One of Durham’s best-kept secrets is the Jazz Studies program at North Carolina Central University.
Starting with its current stalwart faculty whose ranks include trumpeter Al Strong, saxophonist Brian Horton, and vocalist Lenora Helm Hammonds, the program has produced a cornucopia of impressive musicians—too many to name here—who have left one helluva mark in the world of music: bass guitarist Chip Shearin who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his work on “Rapper’s Delight,” Grammy award-winning pianist Albert “Chip” Crawford who is musical director for transcendent vocalist Gregory Porter, and Leon Pendarvis, musical director for Saturday Night Live.
The program’s current artists-in-residence are pianist Joey Calderazzo and saxophonist Branford Marsalis. One particularly memorable academic presence occurred in the late 1970s when trumpeter Donald Byrd was lured from Howard University to help lay the foundation for the NCCU program that was launched in 1975.
Into that rich tradition steps Jawan Davidson, a senior voice student majoring in jazz studies who this month was awarded a $10,000 scholarship by the Recording Academy’s Black Music Collective and Amazon Music’s “Your Future In Now” Scholarship Program.
“This is a huge honor to be selected; it’s truly a dream come true,” Davidson said in an N.C. Central press release last week. “This scholarship is a testament to how far I’ve come in my personal life and academic career.”
Davidson will participate in “a two-week immersive rotation program with Amazon Music, which will provide a detailed look at their chosen field of work,” according to the release. The Black Music Collective is “a group of prominent Black music creators and professionals who share the common goal of amplifying Black voices within the Academy and the music community,” according to its website.
In February, in celebration of Black History Month, the BMC announced a “new, multi-year mentorship and scholarship program in partnership with Amazon Music to provide “select students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities the opportunity to learn and explore all facets of the music industry.”
Competition was fierce. Davidson, who is a member of NCCU’s Vocal Jazz Ensemble, was one of only three students selected nationally.
“Jawan has the kind of passion you can’t manufacture; he has that fire-in-the-belly passion for the arts,” Helm Hammonds, an N.C. Central associate professor of music said in the release. “It is a joy to teach Jawan. His hunger for producing quality work and love for music is apparent in his continued success.”
Davidson credits Helm Hammonds as being an inspirational figure during his academic career.
“Professor Helm Hammonds has been persistent and motivating in getting me to share my own interpretation of song and dance,” he said. “I want to inspire the world by sharing personal experiences in art forms that transcend…different genres of music including jazz, hip-hop, funk, soul, and pop.”
Among the materials the scholarship applicants submitted for consideration was a video showcasing their creativity.
Davidson’s nearly four and half minute video features him talking about his coming of age years, and the role music has played in his development as a person, artist, and musician.
In a soft-spoken voice that belied a hard upbringing, he talks about growing up in Harlem and moving with his family to Charlotte where his childhood home was located between two “trap houses” and “drug addicts who OD’ed in my front yard.”
“I would be, you know, dodging bullets going to school [or while] walking my dog,” he said.
Davidson was often suspended and expelled from school. He fought his teachers and distrusted authority figures.
“Realistically, college wasn’t my reality,” he said.
What changed the trajectory of Davidson’s life was a chorus instructor who nurtured his love for music, taught him vocal technique, and motivated him to look for other avenues instead of the dreary road of drugs and violence that stretched before him. Historically black colleges and universities’ legacy of accepting students who are often overlooked by predominantly white schools proved to be a blessing for the teen who sang in an after-school choir.
With a 1.8-grade point average, the only school that accepted Davidson was St. Augustine’s University, a private HBCU in Raleigh. He transferred to N.C. Central in the fall of 2018. He then wound up homeless when he returned to Charlotte at the end of the first semester “because gang violence and drugs had taken over the neighborhood and forced my family to just basically abandon our home.”
“I came home to nothing after I left my dorm,” he said.
Davidson returned to school and stayed busy in order to not focus on being homeless. At the end of the spring semester, he signed up for summer school and attended the Jazz Institute in Brevard, one of the nation’s premier summer training programs.
Today, Davidson is a perennial Dean’s List student and member of the National Society of Leadership and Success. He is also the recipient of a four-year scholarship from the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation that was created and funded in 1993 by the First Lady of Song, herself.
While talking about his future aspirations, Davidson says he sees himself as more than just a singer and songwriter.
“I want to be a mogul and leader in my communities,” he said. “I want to be able to return to my communities and be able to give back.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect Davidson returned to Charlotte after his fall semester at NCCU.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.