Thursday, October 29, 2009

THE BARN: WILMINGTON'S JAZZ MECCA BY LARRY RENI THOMAS

*The Wilmington Journal August 2002.

COPYRIGHT, 2002, Larry Reni Thomas.


During the 1940s and the 1950s, when jazz music was as hot as hip-hop is today, Wilmington, North Carolina, was the place where jazz giants like Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong performed at a local jazz club and ballroom called The Barn. It was located at 1020 South 11th Street, between Meares and Wright Streets, and was owned and operated by the late Mr. and Mrs. Charles Whitted.
The Barn was a place where folks dressed up for a swinging night on the town and where they went to see the big bands that were extremely popular during the World War II years. It was called The Barn because it resembled a tobacco barn and was large enough to hold some 2,000 people.
There was a large dance floor, a big bandstand, bars and several rooms for private parties. It was the place to be on a weekend night in Wilmington if you were young or young-at-heart and if you were a jazz lover.
"Lionel Hampton was a regular," said Mrs. Gerrie Lemon, the Whitted's granddaughter, during a recent interview. "So was the Buddy Johnson Big Band, Louie Jordan and Louie Armstrong. They would play the Barn at least once a year. My grandfather liked the big bands. He liked the 18-piece bands plus a vocalist. He liked to see them all on the stage--and it was big. And we had dressing rooms on either side of it. And beside that it had a pit. You could dance behind there too."
Lemon said that her grandfather added rooms to the structure because during that time blacks couldn't go to the local hotels or motels. Sometimes they stayed at the Whitted's residence. Mrs. Lemon recalled waking up one morning when she was a little girl hearing Billy Eckstine singing to himself in the bathroom while shaving. At the time she didn't think much of it to see all those famous people in her house. But later, when she became an adult she realized how blessed she was to have been in the presence of such well-known musicians.

She also remembered that most of the people in the community looked forward to seeing the bands come to town and she smiled when she talked about the excitement that was in the air once the word got out that a good band was coming to Wilmington.
"My grandfather was a master promoter," she said. "He knew another promoter in Kinston who would have the same bands at his place. They would both book the bands and promote them together. I was so proud of him because he was a pioneer in the field of promoting. He would travel all over the region, from town to town, nailing up posters and handing out leaflets. He was really a good promoter."
Mr. Whitted was also a keen talent scout who knew what bands to bring to the area. He made contact with prominent New York agents, like Joe Glaser, who help supply him with first-class acts like Armstrong and Hampton. He was also blessed to have the Lumina, a large dance hall on Wrightsville Beach in the area. Nearly all of the groups played at the Lumina, an all-white establishment one night and the Barn the next night. The late John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie, the legendary trumpet player, remembered playing at the Lumina and the Barn during the 1940s and 1950s. He made those observations when he played at Thalian Hall several years ago. He said that they also looked forward to playing the Barn because that was where they had more fun and played a great deal better because they loved to see the people dance.
Jimmy Heath, the great saxophonist who is a former Wilmington resident and a 1943 graduate of Williston High School, recalled playing at the Barn about a year after he graduated from high school.
"I was playing with the Nat Towles big band then," he said, during a recent interview at his Queens, New York residence. "We passed through Wilmington on a tour. The Barn had gotten a name as the place where big bands thrived, where the good times rolled and where the daring dances performed their feats. The place was known for great dancers and that is one of the things that really fires a musician up--good dancers. It was quite a thrill for me because I had gone to high school in Wilmington and knew what the Barn represented. I mean, all the great big bands that were popular at that time played there."
Mr. Heath, a Philadelphia native, left Wilmington for the city of brotherly love shortly after he graduated from Williston. He has performed with Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, The Heath Brothers and other jazz greats. He has had a long career in jazz performance as well as jazz education and is a retired professor of music at Queens College in New York. Heath recently received an honorary doctorate from the prestigious Julliard School of Music, making him the first and only jazz musician to get that honor. He is scheduled to perform here at a benefit for a research project on The Barn, October 14, 2002, at The Town Hall.
There has never been a complete study or is there any good documentation on the Barn. What this article seeks to do is whet the reader's appetite in order that we can begin to let the world know about the Barn and how much of a social and cultural impact it had on the community. One of the most interesting facts uncovered in this author's research of the Barn and its activities is that white people came to dance at the Barn.
At first the blacks and the whites were separated by what was called "an imaginary line," but once the bands got hot and the music was swinging, the dancers, black and white, forgot all about that foolishness and hit the dance floor together and danced! This had to be one of the earliest examples of integration in Wilmington, North Carolina and is a testament to how positive music is, especially jazz music, which the legendary band leader and composer Duke Ellington called the "great equalizer."

2 comments:

karl said...

Hi there
I am writing a novel that by fortune has found itself in Wilmington between 1955-1960. Jazz is going to be the back drop of the story. When do you think the book on the Barn will be published and if there is any authentic material or directions you could point me in for research, that would be fantastic. Did Parker, Coltrane, Monk play the Barn? What other smaller clubs were there in the region? I've ordered the Percy Heath book. Anything you could give me would be great.
Regards
Karl.

Carolina Connection said...

Karl:

Please pardon the late response. I don't think Bird or Trane or Monk performed at The Barn. I know Jimmy Heath and Yusef Lateef did. Percy doesn't have a book. Jimmy does. It's called "I Walked With Giants." He mentioned The Barn and me, too! Thanks and take care! E-mail address: larryrthomas@bellsouth.net