How N.C. Central's jazz program became a national leader | Music Feature | Indy Week
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How N.C. Central's jazz program became a national leader 

The big program

To call Ira Wiggins a big man isn't off the mark. Sure, there's his imposing physical presence when he takes the stage, and the big sound when he picks up his tenor sax. But there's a deeper truth, too, widely acknowledged by those familiar with the educator and his career.

Professor Ira Wiggins, director of the NCCU jazz studies program, working with students - PHOTO BY REX MILLER
  • Photo by Rex Miller
  • Professor Ira Wiggins, director of the NCCU jazz studies program, working with students

Under his unassuming guidance, the jazz studies program at North Carolina Central University has taken national shape, fulfilling much of the promise the program's founders dreamed about more than 30 years ago. It's a solid success story, and, like all such stories, it owes much to many people. But it owes mostly to its big talent and big heart. And those qualities can be traced directly to Wiggins, its current leader.

In 1972, Central's jazz program was at zero. Now, it claims nine professors, 45 student majors, a new building and artists-in-residence such as Branford Marsalis. Official measures come backed by solid details: The school band toured Europe in 1996 and 1999 and appeared at the Clinton White House in 1997. Dozens of alumni have gone on to perform on some of the world's top jazz stages. And now, as NCCU Chancellor James Ammons announced in February, every June starting this year, the school's new Jazz Research Institute will host a Jazz Summit in Durham.

In short, this is a big, big story.

The idea of a jazz studies program at Central took root in the early '70s. Music school chairman Gene Strassler invited trumpeter Donald Byrd to the school for a series of lectures and performances. Byrd, then teaching at Howard University, brought his famous friends: Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw and Joe Chambers. "The enthusiasm generated," says Strassler, "was remarkable."

The visits continued, sparking more interest, and a grant from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare jump-started an official curriculum in 1975. Byrd demurred at Strassler's offer to be a full-time professor, suggesting it go instead to Durham bandleader Stanley Baird. Byrd took a modest part-time position, but set forth a visionary goal.

Inspired by Byrd's tremendous crossover success with his band the Blackbyrds, Baird emphasized the performance aspect of the curriculum. Byrd's funk/jazz unit of Howard students recorded Blue Note Records' best-selling album ever, and the group was on constant rotation on jazz and progressive radio in the post-Woodstock, pre-disco era. Baird proposed a touring band for Central, and Strassler agreed: The New Central Connection Unlimited was born.

Success was almost immediate: On a subsequent tour, "N.C.C.U" stopped mid-chorus in the opening set at the Hollywood Paladium so that The Blackbyrds, headliners apparent, could come out and open for them. United Artists quickly issued their debut, Super Trick. When Baird left, the student group evolved into the 125th Street Band, which put out two records—one produced by Isaac Hayes for Elektra—and toured internationally.

Indeed, Central was quickly busy training jazz performers, and that's what would distinguish the program. It was a complete jazz education. Arranging, chart writing, commercial jingle work, scoring for film, music merchandising—it was all included, intended to lead to a "multi-faceted and 'wise' candidate for professional success," writes Strassler. The student was treated as an individual, allowing for mentorships and friendships to form. This is, after all, how the international jazz community sustains itself. But it didn't come easily at Central, or always graciously.

"When I started, I was buying music sheets out of my pocket; that's how bad it was," Baird remembers. "And when I was an undergrad student, you could not play [jazz] in the building. Hell, no! If you'd be in the practice room playing something like that, you'd be in trouble."

Baird was forced to major in oboe as an undergraduate, even though the saxophone powered his six albums: "It just wasn't an instrument they thought connected to academia. They didn't give it that kind of credit."

click to enlarge The New Central Connection Unlimited
  • The New Central Connection Unlimited

Then there was Byrd's crossover hipness and recording industry success, which didn't jibe with other area jazz currents. Legendary pianist Mary Lou Williams, then an artist-in-residence at Duke, didn't look favorably at the superstar gaining traction across town, and some straight-ahead fans questioned the Blackbyrds bona fides. Triangle jazzers of the day—much like the contemporary jazz community—had trouble agreeing to disagree. Byrd, some said, was "after the money."

True or not, fears arose that the goals of the program were in danger of being compromised.

