Alex Weiss. Credit: Jeff Williams

I moved to Durham in 1984 along with my first wife and two young daughters. The previous decade, I had been plugging along, living and playing music in Flagstaff, Arizona, restaurants and bars, backing up other musicians playing blues, folk, country, and pop music. 

In Durham, I became a fish in a slightly bigger pond, and other possibilities opened up. I had gained some experience in Flagstaff with Artists in the Schools and was able to continue that through the CAPS program of the Durham Arts Council. 

I met master drummer Khalid Saleem, who was the music director for Chuck Davis and The African American Dance Ensemble. Being new to the area I had no idea who he was. We were at a jazz jam held by the late Usuf Salim when he casually invited me down to dance classes to check out what they were doing. And so began a decade of immersing myself in African and Latin rhythms. What the late Chuck Davis and The African American Dance Ensemble did for the Durham community and beyond cannot be fully described here. I will always hear his resounding voice saying, “Peace, love, and respect for EVERYBODY!”

The 1990s were prosperous times for festivals in Durham, the Triangle, and North Carolina. So much music and culture flourished in these festivals. Unfortunately, funds for festivals started drying up. By the year 2000 and during the next decade, festivals ceased or were greatly diminished. Offering programs for Durham’s libraries, senior centers, and Duke Regional Hospital took up the slack for me—until COVID struck. Now, as the pandemic recedes, festivals and events are making a comeback. Certainly Durham Central Park has been a continuous gathering point for great music and community. It’s an incongruous existence of old Durhamites gathering amidst all these new condo high-rises around the park.

A similar path followed for Durham’s Artists in the Schools program. Funds and time keep diminishing for art education. What once was officially school-coordinated is now done by PTA volunteers. At one time, in-class, hands-on residencies were popular; now it’s more common to pack an auditorium for a school concert. I really appreciate performing school concerts. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to share about the music, history, and cultures, but it shouldn’t replace the hands-on experience with an artist in the intimate space of a classroom.

And that brings me back to the bars. When I performed in the bars in the 1970s and ’80s, the going wage for artists was about $100 a night per person. I don’t think it’s changed much since then, but the cost of living is much higher. Popular acts with a big following will make more money because they bring in more people to buy drinks. It’s the premise that musicians should bear the responsibility of financing the bars that rubs me the wrong way. What it seems to cultivate is musicians with a mercenary approach to making a living through music. Many move among several bands like hired hands. In the jazz world, it’s like musical chairs. Gone are the days when musicians “bonded and woodshed together” as The Beatles, Sly and the Family Stone, or The Band did at their house, “Big Pink.”

Our current professional music scene puts the emphasis on productivity and does not foster the environment for group creativity. “Bandmates, look up the tunes on Bandcamp or YouTube and we’ll meet on stage,” is a joking refrain.

Of course, this is not the only way music is coming together; there will always be musicians working together, forming new creative mixtures, but the music scene has shifted to the commercial. Or maybe it always has been this way, and I’m just seeing it now. 

Another observation is how open mic events have been popping up everywhere.

I think open mics serve a good purpose for young musicians needing performance experience, musicians new in town, and older musicians trying something new. But it makes me skeptical, because the abundance of open mics might also be a form of cheap or free entertainment for the bars to lure in patrons, provided by professional musicians who can’t find work and just want to play.

I’m sharing these thoughts having played music on every continent but Australia and Antarctica. The language of music has always been an important connection for me, from the teahouse on the outskirts of Taipei, Taiwan, to the central square in Jacmel, Haiti, where troubadours joined us and people danced, and Santiago, Cuba, an artistically vibrant country.

I was fortunate to have hooked up with Cuban group J.J. Son on my first visit. I sat in with them every day of our weeklong stay, and on my last day, José, the leader, said I could join them whenever I returned, which happened two more times in the next six years. In Cuba, the feeling of creative camaraderie is so strong it bridges cultural differences and thrives in spite of material and financial limitations.

And so, here now, in this materially abundant, fast-growing, ever-changing Triangle area, I think it’s important to know where we came from and how we got here. It’s important that funding for the arts and local musicians keep pace with the Triangle’s growth. It’s important to incorporate the things we learn along the way to make it a better world for those coming up. 

At this stage in my life, I’m fortunate to be healthy, creative, still making music, and sharing my reflections with the town I call home.

Alex Weiss is a composer and multi-instrumentalist living in Durham. Comment on this story at

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