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Musical treasures dating back to segregation are there to be discovered in the far-reaching comers of eastern North Carolina. The newly conceived African American Music Trail will help you remember them. By Karen A. Mann PHOTOGRAPHY BY JIMMY WILLIAMS

68 Our State June 201 0


he ranch home of Bill Myers, set in a quiet, tree-Iuled area of"VVilson, doesn't look like the sort of place you'd find some seliously funk'}' jazz. But walk through the back door and yOLl hear it illlmediately: ,1 loping pi~lllo line riding over a foundation of cymbals and snare. I'v'Iyers looks sideways frolll his place ,lt the keyboard and calls instTlIctions to drummer S,ll1l Lathan. The odler members of The Nlonitors, a long-standing v\Tilson jazz IXUld, haven't yet arrived tor their overdue practice session, so dle duo practices Dave Brubeck~'i iconic "'Elke Five" 011 dleir own. Even widl just NIyers and Lathan, it's cr<llllped UI this wood-p,lllcled room, which belonged to Myers!; son before he grew lip and moved out. The keyboard shares space \\~th book." p,lpers, and sheet lllusic. A second keyboard, a tllmclble, and speakers are all \\~thin easy reaching distance. On top of the tumclble is <I toy white gTand piano with two tiny snowmen on top. Lathan's chum kit is set up right in front of a sofa. vVhen guicu' phIyer GerJld Hunter gets here, he'U have to manellver over music stands, folding chairs, and homs to set up in his little spot over by the closet. "It's small, but we make it h,lppen," Myers says. Myers has been widl The Monitors for more dlaLl 50 yem"S. Odlers have come and gone - Roberta Flack, for instance, sang wim dle band in its early days. The walls of dlis little sp,lce <Ire covered with framed newspaper articles about the band, mld about NIyers himself. Myers, a keyboard player who tllms 78 dlis year, can stiU lay clown a fimky '70s /:,'Toove or pull out a rare hig band tune on request. He's a musical time machine, and he~~ just one of the many soulful voices and players with roots in this region who are beulg celebrated on eastem North Carolinas newly conceived AIi'ican AllleliL<lll Music lrail. "I w,mt it to remind people of the music, of dle history of dlC lllllsie and dle musicians who made dle lTlusic," be says of the trail. "I dlink thats one of its purposes. Tille, it's only going through a few counties right now, but there's a great deal of history there."

Moving to the music \Norking Ul conjwlction \\~dl the C01lllllunity Council f(x dle Arts in Kinston and a lllullber of sClte\~de organizations, dle North Carol.ina Arts COllncil developed dle premise for dle African Alllelican NI usic 'Ti'~lil snaking through eight eastem Nordl Carolina counties: Edg-ecoIllbe, Greene, Jones, Lenoir, Nash, Pitt, vVayne, and \Nilson. Like dle Blue Ridge and Smoky mountains, whose culture was bodl sh'lped and archived by bluegr,lss music, eastem North Carolul<J is a fertile swath that has been molded by its own TO Our State June 2010

distinctive musical heritage. Sparked by gospel rhythms heanl in cOlUltr)'side churches, and nurtured in front porch blue$ jams and tobacco field chants, dlat hericlge ul!1uenced a number of predollummdy African Amelican lllllsicians, from funk legcnds Maceo and Nfelvin Parker, who grew up in Kinston, to jazz great TheloI)ious Monk, who spent his early childhood in Rocky Mount. From the 1920s through the 1960s, dle area was a hotbed of Illusical acti\~ty. Minsu'el shows, travelulg musical valiety shows featuring Aliican Alllclican lllusici<Uls, influenced many, including iVIyers, who grew lip in C;reenville. "Pitch a Boogie \Voogie," u 1947 film produced in Greell\~lle, features m<U1Y of dle musicians of dle day. Nationally known musicians such <IS Cab CaJloway and Erskine Hawkins regularly played at massive dances in local tobacco warehouses. According to field research conducted by the arts center, in 1933, Kin5ton had a population of9,000, ,lIld, in dlat year, those 9,000 people bought 45,000 records. The Arts COlUlcil hopes to re~ve that passion. North Carolina Department of Transportation hmds \~Il help support interactive lciosks in the particip<ltlllg cities, maps, and a travel guidebook to assist ~sitors Ul findulg local musicians, venues, and other resources. "VVhile preserving a declining music mldition is the prunary purpose of the trail, illjeCtlllg economic Life into dle area is dle desired benefit. The Art'> Council hopes that word will spre~ld about dle u'ail and dlat travelers on their way to dle beach or north and SOUdl on Interstate 95 \~ll stop in towns like Kinston, Rocky Nrount, and 'ElI"boro to listen, leam, and spend. The reward jlL'>t nught be an econOllUC boost as well as a cultural one. vVayne Martin, N.C. Arts COlUlcil F01 kIi fe director and senior program director for COllllllunity Arts Development, clkes the idea a step furdler. "This lllay be a bold statement, but people will move to Kinston if we create a project dlat shines a light 011 dlese incrcdible cultural traditions."

