A working theory: Research any historical figure long enough and eventually you’ll find your way back to Durham tobacco.

Take Duke Ellington. The jazz great has many connections to the area, most notably through his longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn, who spent much of his childhood in Hillsborough. But Ellington’s first tie to Triangle lore was knotted in 1935, when he performed in Durham that March. The legend goes that Ellington composed his standard “In a Sentimental Mood” to ease tensions at a North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company party.

Laura Windley, curator of Durham’s Early Jazz and Swing, the new community exhibit at the Museum of Durham History, combed through archival material to compile an overview of the city’s role in the swing era. That year, she found that Ellington was only in town to play at Roycroft Warehouse; at the Mutual afterparty, he wrote the standard on the spot. It’s not crazy to think, then, that the song of choice for nine different radio shows and infinite first dances might never have existed without an initial show at that tobacco auction spot on Rigsbee Avenue.

Windley, a member of the Triangle Swing Dance Society, began her research in anticipation of the Society’s upcoming Bull City Swingout, a dance workshop from July 12 to 14, but also with an eye towards one certain venue. 

“Everyone talks about, ‘Oh, the [Durham] Armory’s where all the big bands played,’” says Windley. With the aid of peers in the swing dance community, she aimed to answer the follow-up: “Well, who played there?”

It’s an extensive list, from the Count Basie Orchestra to Ella Fitzgerald to Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy, featuring pianist (and future Duke jazz professor) Mary Lou Williams. The exhibit, which opened Friday and runs through July, touches on Durham’s contributions to the Piedmont Blues scene in the mid-1920s, the development of jazz at Duke, as well as the city’s place on the national circuit during the big band heyday. 

The exhibit doesn’t explore beyond World War II, but to make a long story short: While much has changed in nearly eighty years, jazz is still very much alive here. Glenn Miller isn’t around to serenade Duke as he did in 1940 (though the orchestra bearing his name visits Meymandi Concert Hall on July 15); fortunately, the school’s Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture boasts torrid combo sets each Wednesday that are open to the public. While N.C. Central didn’t have a jazz studies program until the ‘70s, over the past two-plus decades its genre-specific radio station (WNCU) has made the I-40 slog bearable. Swing music faded from the zeitgeist faster than Brightleaf Tobacco, but if you keep your ear to the ground in the right places—be they throwback speakeasies like Raleigh’s C. Grace Cocktail Bar or modern, minimalist lounges like Durham’s Sharp 9 Gallery—you can find it on a regular basis.

Windley envisions the Bull City Swingout event as a bridge between past generations and future Lindy Hoppers. The weekend will culminate with Piedmont Blues legend John Dee Holeman’s July 14 performance at the Blue Note Grill, but the biggest buzz simply surrounds the revival of swing music in the place where so many greats have played.

“People are excited to have this knowledge,” says Windley, “and I think it did the job of getting people excited about dancing at the Durham Armory again.”


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