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8 bars with Lenora Helm Hammonds
Our guest is jazz vocalist, bandleader and educator Lenora Helm Hammonds, Ph.d.
8 bars with, is a series on Educated Guesses where we offer up 8 questions to a special guest for them to ponder and freestyle on. The questions aren't necessarily questions as much as they are prompts or linguistic ink blots meant to stimulate thought. The responses can be short and pithy, long and loquacious or somewhere in between.
For three decades, the Chicago-born, Durham, North Carolina-based Dr. Lenora Helm Hammonds, Ph.d, has been one of the most accomplished jazz vocalists and educators in academia, and on the bandstand. She is the Assistant Professor in the Department of Music and Jazz Studies Program for the College of Arts and Sciences at North Carolina Central University (NCCU). She is also the Director of NCCU’s Vocal Jazz Ensemble, and she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in vocal jazz, ear training, and songwriting. She came to NCCU in 2005 after years of performing and recording in New York City.
A professional artist since 1983, Hammonds has performed and recorded with Michael Franks, Ron Carter, Andrew Hill, and Stanley Cowell, and many other artists. Her recordings as a leader include Spirit Child (1999), Precipice (2002,), Voice Paintings (2003), and For the Love of The Big Band, with the Tribe Jazz Orchestra (2020). She earned her Doctorate in Music Education from Boston University; a Master of Music in Jazz Performance from East Carolina University; and a Bachelor of Music in Film Scoring and Vocal Performance from Berklee College of Music.
My home as a jazz educator for sixteen plus years now. Started as an adjunct but now am a tenured Associate Professor of Vocal Jazz/Jazz Studies. I can’t believe I initially turned down the job because I didn’t want to leave my then second home of New York City. But like the biblical tale of Jonah and the Whale, when God says, ‘go to Ninevah’ you betta get to gettin’ lol. I have Dr. Ira Wiggins to thank for inviting me to join the faculty. He defied the odds with his vast and deep successes with championing Jazz at an HBCU. It is unbelievable how few HBCUs offer degrees in Jazz Studies. It is also a unique location, being in North Carolina because we attract students who want to swing and learn to play the Blues, and the Southern element of gospel and Black music is alive and well in that region of the world.
Southside!! Lol Yea, I’m a Chi-town gal. My early years were spent in Robert Taylor Homes (housing projects), then we moved out to the South Suburbs. Many of my family members and siblings still reside in Chicago so I get back a lot. I left Chicago right after high-school for Boston’s Berklee College of Music, so my jazz gigging days hadn’t yet manifested. As a result, the Chicago Jazz scene was not the place where I first got my stripes, so to speak. Although on my visits I always went to hear or sit in with Von Freeman, and hear music at the Jazz Showcase or the Green Mill. I love my Chicago peeps though. I remember Chicago radio, Always all of the styles together —not these separated playlists that exist now. Chicago folk have their own style, attitude and swag. I always laugh when I meet another person from Chicago. Instead of asking what part of Chicago you lived or were from, they ask what high-school you attended. (I went to Lindblom Tech). Too funny. . . .
Being a jazz professor helped me expand my language as a musician, and taught me an unfathomable amount of knowledge about how fragile we are as humans when we are learning. Adult learners are most intriguing. Teachers of adult learners must have a servant leadership mindset. I think I got the teaching seed planted in me because my mother and grandmother were teachers; cosmetologists at my Grandmother’s beauty school in Chicago, the Unique Beauty School on 39th & Pershing.
I was a teaching artist (an artist who spends 50% of their time engaging audiences through art, and 50% of time performing) first, in NYC, for K-12 classrooms in the five boroughs for Young Audiences … While in NYC and working as a teaching artist between gigs, those teaching artist residencies melted my heart and opened it in a way to accept the idea of teaching on the college level. Every musician should spend time working in the community, and gaining chops as a teaching artist. You learn what the point is for your music in a very visceral way - the audience is the point! Can you make them feel something? Can you open their heart with your sound? My commitment to the importance of the teaching artist field caused me to begin the Teaching Artist Certificate online program at NCCU.
