Bill Myers, a retired educator and renowned musician in Wilson, remembers when the North Carolina Arts Council started working on a project to document the contributions of African American musicians in the eastern part of the state.
“I was interviewed, and then I gave them a few more names, and then those people would recommend others for folklorists to talk to, and it just went on and on,” recalled Myers, a saxophone player who leads the long-running rhythm-and-blues band The Monitors and is a recipient of a 2014 North Carolina Heritage Award.
Indeed, the wealth of musicians connected to the region surprised researchers, who ended up interviewing more than 90 musical artists who have contributed to a rich world of African American-created sound, including jazz, rhythm- and-blues, funk, blues, and gospel.
“It was eye opening just how many people were and still are out there making music — fabulous musicians and many not well known,” said folklorist Beverly Patterson, coauthor of the recently-released African American Music Trails of Eastern North Carolina (distributed by UNC Press for the N.C. Arts Council, $19.95).
The 218-page guidebook, which charts a cultural journey through eight counties, is the first publication to help travelers explore African American music in North Carolina. In the guide, readers meet past and present artists from Edgecombe, Greene, Jones, Lenoir, Nash, Pitt, Wayne and Wilson counties and learn about events, museums, and historical sites along the way. Included are more than 100 color photographs documenting eastern North Carolina’s musical heritage, along with a CD containing 17 recordings performed by some of the area’s outstanding artists. The book is part of the N. C. Arts Council’s cultural tourism program, which also included the release of Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina and Literary Trails of Eastern North Carolina, published in association with UNC Press earlier this year.
The region’s African American musical heritage has influenced many genres. Jazz musicians born in eastern North Carolina who went on to international fame include Thelonius Monk, who spent his early childhood in Rocky Mount, and Billy Taylor, whose family moved from Greenville to Washington, D.C., when he was five-years-old.
One standout town is Kinston, home to a handful of men who toured with James Brown, including funk masters Maceo and Melvin Parker. Maceo continues to tour internationally with his own band. Trumpeter Dick Knight, who also played with Brown and later with Maceo Parker, now performs with The Monitors. He credits Kinston musicians with taking Brown’s music to a higher level, giving it what he called “a Kinston sound.”
Kinston’s pipeline to hit makers isn’t well known today, but it once was a frequent stop of jazz and R&B artists, who would perform in the city’s large and centrally located tobacco warehouses. Myers remembers playing in tobacco warehouses in several towns throughout the region.
“There were no other venues for black bands,” he recalled. “Even then, they’d make the space totally segregated with a rope down the middle. Blacks were limited to their side, but whites were not. So if someone on the black side was doing a good jive dance, whites would say, I’m going over there to dance with them.”
Such stories captivated Wayne Martin, executive director of the N.C. Arts Council, as he read through transcripts of musicians’ interviews.
“I was fascinated by the way music became a window into a particular period of time in North Carolina, during an era of segregation and then into a new era. Music becomes a wonderful way to understand the story, and in some cases it breaks down segregation.”
Patterson noted that those personal insights compelled her to focus the book around the oral histories.
“You get a feeling of time and place, about how and where they grew up. They loved those places; you could feel that. And you could get a sense of how powerful the music was and how it came right out of the musician’s families and communities and churches.”
Across the region, religious services gave many musicians their first exposure to music in the community.
Myers, for instance, recalled the lively brass bands accompanying funeral processions, similar to the tradition in New Orleans.
“You’d go to the cemetery to bury the dead and on the way back there would be a parade. You could hear the music from blocks away and you’d just run to it.”
A popular route to church music was through singing.
Rocky Mount resident Luther Barnes continues to spread his ministry through song, following in the footsteps of his father, the gospel pioneer Bishop Faircloth “F.C.” Barnes.
“I was seven when I started to take music seriously,” said Barnes, who during his childhood accompanied his father to revivals across the state and to their own place of worship, Red Budd Holy Church.
Now, Barnes, a Grammy-nominated gospel artist, leads both the Sunset Jubilaires, a family-based quartet that has been performing for more than three decades, and the Red Budd Gospel Choir.
“There was a time when a lot of my friends in school thought I needed to go to New York or L.A. to get famous, but I got a lot of training here,” he said. “I taught at Northern Nash High and was able to make a living and do my music from North Carolina. I’m grateful to be a part of the legacy of the music that North Carolina has to offer.”
Gospel performances and other spiritual events are featured in many of the engaging documentary-style photographs in African American Music Trails, making these community traditions more accessible.
