions. 

“In terms of language, you have to listen to that over and over and over,” Wiggins said. “I would always tell my students that when you learn to speak as a kid, your parents didn't give you books — you just listened to how they talked, their friends, the community and you learn language.” 

Even though he is retired, Wiggins said he continues to develop his own style and incorporate new ideas into his repertoire by listening to recordings and practicing daily. 

Lenora Helm Hammonds, director of graduate programs for jazz studies at NCCU, said that as a developing musician, it’s important to have somewhere to play so you understand how the music works. 

“The musician’s journey is very much shaped by the opportunity to interact with your peers on stage and in social settings,” she said

A number of venues in Durham today encourage the tradition of musical interaction. Kingfisher, a cocktail bar in downtown Durham, has live jam sessions on Tuesday nights, and Missy Lane’s Assembly Room frequently holds open mic nights and improvised performances. 

Lydia Salett Dudley, musician and producer of Lydia Salett Dudley & Jazz Xpressions, wasn’t a jazz listener but was drawn in by the history of the music.

She said that to keep audiences engaged who aren’t familiar with the history, her band incorporates their own experiences into the performances to keep the music fresh. For Dudley, this comes in the form of gospel or R&B flairs.

First formed in Durham, ZOOCRÜ blends popular American genres — hip hop, rock, blues and gospel — into jazz to create Black American music, according to their website.

“Somebody told me that in art you learn the rules so you can break them, and I don’t think that we would have been able to gain this much notoriety locally if we didn’t have that mentality of just being fearless and wanting to learn,” Alan Thompson, saxophonist for ZOOCRÜ said

When they were first starting out, Thompson said the group was denied opportunities to play at venues throughout Durham. That opportunity finally came on Franklin Street, when they started to play in front of Cosmic Cantina every Friday night.

Thompson said that as jazz has become a fine art, the only way to get your foot in the door to become a musician is through college, which can limit opportunities for those who don’t pursue higher education. 

“I think that it’s great to pay homage to our past ancestors, but I think jazz culture has a way of putting more attention on the artists that are no longer here with us, rather than pouring into these new emerging artists and fighting for equity and things of that nature,” Thompson said.

@madisongagnon9

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@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com