Byrd seemed distracted by his own chart-busting success and began to appear on campus less frequently. Baird moved on to other projects. Between 1977 and 1986, the program changed direction, and directors, several times. Then, in 1986, Wiggins—a Kinston native and '77 Central grad—applied for a lecturer position. Pianist Chip Crawford, with his wife vocalist Eve Cornelius, a mainstay of the Triangle jazz scene for over two decades, was part of the auditioning board. Crawford was impressed with what he saw. He says he still is. Wiggins finally brought skills capable of taking the help he had (with help like department vocal specialist Arnold George's) and transforming the program.

Wiggins "took it to a whole 'nother level," Baird says.

When Wiggins was named jazz studies director at Central 20 years ago, he took over a program that was slowly improving and gave it a new, urgent energy. As some former students acknowledge, it was the sort of energy that changed lives. In his gravelly, jazz-inflected diction, Crawford put says it succinctly by phone from New York: "Does my man Wiggins get the credit? Yeah! He's created a legacy!"

What that legacy offers students is example, direction and improvement as jazz players. Just as Strassler predicted 30 years ago, one of the constants on the corner of Lawson and Fayetteville streets has been a dedication to performance.

"That experience at Central," remembers drummer Alvin Atkinson, speaking for many others, "led me to so many great musicians."

Atkinson met Houston Person on the sax star's 1993 visit to Central. He found Person when he arrived in New York years later, and, within a week, was at work on his first recording date. Work with Ellis and Wynton Marsalis followed. In the 12 years since graduation, Atkinson has completed several State Department tours, played The White House with singer Vanessa Rubin, taught at two universities, and headlined Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola at Lincoln Center with his own band, The Sound Merchants.

Atkinson isn't the older exception, either: Younger students and recent grads are holding their own across the country. Bassist Ameen Saleem met visiting drummer Winnard Harper while a Central student. He now records and tours with him, and his bio boasts a tour in Europe last year with singer Andy Bey, plus work with Ravi Coltrane, Nicholas Payton and Ronnie Laws. Drummer Iajhi Hampden, now transplanted to Los Angeles, has performed on MTV and NBC. Will Terrill drummed for Betty Carter for four years and maintains a busy New York schedule, while tenor Brian Horton, another Harper sideman, now teaches sax at his alma mater.

The key to this success, Atkinson believes, is an unequaled degree of preparation. "What I learned from Ira was you have to know your instrument. When you were playing with him, he was at a high level, which taught me to stay at a high level," he explains. "Look, I've traveled all over the country, seen most of the programs, North Texas State, Temple, all of them. Central's gives you a more applicable approach, and it's more personal, you get a lot more one-on-one time, to really help you develop. And there's a community in Durham, so you can jam and so forth. Some of these places ... can be so cutthroat that some of the students end up falling between the cracks."

Central's sytem pushes the willing and able straight onstage. Atkinson, Saleem and Hampden speak fondly of after-hours chances to play with Wiggins in local clubs like Raleigh's old Wicked Smile or Capper's. "It was almost a scary thing," Hampden said from Los Angeles, speaking of those venues. "Elmer Gibson was a regular, Wiggins, Chip, Yusuf [Salim]. It was, like, the stage, you know. And for the jazz community, it was."

Other Central names pop up in these grads' memories as important in this community, but Wiggins' name is the constant. Cornelius, who attended Central in the '90s to earn her master's degree after gaining early renown as a performer, saw her need for improvement, and found her right teacher, Wiggins.

"I'd got it, but it was ragged, you know?" she laughs. "By going to Central and beginning with the basics, I made sure I cleaned up all my stuff ... Ira was such a good teacher, I just wanted to go back and finish it."

What strikes others is the Wiggins' dedication. "The distance he's willing to go for just about anybody is pretty extraordinary," says drummer Russell Lacy during a practice break at Queens College, where he follows the post-grad tradition of other Central jazzers. "He's put his own career far behind the priority of the school. It was almost so much giving that, at times, I wished he would do a little more for himself. Dr. Wiggins is the backbone of the program."

click to enlarge The New Central Connection Unlimited's 1977 album, Super Trick
  • The New Central Connection Unlimited's 1977 album, Super Trick

Lenora Helm, co-director of the school's jazz vocal ensemble, is quick to confirm the attention Wiggins lavishes on his students. "I love it. He shows them what it means to have integrity with the work, what's expected of them, by example," she says by phone from Brooklyn. She flies into Durham every week to work in Wiggins' program. "He's an outstanding player and composer and arranger, but he doesn't run around trying to toot his own horn, passing out his own business cards. If you asked him, he'd probably tell you he left his business cards at home."

