Brian Horton looked like a jazzman.
He cradled the tenor saxophone like it was a lover, closed his eyes to press the keys and caress it. Horton was a consummate reedman who gave it his all, always intent on blowing breaths of love and life, heaven, and hell, into his instrument.
For the past three years on Tuesday nights, Horton, tenor saxophonist, composer, and newly named director of jazz studies at NC Central University, led a trio of musicians—horn, upright bass, and drums—at Kingfisher bar in downtown Durham.
On September 14, two days after missing that weekly gig, officers with the NCCU Police Department found Horton dead inside his Durham home.
He was 46, six days shy of his next birthday.
Last Tuesday night, on September 20, Horton would have been performing at Kingfisher.
Instead, Horton’s fellow musicians, students, university peers, and everyone else who loved the man and his music gathered at the NorthStar Church of the Arts in Durham to honor and celebrate his brief, albeit impressive, legacy.
Lenora Helm Hammonds, NCCU’s interim department chair and director of graduate programs, jazz, and music, said school officials called the Durham police and asked for a wellness check at Horton’s home after he did not show up to teach his classes on Wednesday, September 14. No one answered the door at Horton’s home when the police arrived.
The next day, university officials filed a missing person report and campus police went to his home and discovered his body. The officers notified Durham police.
Although Horton’s cause of death has not been made public, Hammonds said NCCU police reported no signs of foul play.
“He didn’t look harmed,” she says. Hammonds adds that social media has been buzzing with folks “demanding answers” to the unexplained questions about his death.
“That’s all we know,” she says. “I promise you, that’s all there is to it. We’re not hiding anything.”
Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon, who cofounded the NorthStar Church with her husband, the legendary architect Phil Freelon, months before Phil died in 2019, was among members of the city’s jazz community who gathered at the sanctuary last week to honor Horton. Freelon sang a song that Horton wrote for her.
“Brother Horton,” she said, “I think he thought he had some more tomorrows. I thought he had some more tomorrows. But with this thing we call life, we don’t come here to stay. So he has given his tomorrows to us.”
Horton was ever the teacher, even on the bandstand.
Kinston native and NCCU-trained alto saxophonist Eric Xavier Dawson told the INDY he sat in with Horton at Kingfisher about three weeks before he died.
Dawson floundered on the bandstand that night.
“I ain’t really been playing that much,” Dawson told the INDY. “Brian dropped a jewel on me. He called me and told me I needed to take that ass-whupping and go home and come back next week, and not talk about it. He lit a fire under me.”
Another Kinston native, Brian Miller, who is also an NCCU-trained alto saxophonist, had also recently shared the bandstand with Horton at Kingfisher.
“We played,” Miller told the INDY last week. “I mean we played. Anytime me and Brian got together there was a mutual respect and love for one another. Brian would keep you on top of your game.”
“It’s tough to talk about because Brian would keep you honest,” Miller added, a sob catching in his throat. “Brian wouldn’t let you fake it. It was genuine. He wasn’t doing this because he was trying to show you up. He wanted you to be at your best.”
Johnathan Brian Horton was born September 20, 1975, in Kinston, a little over 100 miles east of Durham. He was the younger of two children, and both his parents and older sister are deceased.
During a professional career that spanned more than two decades, he toured and recorded as a bandleader, sideman, and arranger, playing alongside jazz greats like Dr. Billy Taylor, Betty Carter, Clark Terry, and Sir Roland Hanna. He recently composed work for Delfeayo Marsalis, and Ellis Marsalis. Horton’s discography includes the albums Brand New Day, the live album Obsidian, Walking Tall, and New Morning Lullabies, a series of duets with pianist Kevin Sholar.
Ira Wiggins, Horton’s mentor, said he had a “melodic, soulful” playing style, “with an element of the blues.”
“His playing reflected his writing and arranging,” Wiggins adds. “Great phrases and a great tone.”
Horton’s obituary announcement by R. Swinford Funeral Service in Kinston posted his day of death as Wednesday, September 14. But it’s likely the beloved musician died the day before.
Celebrations honoring John Coltrane’s birthday on September 23 notwithstanding, it’s been a tough month for the jazz community. Days after Horton’s death, Pharoah Sanders, whose tenor saxophone was described as “a force of nature,” by The New York Times, died. He was 81.
Horton was part of a Kinston musical legacy of producing outstanding saxophonists who continue their studies at NCCU, including Nat Jones, an alto saxophonist who graduated with honors. Jones joined James Brown’s band in 1964. Two years later he played the now iconic sax solo on “I Got You (I Feel Good),” according to the African American Music Trails in North Carolina.
Another Kinston horn player, Maceo Parker, went on to greater acclaim with Brown’s band, The Famous Flames, but folks around Kinston say Jones was the saxophonist. Jones’s enrollment in NCCU’s music program was followed by that of a host of Kinston-bred horn players, including Ira Wiggins.
Before Horton’s mother died his senior year of college, Wiggins said she gave him a call.
“She called and asked, ‘Is Brian graduating?’” Wiggins says. “I told her, ‘Yeah. He’s graduating with honors.’ I know she would be so proud of him. I couldn’t be more proud of him.”
