In the early seventies, a small but dedicated faction at North Carolina Central University set out on a mission: to build a jazz studies program. By 1975, Gene Strassler, the chairman of the school's music department, had launched a small but intense curriculum led by acclaimed trumpeter Donald Byrd and saxophonist Stanley Baird. But one particular piece—a lone LP titled Super Trick, released in 1977 by a band called New Central Connection Unlimited—helped launch the program toward the national recognition it now enjoys.
The jazz program came to fruition through long-standing connections with Byrd, who was recruited as much for his star power as his expertise. Central's plan wasn't the country's first jazz-academia endeavor, but it was designed to fill a distinct void in music education.
"It was such a new program, we had to convince everybody that it was even worth having. But Dr. Strassler, myself, and Donald, we saw a need for it," Baird says.
Though he became a renowned saxophone player, Baird's major in college was the oboe. He knew he wouldn't be able to make money playing in a symphony with a saxophone, so he wanted to figure out another way to get his—and his peers'—skills as a musician taken seriously.
Strassler coaxed Byrd to Central from Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he taught music. There, Byrd led a group of student musicians called The Blackbyrds. The band's connection to Howard's music department was an attractive model for Baird, who encouraged Byrd to let him assemble a similar group at Central.
"I approached [Byrd] and asked him, If I could put a band together, would he coach us and promote us to do the same thing The Blackbyrds were doing at Howard?" Baird recalls. "He said, 'Well, if you know some guys that are willing to go to school—they've got to be students—then, yeah, I could help you do that.'"
Baird called upon three young musicians he'd known around Shelby and Asheville, enrolling them at Central and enlisting them for the band. That included Thomas "Bonnie" Clyde on alto sax and keys, Aaron Mills on bass, and Norris Duckett on guitar. Clifton Cotton, who came to the group separately, was its organist. And though N.C.C.U. was mostly a student ensemble, the band included faculty, too: Baird joined in on sax, and drummer Charlie Brown taught percussion in the program.
Byrd's music industry connections, bolstered by his commercial success as a solo performer and leading The Blackbyrds, helped him net N.C.C.U. a one-record deal with United Artists. After a year of rehearsals and multiple trips to Los Angeles to record the LP, N.C.C.U. released Super Trick in the summer of 1977.
Though it was the product of a jazz department, Super Trick is more of a jazz-funk fusion record than a straitlaced jazz album. The record's centerpiece, "Bull City Party," is still one of the best songs about Durham. It's a strutting number written by Baird, Byrd, and another collaborator named Brian Williams. Its chorus boasts an irresistible refrain of, "We're gonna have a Bull City party/While you watch your funky eagle fly," nodding to Central's avian mascot.
Three of Super Trick's six songs—"Hey Girl," "You & I," and its title track—were all written by some combination of the trio Baird had recruited from western North Carolina; when Clyde, Mills, and Duckett entered the program, they already had a wealth of material for a record. From top to bottom, though, Super Trick endures as a marvelous effort.
At the time of N.C.CU.'s greatest prominence, Ira Wiggins, who's served as the university's director of jazz studies since 1986, was a junior at Central. Though he wasn't in the band himself, he knew most of its members, and Baird was one of his professors.
"They were probably the best in the school at that time in the program," he remembers.
The band proved to be an effective showcase of N.C. Central's musical might, as well as a powerful recruiting tool as the band toured the United States. Eventually, Baird says, the little program in Durham began getting applications from aspiring students in Arizona, Canada, and beyond.
New Central Connection Unlimited continued to bear fruit beyond spotlighting Central's jazz department. For bassist Aaron Mills, his involvement with the band and the university was the linchpin in building a serious, lifelong career as a musician.
"It gave me wings to fly. It enabled me to be able to adapt to jazz as well as funk or R & B. I'm a funk player by nature, but it enabled me to be able to meet other musicians that play well," he says.
As the band wound down, Mills connected with another musician he'd met on tour who was also on the lookout for new projects.
That friend, Larry Blackmon, recruited Mills to play bass for Cameo—Mills played bass on the massive mid-eighties hits "Word Up!" and "Candy." Outkast tapped Mills for the seminal Stankonia and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below; his other credits include appearances on Cee-Lo Green... Is the Soul Machine and Gwen Stefani's Love. Angel. Music. Baby. Mills maintains that Central's jazz program taught him the flexibility he needed to survive as a professional musician.
"If you go out in the world, you don't know where you're going to make it. It might be jazz, it may be R & B, it may be country and western. But it prepares you," he says.
He's still close with Baird and another band member, Marion Wiggins, who played trumpet, flugelhorn, and an Oberheim synthesizer on Super Trick. Wiggins has remained an active participant in music himself, and he now runs Playground Studios in Durham.
Super Trick might not be a widely recognized jazz or funk LP, but it did fairly well at the time. The June 4, 1977, issue of Billboard featured Super Trick as a top soul album pick, and it eventually crept up to No. 18 on the chart, surprising almost everyone involved with the group.
These days, Super Trick isn't hard to find. Discogs lists several dozen copies available for less than ten bucks each, and dedicated local diggers may occasionally find copies at places like Carolina Soul and Bull City Records. But the promising outfit fizzled out within a year or two of the release of Super Trick. According to Mills, the dissolution was mostly caused by disagreements about business and the band's direction. But, as Ira Wiggins says, N.C. Central's jazz department still has a lot of love for New Central Connection Unlimited.
"We're standing on the shoulders of those musicians, and it's a pleasure to take it forward. It's an obligation," he says. "We take great pride in trying to build on something that was started, and trying to maintain it. It's really special."
In the forty years since Super Trick's release, N.C. Central's jazz department has become one of the college's crown jewels. It just needed those early funky eagles to fly out of the nest first.