"There is blues in Tarboro, jazz in Wilson, and funk in Kinston. Bn there IS gospel everywliere. "


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Black and white Maceo Parker walks into the Conullwlity Council for the Arts in Kinston, just slig'htly late for his 10 a.m. appointment, and tile thellllostat seems to dip a fe'w degTees. Except for a [11,lrOOn shirt and a sharp maroon striped tic, he's dressed almost exclusively in black, including a black leather jacket and bl<lck Ray-Ban sunglasses, which he won't take off. His cap advertises a show that he played with one of his idols, Ray Charles, years ago in Cologne, Germany. The IIlan who blew some of the hottest sax solos inJames Brown~~ musical canon, and whose name became a lyric in and of itself, epitomizes cooL Even someone who might not recognize him will know that he's probably not here to look at tile student art or join the noisy breakfast meeting going on upsclirs. Parker grew up in Kinston, and he remembers those warehouse shows, where as many as 5,(X)() people, segregateu by race, would pack a space that clays before might have been filled with bright leaf tobacco. Advertisements from the time mention "special seating for white patrons." Parker remembers seeing Ray Charles at one of tllose warehouse shows. "This is tile stage," he says, drJwing out an invisible box on the table with his finger. "But they had a rope, a big thick, like a rope 1i'0111 a ship or something, all the way to tile back. \ 'Vhite people on one side of the rope, black people on the otller side of the rope. A rope! "I remember I had this kind of tiling about the rope," Parker says, slapping his forehead. "It was kind oflike, you're hearing tile same IIlusic, you're reacting the same way, and to tile point you almost call't even see tile rope, but you know it's there. vVhite people on one side. Black people on the otiler." vVhile those touring shows inspired Parker and other local musicians, tile church provided the initial creative spark. There is blues in 'Tarboro, jazz in \Vilson, and funk ill Kinston. But there is gospel everywhere. Gospel sings, including dozens of area gTOUpS, occw- frequentiy in tiny Elr-flwlg communities such as Snow Hill and Trenton. Bishop Faircloth Bames of Dortches in Nash Cmmty has tow-ed the world in support of his smash gospel hit "Rough Side of tile Mountain." St. John AME Zion Church, Jack~on Chapel First Missionary Baptist Church, and CalvaIY Presbytelian Chw'ch, all near Pender Street in \Nilson, have become well known for their gospel choirs. "In the church, singing goes along with it," says Barnes. "Vim pick up a church progTam, you've got a song by the choir. Ie" difficult around here to have a service and don't have no singing at all. '[he people are looking for some singing somewhere in that service, even if it's a hmeral." Although he now lives and writes film scores in Los Ang-eles, composer ,md keyboard player Earl \i\looten retul11s to j\ilay~-ville several times a year. In August, he's planning to bring his choral gTOUp, Ebony Voices, for a pcrfonnance at tile Jones County Civic Center in Irenton. "Really if you think about eastcm North Carolina, especially Jones COWlt)', tilere really isn't a lot of social engagement," vVooten says. "vVhen I gTewllp tilere in the late '60s and '70s, ti1ere was notiling really for people to be engaged in other than tile church. On Sunday afternoons, tilere were gospel gTC>UpS tilat would go arOlmd Ii'mn chmch to church and give perfonnances. It was a really big tiling to have people get together and sing. And tilae, really what it was all about: to get together and sing and raise a little money."

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Experience the music along the African American Music Trail in eastern North Carolina.

Greene COWlty This rural county is home to several local gospel groups, many of which perform at the Greene County Museum. The county also plays host to entertainment at the North Carolina Sweet Potato Festival, scheduled for October 29 and 30.

