The ladies of the NCCU Vocal Jazz Ensemble. Photo by Courtney Thompson/Echo staff photographer.
The gentlemen of the NCCU Vocal Jazz Ensemble taking the stage at Beyu Caffe. Photo by Courtney Thompson/Echo staff photographer.
NCCU alumnae and NCCU VJE member Dupresha Townsend and NCCU VJE member Ty Garrett sings a duet together on stage at Beyu Caffe. Photo by Courtney Thompson/Echo staff photographer.
NCCU vocal jazz ensemble senior Autumn Rainey singing her heart out. Photo by Courtney Thompson/Echo staff photographer.

NCCU Vocal Jazz Ensemble releases second album, ‘Take Note’

March 24, 2017

After recording in the studio for two years, N.C. Central University’s Vocal Jazz Ensemble released their second full-length album, “Take Note,” on March 7.

The group held a CD release party off-campus at the Beyu Caffe in downtown Durham the same night.

According to NCCU VJE director Lenora Helm Hammonds, this is the first time the musicians celebrated this occasion off-campus.

The event left the Beyu Caffe crowded. In the audience, NCCU staff, faculty, and students from departments across campus hovered around the tables and the bar to watch NCCU VJE perform.

“We wanted it to be something that people can come to. People normally go [to Beyu Caffe] to hear music,” she said. “It was a wonderful surprise that so many people came…For students to see that support from other parts that are not the music department, they were just floored. We felt like people respect us and they know who we are because a lot of people on campus still don’t know about us.”

At the party, the Vocal Jazz Ensemble performed songs live from the album, which included “Flemenco Sketches,” “Gold Mine,” and “Rio Dawn.”

“Take Note” features covers that pay homage to jazz musicians such as Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. The album also includes original songs, arrangements, and lyrics from the vocal ensemble.

While the celebration was a joyous moment for the vocal ensemble, NCCU VJE faced several financial barriers during their two-year recording process.

“It usually doesn’t take that long but it’s very expensive to do a CD,” said Helm Hammonds. “We had to raise the money and then we had to go to the school administration to ask for money. Every time we go out to perform, we earn money and use it.”

When Acting Chancellor Johnson Akinleye heard about NCCU VJE’s efforts to complete the CD, he contacted the group and said he wanted to help take care of the remaining costs. According to Helm Hammonds, Akinleye wanted to support the jazz program and ensure NCCU VJE would see their work become tangible.

“For many of them, it’s their first CD ever,” Helm Hammonds said. “When you are a musician, part of the way you make your living and the way that you achieve recognition and success is by having a recording. People don’t think that you’re really serious or you’re a professional until you have a recording. This way, when they graduate, they’ll already have a professional credential.”

At the end of the students’ college education, Helm Hammonds encourages each musician to leave the jazz program understanding they can have a successful career on and off the stage.

“Our tasks here as professors is to make sure we inform them on how to get work and have a career, not just to survive to pay their bills but thrive,” she said. “There are a 100 jobs in the music business that have nothing to do with being on stage performing and most people don’t know that.”

The vocal ensemble is composed of graduate and undergraduate students. Some students who are a part of the group hadn’t sung jazz before entering the jazz studies program. For those singers, it’s a new experience.

Jazz graduate student and NCCU VJE member Natalie Wallace found the transition from singing classical music to jazz music challenging at first. Before her transition to jazz, she graduated from NCCU with her Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts Music.

“It’s completely different. Classical music is pretty much [singing] everything that’s on the page while jazz is everything off the page,” said Wallace. “That night meant a new chapter in my professional and graduate career…We haven’t had a CD release party for this ensemble in a long time.”

Another fresh member, Music industry senior Sean Armbrister, has sang with NCCU VJE for almost two years. When he joined the group, he had to learn all the music from “Take Note” in a short amount of time leading up to the big night. Armbrister said he was glad “the hard work paid off.”

“The CD was a big accomplishment that we achieved and have it come together at the Beyu was a great success,” he said.

To purchase NCCU VJE’s “Take Note,” it is available on CD Baby and the iTunes Store. Students, faculty, and staff can also buy the album on campus through Lenora Helm Hammonds in the Department of Music. For more information, contact Helm Hammonds at [email protected].

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