“One of the things I often photograph is spiritual ceremony, though it can be challenging,” said photographer Titus Brooks Heagins. “I think the reason I succeed at it is because I have a tremendous amount of respect for those occasions. I’m also very, very much into movement, and I think there’s this kind of rhythm that happens in ceremony. When there are spiritual connections, I sort of photograph to the rhythm.” Heagins, a Durham-based photographer, shot many of the photographs in the book, along with Cedric N. Chatterley.
While many of the musicians photographed and interviewed in the guidebook are musical veterans, one of the missions of the African American Music Trails and guidebook is to reach out to young people, both to expose them to their musical heritage and to inspire them to become the next generation of musicians.
For his part, when leading The Monitors, Myers shares stories with the audience about the origins of the songs they’re playing. Occasionally, he said, they’re hired to play at school proms, which initially doesn’t always go over well.
“Sometimes the kids see us and are ready to boycott the prom,” he said with a laugh. “They look at us and say, ‘we don’t want those old tunes.’ Then, after the first song, they’re saying, ‘hey, these old guys can play.’”
One innovative after-school school program in Kinston, made possible by a grant from the N.C. Arts Council, is a youth jazz group that gives middle- and high-school students the opportunity to learn, practice and play jazz.
“We’re seeing four years later that of the five or six graduating seniors each year, two or three go into music education college programs,” said Sandy Landis, executive director of Kinston Community Council for the Arts, which hosts the program.
Another notable educational outlet is the Jazz Studies Program at the East Carolina University School of Music in Greenville, which oversees the popular Billy Taylor Jazz Festival every spring.
“We try to make the festival a very varied experience for everyone by bringing in world-class jazz musicians and having them interact with students and communities,” said Carroll Dashiell, director and associate professor of music, who started the festival in 1989 and renamed it in 2003 to honor Taylor. Dashiell grew up next to Taylor’s mother in Washington, and the jazz great became a mentor to the budding bassist.
“When I approached him about naming the festival in his honor, he felt very honored,” Dashiell said. “It renewed his connection to North Carolina.”
Dashiell feels strongly that the African American Music Trails project and guidebook are essential to sharing the region’s musical heritage not only with visitors but with locals.
“It’s not just about educating the people who aren’t here, but also the people living here now need to know about and be proud of their heritage. It’s a lineage, and if we don’t carry it on, the lineage will be broken,” Dashiell said. “I hope the book will encourage locals to explore their culture and also give visitors destination points.”
Martin of the N.C. Arts Council shares a similar vision.
“My hope is that communities will build on this and take it and figure out ways to have locals and travelers embrace it,” he said.
Already, the African American Music Trails’ impact is being felt in the region. At the 2013 Jones County Heritage Festival, organizers asked Beverly Hines if she would stage a presentation to acknowledge the trail. Hines, who grew up in Trenton accompanying her father, a gospel singer, to shows around the region, now produces concerts featuring gospel quartets.
“For our hour onstage, we presented a traditional choir, praise dancer, jazz musician and a spoken word performance about the importance of music. Next year we hope to have more than an hour,” she said. “If it weren’t for the trail, we wouldn’t have had that opportunity. It opened up an avenue for our heritage.”
Kinston arts council director Landis was an early proponent for a music trail and for years has worked to give African American artists performance venues.
“We’re not just about telling the story from a historical perspective, but also looking at how we can influence the present-day quality of life, economic development and community relations through this art form.”
To that end, Kinston, the N.C. Arts Council and others have collaborated on the Kinston Music Park, a project that will anchor the African American Music Trail. Sited in a historically significant location, the four-acre park includes a bandstand and a public art installation that incorporates African American musicians’ images and words.
Guidebook coauthor Patterson said she is delighted to see venues and events grow from the trail, and hopes the guidebook not only continues those opportunities but also honors the musicians who shared their lives with readers.
“I hope the people whose material we’re using are going to feel well represented by this,” she said. “They’ve been so excited and very involved for several years now.”
For Myers, seeing the legacy of the music he grew up with shared with readers and travelers is rewarding.
“Now people will know the true history of what black people contributed,” he said. “Those of us still living can remember it, and the younger folks can learn more about it and hopefully want to add to it with the talent they bring.”
A companion website to the guidebook is underway. Find information about the project at http://ncarts.org/experience-the-arts/african-american-music-trail/
Books are available at bookstores throughout the Southeast or online through UNC Press.
To arrange interviews with authors of the guidebook or musicians or for photographs contact Rebecca Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org (919) 807-6530.