Jones COWlty Like Greene, Jones County is rural and features a strong gospel community. Maysville native Earl Wooten, who works for Wells Fargo in Los Angeles and writes movie scores in his spare time, is scheduled to perform with his choral group, Ebony Voices, at the Jones County Civic Center in Trenton on August 14. PittCOWlty

The Pitt County Arts Council is working with East Carolina University to document the stories of musicians living in the area. The arts council is also interested in re-showing "Pitch a Boogie Woogie," a 1947 homegrown movie featuring many local African American musicians of the day.

Wayne COWlty The Arts Council of Wayne County will bring the Smithsonian Institution's New Harmonies exhibit, celebrating American Roots Music and offering communities a chance to celebrate their own music traditions. The exhibit runs from early August through mid-September; and will host a kick-off concert on August 7 with bluesman George Higgs of Tarboro and the Donald Thompson Band. Goldsboro also plays host to an annual jazz concert, Jazz on George, each April.

www.ourstate.com 73


Inspiring youth Kinston native Tra \,yiggins, who now heads the Jazz Studies program at North Carolina Central University, remembers playing in his brothers R& B group in the '70s and making a good living £l'om the various dubs in the area. "\iVe played in Rocky Mount, WIlsOll, aIJ the small towns, as well as Kinston, Goldsboro, \iVashington," he says. "There was a lot of work for live musicians at the time. I dlink that's one of the reasons we were inspired by a lot of the older' musicians that were passing the music along to the youl1g'er gener<ltion, and dlese people really play." But a series of events ;md cuJtural changes, including the demise of the tobacco indusny and even the advent of disco, helped decimate what was once a thriving musical circuit for Afi:ican-Arncrican musicians in the area. Wiggins remembers seeing gigs dry up as club owners decided to hire DJs, who came cheaper than a full band. "vVe were a pretty good group ;It the time," says \\!iggins. "We would play the sallle thing the DJ played, and everybody would sit there. As the DJ played the same tune, everybody would get lip and dance. It was a kind of dichotomy: The older generation didn't want to go out and hear records, and dle younger generation didn't want to go out and hear live music, so eventually J think a lot of the clubs died out because of lack of support." These days, the area's rich Afiic,m American musical history is a little more hidden. One of the goals among the tr<lil's organizers is to reaeh yOlmg people, many of whom have no clue about the rich music.11l heritage of their own hometowns. Parker, in particular, remembers working \-\ridl a group of students in Kinston. Afterward, one of dle organizers told him something he simply couldn't believe. "He said, 'Maceo, you're not going to believe this. One little black kid came up and said, 'T never knew black people played saxophone.' And he was sincere." "vVe want it also to inspire youth," S<lys Myers, ofThe NTonitors. "People still want to come up to us <lnd touch the hom, hit the drum, and stuff like dlat. I did that as ,1 child myself. And that's inspirational. 'Ifhe can do it ... then maybe Tcan do that.' " Tnspiration and motivation are abundant at the Community COlUlcil fin' dle Arts in Kinston. In a renovated historic grocery store across the street from boarded-np buildings and lots still empty after being devastated by Hunicane Floyd, dle arts cowlcil plays host to a youth jazz group on \iVednesdays, affording middle and high school srudents of all races dle opportunity to leam and play. In one recent youth group session, longtime Kinston High School band teacher Charles Richberg, seated in front of the students with an elecnie bass in his hmlds, calls out, "vVho wants to do a solo?" One boy with a trumpet spe'lks up. The others are shy. "Come on," says Riehberg. "This is what ja7.z is about!"

I-lis passion shines.

"There~~ so much pulling our young people away £lulll music itself and telling

them you have to be ready for the 21st century," says Richberg, who taught Nlaeeo Parker's children and often jams with musicians in dle area. "But nevertheless llm'iicians are still going to be here, no matter how advanced in technology we become. \ IVe're still going to neeclmusieians. "\Vill it ever come back? I'd lovc to see it come back, bot that's guing to be a long­ o<weled road and old diehards like me, Jra, Maceo, we still keep digging at it to I nake it happen. J don't think it would reach the mass of people like it did theil, but it \\riIJ be a part of this community."

A. JVlmm is {{free/flllfe 7lm'tcr b((ser! i17 Ra/<.'igiJ. Sbc 7IJritcs a/Ja{{t mm 171usic on bel' blag, "JVlm17l:1' HI&r/d." KtI1'er1

74 Our State June 2010



"Follow the Sound," article for Our State Magazine