As part of their work assembling the Museum of Durham History's new Durham A-Z: J Is for Jazz exhibit, cocurators Sharon Coor Barry and Sonya Laney held a community-focused "reminiscing session" to suss out the most fertile years of Durham's half-century history of jazz. Saxophonist Ira T. Wiggins, North Carolina Central University's longtime director of jazz studies, piped up with an unexpected response: "Right now."
The revelation doesn't undermine the bustling era in, say, the early seventies, when legendary jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd arrived at N.C. Central University for a teaching position, effectively transforming the school's jazz curriculum to produce crossover jazz-funk acts like the New Central Connection Unlimited (N.C.C.U) and 125th Street Band. Nor does it devalue the contributions of Durham-based jazz anchors such as Stanley Baird, Chip Crawford, Eve Cornelious, Nnenna Freelon, Branford Marsalis, and the late composer Yusuf Salim, to name a few.
But during Jazz Appreciation Month and the hippest, most innovative jazz-based festival in the country, the J Is for Jazz exhibit will acknowledge that same "right now" notion by publicly documenting the culmination of years of local jazz brilliance, from the Byrd era through what some might call the Art of Cool era—both of which can be linked directly to NCCU's jazz program.
"We're going to tell the story of that relationship between the universities and the community," says Barry. "We're going to tell how the city has nurtured jazz students and where some of them are today."
The multimedia exhibit will take up a modest two walls inside downtown's Durham History Hub and feature a rarely shown documentary about Yusuf Salim. It will function as somewhat of a generational and cultural reconciliation of the art form, much like how the Art of Cool Festival has aimed to merge traditional jazz heads with new-school fusion fans. But you might not even have to look any further than the exhibit's curators to find what Barry calls the "unifying force" of jazz. Separated by forty years in age, Barry and Laney came to the project from opposite backgrounds. Barry, who's in her sixties, grew up in Harlem listening to jazz; her close cousin Curtis Fowlkes is an accomplished trombonist. The twenty-five-year-old Laney, on the other hand, had practically no past relationship with the genre until she volunteered to cocurate the exhibit as her capstone project in UNC-Greensboro's Masters of Arts in Museum Studies and Public History program. Laney's initial research immediately lit her intrigue of, as she puts it, "how the Durham community rallied around these academic programs to create a city-wide atmosphere that was really responsive to jazz."
That community rallying continues as the Art of Cool Festival celebrates its fourth year downtown, with J Is for Jazz acting as the official kickoff event.
"The legacy of jazz is a continuum," says Barry. "I do believe that jazz holds a particularly interesting hold on people."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Shape of Jazz in Durham."