On the opening night of the annual Art of Cool Festival, a new exhibit opened at the Durham History Hub chronicling how deep the roots of jazz are in the Bull City.
“This is going to be a walk down memory lane,” said Elaine Crovitz, also known as “Mama Jazz,” who helped contribute to the exhibit.
“J Is for Jazz” is the latest in the Museum of Durham History’s A to Z series of citizen-curated exhibits. It includes photos and brief biographies of the many musicians who have made Durham a center for the music.
The history goes back at least to 1935, when Duke Ellington, who was visiting N.C. Mutual Life Insurance, wrote the song “In a Sentimental Mood” to sooth a rivalry between two women.
“J Is for Jazz” also has brief biographies of the people who made Durham’s jazz scene — Yusuf Salim, Bus Brown, Mary Lou Williams, Paul Jeffrey, Grady Tate, Ira Wiggins, John Brown, Jim Ketch — and the generations that were inspired by them — Nnenna Freelon, Lois Deloatch, Branford Marsalis, and students who have graduated from the jazz studies programs at North Carolina Central University, Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill.
The exhibit opener coincided with the first night of the Art of Cool Festival (whose parent organization Art of Cool Project was one of the sponsors). As visitors walked through the exhibit, an ensemble led by Wiggins on tenor saxophone, Brown on bass, Orlandus Perry on drums and Riley Mangan on piano performed outside the hub. Wiggins and Brown, respectively, direct the jazz programs at North Carolina Central University and Duke University.
Sharon Coor Barry and Sonya Laney were co-curators of the exhibit. In opening remarks, Barry recalled going to hear jazz at a venue called Labor of Love. “This has been my labor of love,” Barry said. “This has been a very, very, very important day.”
Laney, a graduate student in museum studies at UNC-Greensboro, has been working on the exhibit for a year as part of her master’s degree requirements. When her professor suggested the project to her, she gladly volunteered. “I get to listen to good music for a year and call it research,” Laney said.
The first step in building the exhibit was a listening session held in August, in which residents shared stories, Laney said. At first, Laney was nervous that she would not have enough resources, but Durham residents were generous with their archives and materials. “We were swimming in things. There was no lack of sources,” Laney said.
In addition to the explanatory panels, this exhibit also has music samples from different musicians. A video has interviews with Salim, Marsalis, Deloatch, and a 1980 film of Mary Lou Williams playing solo blues on piano. The film chronicles Salim’s strong influence on the scene dating back to the 1970s, when he came to Durham and started playing music at the now defunct Salaam Cultural Center. Salim went on to hold weekly gigs in which anyone could sit in with the band.
The opening was also a night of reminiscence, and looking ahead. Crovitz, who attended the first reminiscing session, said Salim, known as Brother Yusuf, gave her the name “Mama Jazz,” because “he could never spell Crovitz,” she said.
Paul Piersma has lived in Durham since 1994, and often attends concerts that the university programs produce. “I particularly like Ira Wiggins and John Brown. They’re superb players,” Piersma said. He “really enjoyed [Paul] Jeffrey’s concerts at Duke,” and is a big fan of NCCU’s program. “I did not know there was such a rich history in Durham with jazz,” said Jovanna Foreman. Foreman, who is children’s librarian at Stanford Warren Library, said the exhibit also “brings back childhood memories because my dad was into jazz.”
Benjamin Reese Jr., who is a vice president at Duke University and was one of the early board members of the Art of Cool Festival, puts on an annual musical event with Brown in observance of Martin Luther King Day. He has listened to a lot of jazz locally and worldwide and thinks the music is becoming more visible in Durham.
One factor is the new venues, like Beyu Caffe, which Reese called “the centerpiece for jazz.” He also cited the jazz programs at NCCU, Duke and UNC as strong influences.
“I think these great programs and the venues we have are contributing to the richness of the genre,” Reese said.
Saturday, April 29, Art of Cool performances
More information at aocfestival.org
7 p.m. Laurin Talese
9 p.m. De'Sean Jones
11 p.m. Jazz Jam with Will Darity
6:30 p.m. Terrace Martin and the Polly Seeds
7:45 p.m. George Clinton
Durham Performing Arts Center:
8:15 p.m. Rapsody, Special Guest before Common
9 p.m. Rev. WIlliam Barber on HB2
9:15 p.m. Common
9 p.m. DJ Double J
11 p.m. DJ Wade Banner
11:30 p.m. Just Blaze
Lucky Strike Water Tower at American Tobacco:
12 p.m. stArt of Cool
2:30 p.m. Jus Once Band
Motorco Music Hall:
5:30 p.m. Niya Wells
6 p.m. N'Kogniito
7 p.m. Rkhty
7:30 p.m. R.LUM.R
8:30 p.m. NAO
11 p.m. RC and the Gritz
12:30 a.m. Kenneth Whalum III
5:00 p.m. DJ RNB
5:30 p.m. Shame
6 p.m. Danny Blaze
7 p.m. Ace Henderson
9 p.m. Butcher Brown
10:30 p.m. Braxton Cook
11:55 p.m. Shaun Martin
1 a.m. Sputnik
PSI Theatre at Durham Arts Council:
5 p.m. Phil Cook with Tamisha Waden and Shirlette Ammons
6:30 p.m. The Baylor Project
8 p.m. Soul Understated with Mavis "Swan" Poole