Last month, Chapel Hill iconoclast Larry Thomas’s latest book, Carolina Shout! The Carolina Jazz Collection was published by United Brothers & Sisters Communications in Drewryville, Virginia. The 119-page volume highlights the nearly 100 jazz musicians who were either born in the Tar Heel state, or who arrived via marriage, ancestral roots, or to enroll in North Carolina Central University’s acclaimed jazz studies program.
The historian, jazz griot, radio announcer, and writer has been on roll in recent years.
His 2014 book, The Woman Who Shot Lee Morgan, is at the center of a widely acclaimed 2016 Netflix documentary, I Called Him Morgan, which traces the life of the fiery-hot young trumpeter through the memories of his common-law wife, Helen Morgan, who killed him. Other film documentarians have been drawn to Thomas’s literary work and finely honed sense of history. His 1993 book, The True Story Behind The Wilmington Ten, figures prominently in Triangle filmmaker Chris Everett’s Wilmington On Fire, which explores the racial massacre that engulfed the coastal city in 1898.
Thomas a native of Wilmington, also authored Rabbit! Rabbit! Rabbit!: A Fictional Account of The Wilmington Ten Incident In 1971, published in 2006.
Thomas’s considerable contributions to the jazz art form have not gone unnoticed.
His lecture, “The Carolina Jazz Connection with Larry Thomas,” has been widely presented since 2008. In 2014, he was named Jazz Hero by The Jazz Journalists Association and in 2016, received the Fifth Annual Donald Meade Legacy Jazz Griot Award at The Jazz Education Network (JEN) conference. He has been a participant in the Downbeat Magazine jazz critic poll since 2012. There is an abundance of North Carolina jazz material for his new book to explore.
Legendary pianist McCoy Tyner’s parents, Jarvis and Beatrice, were born in North Carolina. So were the parents of tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse who collaborated with bebop pioneer Thelonious Monk for about a decade. Composer, pianist, and big band leader Edwards Kennedy “Duke” Ellington cut his musical teeth in Washington, D.C., but his father hailed from Lincolnton.
The volume’s main focus is on what Thomas describes as “The Big Four” of the state’s jazz connection. Indeed, the musical masters cited by Thomas are the big four by whatever standard of measure in the world of music. Saxophonist John Coltrane was born in Hamlet and grew up in High Point, pianist and bebop architect Thelonious Sphere Monk was born in Rocky Mount, influential drummer Max Roach hailed from New Land, and the seminal vocalist and pianist Nina Simone grew up in Tryon.
Carolina Shout! points to the art form’s contributing elements, beginning with what Thomas describes as “American Apartheid,” with the legal sanctioning of segregation following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896. He also points to other conditions not always cited that helped to create jazz: the lynching of Black men, along with the migration of Blacks to the North and West to escape the oppressive South and to seek better economic opportunities; the Black church; and of course, the blues.
Thomas also notes the political shift that occurred in 1954, nearly 60 years after Plessy v Ferguson, when the nation’s high court outlawed segregation in public schools with the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision.
Thomas also chronicles unsung musicians like Raleigh bagpipe player Rufus Harley, Durham drummer Grady Tate, along with Triangle mainstays reedman Stanley Baird, who was born in Asheville, percussionist Beverly “Bongo” Botsford, from Charlotte, and Kinston’s influential educator and saxophonist Ira Wiggins.
The author also acknowledges musicians who have cast a bigger light across the jazz skies like Raleigh native Albert “Chip” Crawford, a pianist with Grammy-award winning vocalist Gregory Porter, Durham’s Grammy-nominated vocalist Nneena Freelon, vocalist Roberta Flack, who was born in Black Mountain, bassist Percy Heath from Wilmington, trumpeters Woody Shaw and Dizzy Gillespie who lived in Laurinburg, and saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who resides in Durham.
The volume also features the author’s riveting interview with Helen Morgan in February 1996, about a month before she died of heart problems in Wilmington. Helen Morgan, a native of Brunswick County, was charged with Lee Morgan’s death in 1972, served time in prison, and lived in New York before moving to Wilmington in 1978 to care for her ailing mother.
Carolina Shout! was born out of Thomas’s blog, Carolina Jazz Connection, and uses a radio interview format that relies on illuminating and thoughtful interviews with a wide range of experts, including the trumpet player and jazz historian, Larry Ridley, Nnenna Freelon, and T.J. Anderson, a retired Tufts University music professor who was a friend of Max Roach.
“He was more than an intellectual,” Ridley says of Coltrane in the volume. “He was a special, spiritual being. Thelonious was the same way. That’s why they meshed so much.”
Freelon, meanwhile, describes Nina Simone as “one of her inspirations” in Carolina Shout!.
There was, Freelon explains, “Diana Ross and The Supremes, there were other icons out there. But Nina stuck out because when she came to my consciousness she came rolling out with her hair in cornrows, looking like a queen and just saying that she wasn’t apologizing for who she was.”
The interviews in Carolina Shout! indicate that music from the Big Four is played throughout the commentaries. The musical selections will surely prompt some readers to pull up the music, online or otherwise, to accompany the reading of the slim volume.
There are other nice touches: Thomas kicks off each interview with the 1921 tune “Carolina Shout” by stride pianist James P. Johnson—give it a listen—and the volume is dedicated to the “Heath Brothers: Jimmy, Tootie and Percy,” along with Durham musicians Brother Yusuf Salim, Bus Brown, and, Thomas writes, “all the musicians who let me hang backstage, so I could laugh, cry and listen to the fascinating stories they told.”
Carolina Shout! is available for purchase online from the publisher or at downtown Durham’s Letters Bookshop. Pick it up.
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