NCCU’s Jazz Ensemble places first at prestigious Jack Rudin Jazz Championship

Posted February 27, 2023, 4:06PM

North Carolina Central University’s (NCCU) Jazz Ensemble won first place at the prestigious Jack Rudin Jazz Championship held in New York City, Jan. 14-15.

NCCU competed against eight of the country’s most well-regarded university jazz programs, including Temple University, which placed second, and Michigan State University, which placed third. NCCU was the only HBCU in the competition.

For its efforts, NCCU’s Jazz Ensemble received $10,000 in prize money to be used in its music program. Winners at the Jack Rudin Jazz Championships were selected by a panel of judges comprised of distinguished jazz musicians and educators, including trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, a multiple Grammy-winning artist whose “Blood on the Fields” was the first jazz composition to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. Marsalis is a composer, teacher and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which hosts the annual, invitation-only competition.

In 2020, NCCU’s first year competing in the Jack Rudin Jazz Championship, the Eagles captured individual student awards but did not place. The event wasn’t held in 2021 because of COVID-19. When it resumed last year, NCCU placed third overall and won some individual awards. This year, in addition to winning first place, NCCU won in five individual categories: honorable mention in the saxophone and trombone sections; honorable mention alto saxophone (Dexter Moses); outstanding tenor saxophone (Shaquim Muldrow); and outstanding trombone (Brandon Seaforth).

Besides Temple and Michigan State universities, NCCU also competed against the big bands from Florida State University, Ithaca College, Northern Illinois University, the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, University of Wyoming and Vanderbilt University.

NCCU’s Jazz Ensemble has 21 members, and the NCCU’s Jazz Studies’ Jazz Combo 1, with the addition of the NCCU Vocal Jazz Ensemble, also performed at the Jack Rudin Jazz Championship events. Lenora Helm Hammonds, DMA, interim department chair and director of graduate programs for jazz studies, said the student musicians worked on their performance skills, the repertoire and other aspects of the competition for a full semester before competing in New York.

“The band met three times a week for at least 90 minutes per session, and the students also sacrificed part of their holiday vacation to come to school to rehearse and prepare,” said Helm Hammonds, a former U.S. jazz ambassador and twice appointed Fulbright senior music specialist. “They worked very hard, and the diligence of Professor Robert Trowers, our trombone professor who directed the band and Combo 1, was stellar!”

NCCU traveled by bus to New York to compete, stopping along the way in Washington, D.C., Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware to perform at area high schools and recruit students. NCCU’s Jazz Ensemble performed three songs, for a total of 12-15 minutes, in the initial round of competition and repeated one of those songs in the finals.

“We played as an ensemble and focused on cohesiveness as a unit,” Helm Hammonds said. “We are committed to depicting the true origins of the art form, using swing and the blues as our foundational concepts. The students performed well, listening and using the skill sets they learn from our renowned faculty in jazz studies, including our artists-in-residence, Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo. Our soloists were also standouts, evidenced by the student awards.”

Launched in 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the Jack Rudin Jazz Championship honors the legacy of Jack Rudin, a longtime supporter of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and his founding support for ‘Essentially Ellington,’ the organization’s signature transformative education program. According to organizers, the competition provides participating ensembles with quality literature and a forum for celebrating excellence and achievement while introducing higher education to Jazz at Lincoln Center’s education methodology and philosophy – extending its education mission into the sphere of professional development for the next generation of leading jazz artists.

The significance of NCCU winning first place in the Jack Rudin Jazz Championship cannot be overstated.

“A lot has been discussed about our legacy, but we have new dimensions to tackle and new ground to cover,” Helm Hammonds said. “It’s a new time for us, and I plan to lead us to a new level. The faculty is amazing. Professor Trowers has decades of experience and leadership, as well as membership in the best bands in jazz history. Our faculty is among the best in jazz education, and this win puts us at the vanguard of jazz education programs in the country.”

Helm Hammonds said she’s grateful for the unwavering support the jazz ensemble receives from NCCU Chancellor Johnson O. Akinleye, Ph.D., Provost David H. Jackson Jr., Ph.D., and Carlton Wilson, Ph.D., dean of the College of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities.

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