It was all in the music, baby.

Last month, a team of judges led by jazz giant Wynton Marsalis selected NC Central University’s jazz studies program as the top college jazz band in the country. But it was a bittersweet honor, coming months after the orchestra’s director, Brian Horton, was found dead in his Durham home in September.

During and after their award-winning performances at the 2023 Jack Rudin Jazz Championship in New York’s Lincoln Center, the spirit of the students’ former director, professor, and mentor was omnipresent. Last year, Horton led the big band to a third-place finish at the championship.

“After Dr. Horton passed away, we really, really needed this moment,” says Lenora Helm Hammonds, the interim chair of NCCU’s music department and director of the school’s graduate program for jazz studies.

Horton was a tenor saxophonist and composer who also led a trio of musicians—horn, upright bass, and drums—at Kingfisher bar on West Chapel Hill Street in Durham. He was 46 when he died, just six days shy of his birthday. His sudden death rocked the Triangle’s jazz community, and it devastated the students and faculty with NCCU’s jazz studies program.

“Dr. Horton, he showed us that no matter where you began—he came from Kinston—you could play high-quality music,” says big band member Dexter Moses, who grabbed an honorable mention for his solo work on the alto saxophone during the competition. “He could have taught anywhere, but he came back here, and it was kind of humbling to witness that.”

Moses adds that Horton’s time on the road also informed his teaching approach.

“He was integrating the real world with education,” Moses says, and would also encourage his students to study other music forms—classical, rhythm and blues—and use it to their advantage.

“He made people feel creatively valued,” Moses says.

Orchestra member Shaquim Muldrow says Horton’s sudden death “changed everything.” The big band members and faculty dedicated their January performance to their fallen leader.

“If a section forgot a part, somebody would say, ‘Hey, we’re not doing this for play, play. We’re doing this for Horton,’” Muldrow says.

A month before Horton died, during the second week of August, Muldrow says the professor was considering tunes for the Jack Rudin competition. Muldrow remembers how diligent Horton was in his preparation for class.

“You could tell he was dedicated and passionate about it,” Muldrow says.

NC Central, in comparison to the other schools that boast world-class resources, was the only historically Black college in the competition. It appeared outgunned and outmatched, at least in theory. 

Robert Trowers, an NCCU jazz professor who directed the big band’s winning performances, told the INDY that there are fewer than 10 jazz studies programs at the nation’s roughly 100 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

It’s really important in that it gives a message to HBCUs in this area,” Trowers says. “HBCUs have the potential to be with the best. In a lot of circles it’s thought that HBCUs aren’t into jazz. They’re more into marching and concert bands.”

Muldrow compares NCCU’s Jack Rudin victory this year to that of the 1935 debate team of Wiley College, the tiny, private HBCU in Marshall, Texas, that defeated the reigning national debate team champion, the University of Southern California. 

“We’re a small school competing against bigger schools with more resources, through grants and funding,” he says. “Sometimes Brian [Horton] used to say, ‘We always have to do the most with the least.’”

Horton suggested Muldrow try a different approach when soloing on Bearden: The Block, a music composition by Jazz at Lincoln Orchestra inspired by the work of visual artist Romare Bearden.

“He told me to hit a high note and hold it,” Muldrow says. “I told him, ‘I’on’t know, Dr. Horton.’ He told me the piece has a lot of high notes, and there’s a lot you could play. He said just pick one you’re really feeling.”

Muldrow’s solo work on a Duke Ellington composition, Chinoiserie, played no small part in the judge’s decision to award NCCU first place.

The orchestra played the tune in the first and second rounds of the competition. The audience roared their approval each time after Muldrow’s solos.

“With all that’s happened this past year, it just made it special,” Muldrow says about those sessions spent learning from Horton.

The jazz championship, which took place on January 14 and 15, attracts the top collegiate jazz programs in the country. NCCU was one of nine schools in attendance, along with Michigan State University, Temple University, Florida State University, Ithaca College, the University of Wyoming, the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, Vanderbilt University, and Northern Illinois University. 

Michigan State, the defending champion, placed third, and Temple placed second. Trowers says his hopes dimmed a bit when he heard those announcements.

“The other bands were so good,” he says. “I started thinking, ‘Maybe next year.’ Then I heard ‘North Carolina,’ and the students were making so much noise.”

Muldrow says there was a lot of excitement and even more tears of joy. He was sitting near the rear of the performance hall.

“I had to run, but not too fast. I wanted to be relaxed,” he says. “I knew it was being recorded, and I didn’t want to be recorded running frantically on camera.” 

Helm Hammonds, the interim chair, praises Temple’s and Michigan State’s performances and says they are both great bands.

“HBCUs are elbow to elbow, compared to the other schools,” she says.

Trowers agrees.

 “This is a statement that we have the potential to be as good as anyone else.” 

The school also received honorable mention for its trumpet and saxophone sections.

NCCU big band director Robert Trowers leads a rehearsal for a Valentine’s Day concert. Credit: Brett Villena

Although the college jazz championship is only in its third year, it is a significant event.

