Durham a-z J is for Jazz

Above: The Christian Scott Quartet performs at Beyu Caffe. Courtesy of Dorian Bolden.


The partnerships between local institutions, North Carolina Central University (NCCU) and Duke University, combined with an eager community, have created a historically nourishing musical atmosphere in Durham. Durham has contributed hundreds of talented musicians to the jazz world and shows no sign of stopping any time soon.


Jazz is a musical style with origins in blues and swing music, often characterized by syncopated rhythms, improvisation, call-and-response vocals, and bass instruments. Emerging from African-American cultural traditions, jazz is one of America's original art forms.

Durham is no stranger to jazz. According to local legend, Duke Ellington penned "In a Sentimental Mood" at a North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company party in 1935. Ellington recalled that a friend had trouble with two women at the party. To calm them, he composed the song right then and there. While other jazz greats such as Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and others continued to play stages and clubs in Durham, a much bigger musical story began to unfold in the 1960s.

Background: The NCCU Big Bands, under the direction of Dr. Ira Wiggins, have earned top honors at numerous American and international festivals and have twice performed at the White House. Courtesy of Lenora Helm Hammonds.


Starting in 1967, Gene Strassler, chairman of North Carolina Central University’s (NCCU) Music Department, asked famed trumpeter Donald Byrd to conduct a series of jazz lectures for students in Durham. Byrd continued his lecture series for four years. Despite some resistance from classical music faculty, Byrd and Strassler, along with Durham bandleader Stanley Baird, paved the way for NCCU to offer the first Bachelor of Music degree in Jazz Studies in the state, in 1977. The program now includes a comprehensive vocal jazz component and a Master of Music in Jazz Studies. Program alum Dr. Ira Wiggins, named program director in 1986 has molded hundreds of talented jazz musicians. Stanley Baird says that Wiggins took the jazz studies program at NCCU “to a whole ‘nother level.”

Background: Dr. Ira Wiggins instructing students. Courtesy of Rex Miller, Indy Weekly.


LEFT: Paul Jeffery, Director of Jazz Studies at Duke. Courtesy of the Paul Jeffrey Collection, Duke University Libraries RIGHT: Jim Ketch, UNC-Chapel Hill Music Professor. Courtesy of Dan Sears, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Paul Jeffrey, a saxophonist with Thelonious Monk, was named Duke’s Director of Jazz Studies in 1981. The program at Duke is now led by bassist Dr. John Brown.

In 1993, UNC-Chapel Hill Music Professor Jim Ketch founded the North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra. The ensemble is made up of professional musicians and educators to present workshops, programs, and performances. In the early 2000s, John Brown, Ira Wiggins, and Jim Ketch began an annual Valentine’s Day Jazz Concert. The concert venue shifts each year to a different campus and allows students the opportunity to network with their peers.



With renowned talent in Durham, the city has enjoyed a unique position in the jazz world. Famous pianist Mary Lou Williams joined the faculty at Duke in 1977 as an artist-in-residence for the newly established jazz studies program. Williams rigorously pushed students on campus and taught them the fundamentals of jazz composition and performance. One former student of Mary Lou Williams said “Mary Lou kicked our butts.”

Lenora Helm Hammonds, director of the NCCU Vocal Jazz Ensemble, said the deciding factor for making Durham home was "the openness and commitment of the city and its social influencers to create a place where jazz could thrive and become essential to the everyday culture."

NCCU Vocal Jazz Ensemble. Courtesy of NCCU.EDU

Background: Mary Lou Williams instructing students. Courtesy of the Linda Dahl Collection on Mary Lou Williams, Duke University Libraries.

Current NCCU artists-in-residence, saxophonist Branford Marsalis and pianist Joey Calderazzo, made the move from New York City because Durham is a “very vibrant, cultural town.”

Following the advice of her grandmother to “bloom where you are planted", Nnenna Freelon, a Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist, has made Durham her home for over thirty years. Freelon has toured with many of the greatest jazz artists, including Ray Charles, Ellis Marsalis, and Al Jarreau. New and exciting talent, such as the band ZooCrü, are launching their careers in Durham and committed to the city as home.

Grammy-nominated vocalist Nnenna Freelon performs at the Carolina Theatre with Dr. John Brown, Director of Jazz Studies at Duke University. Courtesy of Josh Hofer.

Background: Branford Marsalis playing saxophone. Courtesy of Branford Marsalis.


Performance opportunities in the community expanded the knowledge that students learned beyond the classroom. The partnerships between university programs, jazz students, and an eager community have created a nourishing musical atmosphere.

Yusuf Salim, a jazz pianist from Baltimore, moved to Durham with friend and musician Bus Brown in 1974. Salim was described as a living link to the modern jazz world in Durham. Salim was an avid supporter of the arts and excited to share his musical knowledge. He welcomed local students to his jazz club, the Salaam Cultural Center, to perform in front of diverse audiences. When asked why Salim chose Durham as home, he responded "I didn't choose Durham. Durham chose me."

Bus Brown, jazz musician and friend of Yusuf Salim. A native of Baltimore, Bus performed with jazz greats such as Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday. Courtesy of Jeff Ensminger.

Salim, best known around town as “Brother Yusuf” was a mentor to hundreds of young jazz musicians. Adia Ledbetter, vocalist and daughter of bassist Freeman Ledbetter, said Salim influenced her to keep jazz alive. Brother Yusuf gave music students a gentle and encouraging push to perform. To this day, Brother Yusuf is synonymous with Durham jazz.

Yusuf Salim (center) at a gig. Courtesy of Jeff Ensminger.

Left: Yusuf Salim with Durham bassist Freeman Ledbetter (right). Salim was a mentor to many young jazz musicians in Durham. One of Salim's students said, "After rehearsing with Brother Yusuf, I left the room feeling 10 feet tall." Courtesy of Steve Bromberg.


Jazz clubs all over Durham provided students with valuable opportunities for public performances. Local student musicians had followings in the community and played at such venues as The Know Bookstore (2520 Fayetteville Street), Broad Street Café (1116 Broad Street), and Anotherthyme (109 North Gregson Street). Jazz still vibrates throughout Durham at dozens of venues. Today, Sharp 9 Gallery (4608 Industry Lane), The Shed (807 East Main Street), Beyu Caffe (341 West Main Street), and other venues offer jazz performances weekly.




The jazz studies programs at Duke University and North Carolina Central University and the local community provided students with the academic and professional resources to become career jazz musicians. Marcus Anderson, an NCCU alum, was a saxophonist for Prince. Albert “Chip” Crawford and Jahmal Nichols, both NCCU alums, perform with vocalist Gregory Porter. Another NCCU alum, Nat Jones, was the band leader for funk legend James Brown for several years. Lois Deloatch, a talented vocal artist, is a UNC-Chapel Hill alum. The alliances between university programs and the Durham community created a nurturing atmosphere for jazz that continues today.

Most recently, Durham-based trumpeter Al Strong, a founder of the Art of Cool Festival, launched the StArt of Cool, a weeklong music experience geared toward young jazz musicians. Art of Cool seeks to present the best music in the Triangle while also building and expanding on a culture of jazz. Durham jazz is not merely a story of the past. It is a combination of past, present, and future musicians and connections that will continue to evolve as time goes on.


Background: Duke jazz students, under the leadership of Paul Jeffrey, perform in Italy at the Umbria Jazz Festival. Courtesy of the Paul Jeffrey Collection, Duke University Libraries.

Durham A-Z: J is for Jazz was originally on display at the Museum of Durham History in 2017.

This digital exhibit was created by Amani White in July 2023.