The Kinston saxophone legacy at NCCU was burnished this fall when Horton replaced Wiggins as the school’s jazz studies director following his retirement in 2021.
Wiggins told the INDY that Horton’s talents reminded him of what someone once said about the great jazz trumpet player Louis Armstrong: “He was a genius in spite of himself,” a saying implying that one of the most influential jazz musicians ever born “didn’t know what he was doing.”
“Brian was similar in that way,” says Wiggins, who adds that his former student’s biggest musical influences were Dexter Gordon and Joe Henderson. “He had a lot of the basic skills, and he worked at it. He was a great writer and arranger, as well as a great player. It’s just a tragic loss for NCCU, the community, and the world community.”
”Brian was a great performer and great arranger beyond his years,” says Miller, who earned an undergraduate degree in music performance and a master’s in jazz studies from NCCU. “That’s why everybody was so excited about him being the director. Brian was a special guy. When the announcement was posted everyone was excited, like ‘Oh my god, it’s getting ready to be bananas.’”
Here in the Bull City, Horton—along with NCCU jazz studies faculty member Al Strong, who was a cofounder of the Art of Cool Project that later became the Art of the Cool Festival—was on the leading edge of musicians who brought virtuoso jazz to the masses in the revitalized downtown district at places like Kingfisher and the old Whiskey bar.
“He only played there one night a week, and the INDY [readers] named it the best jazz venue in the Triangle,” Scott Heath, Horton’s best friend of more than forty years, says about Horton’s memorable Thursday night stands at Whiskey. “And it wasn’t even a jazz club. Brian was like, ‘I’ll turn y’all into a jazz club. Bring your girl, and I’ll make y’all fall in love.’”
Wiggins says months before Horton was named NCCU’s director of jazz studies, he had already taken over the position’s duties. He conducted the university’s jazz ensemble and taught jazz arranging and saxophone. This year, the ensemble was one of the top three winners of the Jack Rudin Championship at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York.
Miller says he was a freshman at Kinston High School during Horton’s senior year in high school but had heard about him years before starting high school.
“My brother was a junior at Kinston High School when he came home one day talking about this young brother playing the sax who had just got into the [school’s] jazz band,” Miller said. “He was a freshman and he had come in as a soloist. That’s saying something.”
After graduating from high school, Horton received an undergraduate degree in music from NCCU in 1997, and a master of arts degree in jazz studies from the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College in New York in 1999.
In 2013, he enrolled at the University of North Texas and earned a doctor of music degree.
After graduating from NCCU, Wiggins says, Horton considered enrolling at Howard University, but his mentor encouraged him to attend Queens College, where the great saxophonist Jimmy Heath, who died in 2020, had founded a master’s program in jazz studies a decade before.
“Jimmy called me and told me, ‘Yeah, we gone to take him,’” Wiggins says. Before Brian graduated, Jimmy called and told him, “Brian did a great job, and he’s graduating.”
Miller says while growing up in Kinston, everyone called Horton “8-Ball.”
“Brian was cool,” Miller says. “He was very quiet and kept to himself unless he already knew you. The music was another matter. He was a beast who made you play or get off the bandstand.”
Miller says Horton became even more deliberative and quiet during college when his older sister and mother died within days of one another.
“That would have been enough to take a lot of people out, and after that, for a period Brian grew dark, even to those who know him,” Miller says. “Years later, he lost his dad. So it was just him and had been for a good part of his life. But Brian never gave up on his craft.”
Heath, Horton’s lifelong pal, echoed Miller’s observation.
“He was a person who had seen a lot of loss in his life,” Heath says. “I know he’s seen a lot of people come and leave abruptly. He was very guarded with his heart, and at the same time he was extremely giving,”
Heath described his best friend as “an amazing storyteller.”
“He had this thing that he would say if someone told him the story wasn’t true,” Heath says. “He would say, ‘It doesn’t matter if it’s true. It’s a story. Did you like the story?’ And when you think about it, that’s what jazz is. Is it true? It doesn’t matter if it sounds good. He was a good embellisher. The point was just to laugh.”
Horton had other opportunities to teach elsewhere, Wiggins says, but was set on being at NCCU. At the time of his death, he was working on a musical score for a documentary about the late, legendary Durham pianist Yusuf Salim.
Miller says after Horton was named NCCU’s new jazz studies director, everyone he spoke with, including Wiggins, believed the program was going to be in good hands for the next 15 years.
“Everyone felt like he was going to take the program through another major turn,” Wiggins says.
“Little did we know it would be over in the next 15 days,” Miller adds, a sob catching in his throat. “You don’t question God’s word. I’m thankful for the times with him on the bandstand and on the phone—‘Hey Miller!’ ‘Hey, 8-Ball!’”
“Brian used to say, ‘Don’t withhold the love, man. If you love someone let them know,’” Scott Heath continues. “He really said that. He loved a lot of people. I’m hearing from some people who regret they did not express their love for him. I have my regrets, but not loving him is not one of them.”
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