Wiggins, it seems, already has all of the work and respect he needs. "You know, everyone calls him Ira, but I call him 'Dr. Wiggins,' as a term of respect," says Helm. "He's earned it. And he deserves that everyone know about it."

This June, the Jazz Research Institute at Central will begin its work with an on-campus Summer Jazz Festival/HBCU Summit. Educators, administrators and artists from historically black colleges and universities across the country will gather to brainstorm on the future of jazz in academia. Work will begin on organizing a "performance" set of holdings, archives, old scores, critical articles and artifacts "so people can actually see that these were living artists, not just names in books," says Wiggins.

Under the direction of Larry Ridley—the head of the African American Jazz Caucus and the go-to bassist for a veritable who's who of the jazz world from the late '50s onward—it intends to serve to cement the importance and legitimacy of jazz as a proper subject for advanced studies. As Chancellor Ammons says by e-mail, the pride inherent in his school's role as the first in the UNC system to offer a bachelor's degree in jazz studies will shine brighter through this new effort to "maintain the integrity of a great art form."

"We have demonstrated through our participation in the AAJC All-Star Band," he adds, "that the university has one of the best programs this country has to offer." The International Association of Jazz Educators holds annual January conferences that regularly draw 8,000 guests and pack two large—usually Manhattan—hotels. The AAJC is one of its divisions.

For each of the six years the All-Star Band has played at the IAJE national conferences, Central students have constituted from a third to half of each band, surviving rigorous nationwide blind auditions to get there. More than Temple. More than North Texas State. More than any other school in the country. An academic scorecard to envy. And one delivered in an arena that, Ammons wrote, is now "an integral component of our ongoing history and the philosophy of our founder James Shepard, who pushed for excellence in education."

That's a far cry from the school where jazz once suffered scholarly scorn. There will be a performance angle to this year's summit and the institute. Expect a concluding festival, which, like this April's upcoming Grady Tate series—to feature both dynamic young vibraphonist Stefon Harris and the exquisite pianist Geri Allen—"should be a great weekend," according to Wiggins.

Another big performance. Another shot of Central's big band front and center. Another chance for the big man to call the counts and conduct his future pros. And, finally, no one to object to playing it in the building.

Programming performers

A survey of NCCU jazz grads and their work

Chip Crawford and Eve Cornelious: Chip MA, 1991; Eve MA, 1998. Eve's on tour of five Russian cities; she and Chip play one-week stand in Vilnius, Lithuania, March 10-16; they both headline at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola @ Lincoln Center March 27-31, followed by many other stateside shows and festival appearances, including Durham's Bimbe this May.

Stanley Baird: BA, 1972 , MA, 1976. Six albums, latest, Traffic Jam, came out on Saxony.

Alvin Atkinson: On tour in Middle East and Asia for U.S. State Dept. show, which he previewed at the Rhythm Road; American Music Abroad program at Lincoln Center in January; 2004 Jazz Ambassadors tour to Africa and Latin America sponsored by Kennedy Center; drum professorships at University of Manitoba and UNC-Wilmington; records on Wycliffe Gordon's In the Cross on Criss Cross label.

Ameen Saleem: Regular member of the Winard Harper Sextet; recorded on three Harper albums. Has toured Europe with singer Andy Bey and has performed with many other jazz stars.

Will Terrill: Played with vocalist Betty Carter in early '90s and plays frequently in New York; appears on vocalist Marcus Goldhaber's latest album, The Moment After.

Iajhi Hampden: Performed on MTV and NBC network shows, and currently works in Los Angeles.

Brian Horton: BA, 1997. Writes and performs extensively, teaches sax at Central. Recorded on three Winard Harper albums.

Jonavan Cooper: BA, 1998. Tenor saxophonist Played in U.S. Navy Band '98-'03, then played in funk band Right On. Head of Jazz Studies at South Carolina State University.

Jeremy Clemons: BA, 2000. He's played with singer Andy Bey, and plays around NYC performing/recording with tenor sax Stacy Dillard and others.

Other recent grads or current students who play locally: drummer Russell Lacy, saxophonist Brian Miller, trumpeters Leroy Barley & Al Strong, drummer Brean Hampden.

Vocalists to watch: Adia Ledbetter and Mavis Poole (both winners of Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program and Kennedy Center in '06 & '07 respectively).

More by Roy Pattishall

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