In 2003, Lenora Helm Hammonds, D.M.A., received a Chamber Music America New Jazz Works grant which she used to compose a jazz suite, Journeywoman. She performed it at the Schomburg Center in Harlem and later at Merkin Hall, both in New York City where she then lived.
Years passed. In 2005, Hammonds began working at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) and in 2007 moved to the area. She taught, composed, coordinated community engagement, conducted research, presented papers, served on boards, developed a certificate program, performed, wrote lyrics for well-known jazz musicians, won awards and otherwise developed a resume long enough to choke a hiring manager.
Still, she never forgot about the 12 songs she had composed.
“The stories and music were deep and I had to live some more life and grow into the stories,” Hammonds said.
The album, titled “Journeywoman,” concerns the odyssey of an archetypal woman who struggles with birth, death and self-definition, and experiences victories gained through self-love, perseverance and affirmation. It covers a variety of jazz styles including ballad, swing, waltz, Latin and tone poem settings.
Nineteen years later, she decided it was time to record. She gathered a mix of nine area musicians and NCCU colleagues – a nonet in musical terms – and recorded it in April 2022. It was a challenging time.
“I was just going into the role of interim department chair in the fall and was finishing the post production as I went into that new role,” Hammonds recalls. “Two of the faculty members had passed away and I was learning the ropes of an interim department chair while trying to synthesize and put together the package and hire a creative team.”
Hammonds, who performs and records as Lenora Zenzalai Helm, succeeded with mentoring by her dean and department faculty who rallied around her.
“I was really stunned I got it,” Hammonds said. “It’s a really competitive grant.”
Hammonds plans to use the grant to teach young musicians of color in Michigan who are emerging artists how to compose music, particularly telling stories.
“Jazz is the kind of music where your technical prowess is often what’s on stage,” Hammonds said. “Thus, young composers can benefit from thinking about both, the story and the music.”