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Joe Chambers and N.C. Central Jazz

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Joe Chambers and the N.C. Central Big Band and Vocal Ensemble
B.N. Duke Auditorium, NCCU Campus, Durham
Friday, Nov. 17, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $10, $5 students
Info: 530-7170

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When Joe Chambers walks on stage for N.C. Central's Fall Concert series this Friday, the trailblazing drummer will notch another scheduling coup for the program. Chambers is noted for his inventive work on some of the seminal jazz releases from Blue Note's 1960s catalog (including Wayne Shorter's classic Adam's Apple). And, as New York-based Central alumnus and teacher Chip Crawford points out, not only does Chambers's renown with the sticks place him in the lofty company of Jack DeJohnette and Elvin Jones, but his scholarly and compositional background and his piano and vibe work bring together the total package. "He's the perfect artist for that school," Crawford enthuses.

Chambers will be adding his impeccable bona fides to a list of living jazz legends who've already crossed that threshold on the Central stage every fall since 2000. Those footsteps have echoed with class: Frank Foster, Jimmy Heath, Fred Wesley. Some shows have pressed the seating capacity, but not the excellent acoustics, of the venerable B.N. Duke Auditorium.

"It was time for a percussionist," says jazz studies director Ira Wiggins in his typical understatement. If it's time for anything, though, it is time to admit that one of the top hands-on training grounds in the country for jazz is in Durham. It's not a mere "arrival," either. This here is legacy stuff.

But it didn't happen by coincidence. Credit for marshalling top educators with an inside track to the best stuff is widely ascribed to the self-effacing but phenomenally dedicated Wiggins, who next year begins his third decade of jazz leadership at NCCU. While other Triangle academic heavyweights are no slouches when it comes to jazz, this is a program apart for its ability to invest quality mentor-to-student time with true greats. Branford Marsalis' recent involvement with the program has gathered attention, and singer Nnenna Freelon has lent her hand. These local celebrities certainly add luster, and Central's longer-running spring concerts bring along the guest performers' bands. But the autumn series, especially, allows students to sit beside the masters.

"The students get to perform more with the artists in the fall," Wiggins notes. "And the rehearsals can even be more fun than the performance." Wiggins is alluding to the sometimes mirthful trial-and-error nature of the process. In these rehearsals, youthful cockiness mellows quickly into deeper knowledge. High standards on both ends are an accepted part of the mix: Wiggins held personal conferences with Chambers to go over the charts of his compositions and arrangement, as long ago as August.

"They treat the students like professionals," Wiggins says of guest artists like Chambers. "There's a sort of responsibility we take on here of being sure that the students don't take it lightly."

The result? Students who turn professionals.

Central's alumni tell a loud story on both the discography and performance meters. Drummer Alvin Atkinson's long resumé features work at Lincoln Center, State Department tours abroad, appearances and recordings with Julliard faculty member and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, and a sparkling academic career. Pianist Chip Crawford and his wife, singer Eve Cornelious, continue to mine the upper veins of the medium, both in the city and abroad: Crawford has been swinging Latin this past October at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola, and Cornelious is currently touring the Baltic states.

Later generations are also not faring too badly, either. Bassist Ameen Saleem and saxman Brian Horton perform and record regularly in drummer Winard Harper's band. Will Terrill, Betty Carter's drummer in the early '90s, performs with Freelon and just played with newcomer vocalist Marcus Goldhaber in New York. Jeremy Clemons, Jonovan Cooper, Adia Ledbetter, Iajhi Hampden, Harold Green, Brian Miller—the list of major student talents turned jazz pros, as they say, goes on.

It all starts with initial recognition. It continues by working with the greats. Chambers and both Central's Big Band and Vocal Ensemble promise a glimpse into the cycle on the Triangle's own premiere stage for jazz greatness. The one on the corner of Lawson and Fayetteville. The one in Durham.

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