One of my college roommates threatened to throw away my Sarah Vaughan (vinyl) records if I played one more Sarah record. lol. I guess she was my biggest vocal influence. I’ve been a musician since I was 8 years old, so the list of whom I listened to and the impact on who I am as a musician is long. I am influenced by John Coltrane’s soul; Joni Mitchell’s honesty; Duke Ellington’s style; Billy Strayhorn’s intelligence; Ahmad Jamal’s commitment; Betty Davis’ vocalizations; Stevie Wonder’s irregular rhyme schemes; Red Garland’s spirituality; Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s lyrics; Bobby McFerrin’s vision; Wayne Shorter’s mercurial nature; Count Basie’s patience; Carmen McRae and Abbey Lincoln for being consummate storytellers; Shirley Horn’s use of space; Thad Jones & Mel Lewis’ soulfulness; Jimmy Heath’s love; Bille Holiday’s incredible sense of time; Bill Evans’ touch; Ivan Lins’ lush melodies; Chaka Khan’s boldness; Sonny Stitt’s sense of humor; Andrew Hill’s mischievousness . . . and so many more.
The hardest thing I have ever done in my life! Not because of the workload, but because I did it while teaching full-time, running a band and making recordings. BTW, NEVER DO THAT! If you want to pursue a doctoral degree, do only that! I’m grateful that it is done. Achieving this milestone brought the intention of my craft and work full-circle. I plan to bring my research into my composing and performing with my big band, Tribe Jazz Orchestra.
6. Tribe Jazz Orchestra?
I had a nine-year recording hiatus while working on my doctoral degree, so when it was time to think about recording again, a big band was the dream band in my heart when I asked myself, “now what?” I fell in love with big band music as a result of working at NCCU, and seeing a big band of students grow and develop. I love the depth and breath the sound offers me as a vocalist, arranger, composer and bandleader. And, I was just so over seeing a big band that would have only one woman musician! Tribe Jazz Orchestra is my effort to change the character of big band configurations, and I was deliberate in hiring a woman musician in each section of the horn sections as well as in the rhythm section. Releasing our first record at the dawn of the Global Pandemic was a tough, uphill climb. I’m currently working on a 2022 release.
7. Zora Neale Hurston
Ahh, Zora. I’ve used Zora Neale Hurston as a muse of sorts, and I often have been influenced by her stories. I was really happy to learn that she previously taught at NCCU (when it was called North Carolina College for Negroes circa 1939); again another connection. I borrowed the title of my sixth recording from the Alice Walker edited anthology of Zora Neale Hurston’s work titled I Love Myself When I am Laughing, And Then Again When I’m Looking Mean and Impressive. Also, my composition, “The Life That You Live May Not Be Your Own,” on my previous album Voice Paintings, was also a song influenced from Zora’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. I feel like Zora knows me, Lol.
8. Grammy nomination?
I hope one is forthcoming! lol. I have been close enough to smell it, I guess, in being on the first round ballot three times, but have never been in that final official last five names of nominees. I have been a quarterfinalist as a GRAMMY Educators in the Schools.
I’m a Creole descendant, Afro-Carolinian; meaning, my paternal grandmother was Creole, from Baton Rouge, Point Coupee Parish, LA. I now make my home in North Carolina with my husband Fred Hammonds, but my paternal grandparents were Southerners. My dear friend and colleague, Michelle Lanier is a scholar, oral historian, filmmaker, museum professional, and folklorist who taught me and coined the term Afro-Carolina for people of African diaspora who live in North or South Carolina. When I travel to New Orleans I feel a nascent memory in every cell of my body. It’s a special kind of eeriness. I have to get my nerve up to travel to my grandmother’s birthplace.