North Carolina Central University’s Jazz Studies program has earned a reputation as one of the premier university programs. The program was started by the great jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd and brought to prominence by legendary saxophonist/flutist and educator Dr. Ira Wiggins, who retired in June 2021. NCCU’s Jazz faculty include Artists-in-Residence Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo; Robert Trowers (trombone); Albert Strong (trumpet); Lenora Helm Hammonds (vocals and director, Vocal Jazz Ensemble); Mavis Poole (vocals); Jim Crew (piano); Thomas Taylor (drums and percussion); Damon Brown (bass) and Dr. Aaron Hill (saxophone). NCCU large and small jazz ensembles are frequently featured at major venues, festivals, and conferences such as the Jazz Education Network Annual Conference, the Lincoln Center, the Newport Jazz Festival, the Montreux Jazz Festival, the Vienne Jazz Festival, and the National Association for Music Education Conference (formerly Music Educators National Conference).
Many internationally known jazz artists have been featured in concert with NCCU’s jazz ensembles, including Jimmy Heath, James Moody, Kenny Burrell, the Count Basie Orchestra, Branford Marsalis, Ed Thigpen, Vanessa Rubin, Roy Hargrove, Fred Wesley, Louis Bellson, Alvin Batiste, Clark Terry, Frank Foster, Nnenna Freelon, Nicholas Payton, Steve Wilson, Geri Allen, Slide Hampton, Christian McBride, Dick Oatts, Russell Malone, Nate Smith, Delfeayo Marsalis, René Marie, Dennis Chambers, John Fedchock, Carmen Lundy, Antonio Hart, Stefon Harris, and others.
Alumni of the program include internationally renowned solo performing, recording and touring musicians, band leaders, and instrumentalists performing with jazz greats, including Gregory Porter, Houston Person, Kim Burrell, Prince, Joey Calderazzo, Branford Marsalis, Jazzmeia Horn, Andy Bey, Kenny Burrell, Winard Harper, Betty Carter, Norman Brown, John Legend, Rhapsody, Erykah Badu, Shirley Caesar, Fred Hammond, Janelle Monae and others. In addition, many NCCU Jazz Studies Program alumni are teaching as adjunct or full-time professors at colleges and universities and as K-12 music teachers. Other well-known alumni include Leon Pendarvis (musical director for Saturday Night Live) and Grady Tate (renowned drummer and vocalist).
NCCU’s groups have appeared at numerous festivals and received top honors, including first-place honors at the Villanova Jazz Festival held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 2007 and 2011. In 1995, the NCCU Jazz Studies Program produced its first compact disc recording, "Central Visions." Accolades from that recording resulted in performances at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, Euro-Disney in Paris and two performances at the White House at a reception for the White House staff and congressional aides and a week later for a National Press reception hosted by President and Mrs. Clinton. NCCU Jazz Studies students also performed for a political event to welcome First Lady Michelle Obama to the campus. The NCCU Vocal Jazz Ensemble and Combo I were on-air guests, performing live on RealJazz on Sirius XM Radio in New York City with host Mark Ruffin. In 2018, the NCCU Vocal Jazz Ensemble won the Best Choir 2018–2019 award from HBCU Digest. The NCCU Vocal Jazz Ensemble was chosen as the first vocal ensemble invited to perform at the Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival. Students have won Outstanding Performance awards in Downbeat Magazine and have received selections for the Kennedy Center’s Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program.
Subsequent recordings are "Beyond the Horizon," "Central Standard Time," "Blues and the Verdant Green," "Yesterdays & Forever," "Arrival," "Slightly Blued" and "Take Note." In 1999, the Jazz Ensemble made a second appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival and the Vienne Jazz Festival in France. Other notable performances include the National Music Educators Conference in Nashville, International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) performances in Long Beach, California, Toronto and New York, as well as a tribute to Dr. Billy Taylor in Kansas City, Missouri. In January 2008, the Jazz Ensemble and Vocal Jazz Ensemble performed at the 35th Annual IAJE Conference in Toronto, Canada, with Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo.
In 2008, the Jazz Ensemble and the Vocal Jazz Ensemble performed at the British Virgin Islands’ Jazz Festival. In 2009, the ensembles performed at the Notre Dame Jazz Festival, the 30th Detroit Jazz Festival and the 55th Newport Jazz Festival. In 2010 and 2013, the NCCU Vocal Jazz Ensemble performed at Lincoln Center during the New York City Jazz Festival. Recent performances include the Jazz Education Network Conferences in Atlanta, Georgia, and Louisville, Kentucky and a return to Jazz at Lincoln Center in Dizzy’s Coca Jazz Club on April 12, 2016. In January 2018, the Jazz Ensemble performed at the JEN Conference in Dallas, Texas, and the Vocal Jazz Ensemble performed as the featured African-American Jazz Caucus HBCU ensemble at the 2019 JEN Conference in Reno, Nevada. In January 2020, the NCCU Jazz Ensemble was one of ten national collegiate jazz programs invited to perform at the Inaugural Jack Rudin Jazz Championship held at Lincoln Center in New York.
The Jazz Studies program offers the Bachelor of Music in Jazz Studies and the Master of Music in Performance and Composition. Jazz Studies is dedicated to fostering a quality education, shaping the future of aspiring musicians, and maintaining the integrity of a great art form.