Marsalis, the jazz musician, is Lincoln Center’s managing and artistic director. According to his website, Jazz at Lincoln Center is the largest jazz education program network in the world. He states that the educational program’s objectives are grounded in Lincoln Center’s “35-year history of education in jazz performance
and appreciation.”

The educational process is bolstered by “insight into American vernacular music and jazz,” while learning about the “communal history of jazz in a sociopolitical context.”

Jazz students are also guided on how to better communicate personal objectives within the art form, and they become more aware of the mission of jazz musicians today by building on the aspirations laid by earlier generations, Marsalis states on his website.

The Jack Rudin Jazz Championship honors the legacy of Jack Rudin, a native New Yorker who fought in World War II and received a Bronze Star. Rudin went on to become a philanthropist and one of the most prolific builders of skyscrapers in Manhattan. 

He was a “longtime supporter of Jazz at Lincoln Center,” and the jazz championship honors “his founding support for Essentially Ellington, the organization’s signature transformative education program,” Marsalis states on his website.

Rudin died in 2016 at age 92.

The college jazz ensemble championship started in 2020, before the pandemic outbreak, as a creative ground where participating ensembles would have access to “quality literature and a forum for celebrating excellence and achievement” and for “extending Jazz at Lincoln Center’s educational mission into the sphere of professional development for the next generation of leading jazz artists.”

“[Rudin] was a man of great dignity and honor,” Marsalis told the jazz championship audience before announcing the competition winners. “He would be so proud if he were here.”

The past year was a tough one for NCCU’s jazz studies program. Months before Horton died, Arnold George, an assistant professor who had been with the program, died in June. 

According to the school’s website, George had been with the program since 1991 and directed its vocal jazz ensemble, which had won multiple DownBeat magazine awards and had twice performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and Paris.

But other factors enabled the jazz studies program to endure and continue to thrive: namely an unrelenting adherence to the jazz tradition coupled with longtime faculty members who are also seasoned professional musicians and have spent ample time playing on the road.

Helm Hammonds likens NCCU’s successful jazz studies legacy to the winning athletic traditions of neighboring schools Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill and longtime coaching staffs that have fostered a winning attitude. 

“It’s a legacy of playing the blues,” Helm Hammonds says. “It’s about really impressing on the students how to swing and how to get into a groove.”

That legacy began nearly 50 years ago when legendary trumpeter Donald Byrd started the jazz program at NCCU while serving as an artist in residence at the university. The program bloomed under the leadership of saxophonist and flutist Ira Wiggins, a Kinston native who ushered in a crop of Kinston-born horn players, including Horton. The program’s current artist in residence is acclaimed saxophonist Branford Marsalis, and faculty members include Trowers, percussionist Thomas Taylor, and trumpeter Al Strong.

NCCU jazz big band pianist Benjamin Johnson. Credit: Brett Villena

Moses, a native of Richmond, Virginia and current graduate student, first arrived at NCCU in 2017 as a freshman. He says Branford Marsalis was an early influence. He became a much more confident jazz musician by learning and understanding the art form’s tradition.

“Today’s culture is so individualistic, people want to reject the past, like it all came from nothing. It’s not about playing differently. It’s about learning more information by going back in time. What were the geniuses listening to?” Moses says.

“Even with voice,” he adds. “You don’t have to find your voice. It’s already there. You have to just learn how to use it.”

Moses also credits Wiggins, who retired in 2021, for emphasizing the importance of playing within an orchestra.

“Learn your role. It’s not about you. It’s the group as a whole,” Moses says. “It’s about the music, but also playing with a section.”

Helm Hammonds, in a voice beaming with pride, says the same thing.

“When the focus is not on self but as a steward of the music, that will humble you,” she says.

Senior student Brandon Seaforth was awarded outstanding trombone solo for his work on “The Ponderous Pachyderm of the Planks” by Sherman Irby. Seaforth, who grew up in Maryland, says Trowers has been his number one influence.

“He’s given me a whole lot of tools and ways to go about soloing exercises,” Seaforth says. “I listen to a whole lot of music from the 1930s and 1940s, during the swing era. Tyree Glenn was a beast. Quentin Jackson. They were trombone players from Duke Ellington’s band.”

Moses recently presented a paper at an academic conference that considered whether alto saxophone pioneer Charlie Parker may have gotten some of creative ideas from one of his peers, Don Byas. All three of the student musicians who spoke with the INDY say acknowledging the tradition means coming from a very humble place. 

“It was exciting,” says Muldrow, who won outstanding solo on tenor saxophone for the second year in a row, of the ensemble winning first prize. “But also for me it was a time for reflection. I still wish he was here. It’s like—I don’t want to sound cliché—I still want my teacher. I wanna hear him. I wanna hang, and see him at the sessions, like at Kingfisher.”

At the competition’s end, Trowers, NCCU’s bespectacled, soft-spoken band director stood on the Rose Theater Stage, smiling, looking resplendent in a black-and-gold embroidered dashiki while accepting the first-place trophy Marsalis presented to him.

He held the trophy above his head.

“This is for Arnold and Brian,” he said—the music departmen’t’s two fallen Eagles.

Correction: Moses, not Muldrow, recently presented a paper on saxophonist Charlie Parker. The story has been corrected.

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