North Carolina Central University Jazz Combo (NCCU photo)

The Monterey Jazz Festival announced the winner of its first-ever HBCU Jazz Combo Challenge. The jazz ensemble from North Carolina Central University took top prize in the competition and will perform on Sunday, September 24, at the upcoming Monterey Jazz Festival, the world’s longest continuously-running jazz festival.

The HBCU Jazz Combo Challenge, presented by Alaska Airlines and AT&T, was introduced in 2023 to expand performance opportunities at the Monterey Jazz Festival to historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) around the country.

Students from HBCU jazz programs submitted short video performances which were evaluated Monterey Jazz Festival’s 2023 Artist-in-Residence Lakecia Benjamin, two-time Grammy-winning bassist and 2019 MJF Artist-in-Residence Derrick Hodge, and lauded Bay Area saxophonist and educator Dave Ellis.

“I was thrilled and honored to participate in the MJF’s first HBCU Jazz Combo competition as an adjudicator,” said Ellis. “It was such a pleasure to hear the high level of musicality and preparation from all this year’s participants. I very much look forward to the future of this competition and hope to see it grow exponentially!”

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North Carolina Central University’s Jazz Studies program has earned a reputation as one of the premier university programs. Started by the great jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd and brought to prominence by legendary saxophonist, flutist and educator Dr. Ira Wiggins, NCCU’s jazz faculty include artists-in-residence Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo, in addition to department faculty Jazz Studies Director and director of NCCUs Combo 1, Robert Trowers (trombone); Albert Strong (trumpet); Dr. Lenora Helm Hammonds (vocals and director of NCCUs Vocal Jazz Ensemble); Maurice Myers (vocals); Jim Crew (piano); J.C. Martin (guitar); Thomas Taylor (drums and percussion); Damon Brown (bass), and Dr. Aaron Hill (saxophone).

“We are thrilled to have won the top prize in the inaugural HBCU Jazz Combo Challenge and honored to participate in the 66th Monterey Jazz Festival. Our students heard the amazing lineup for the festival and feel fortunate to share stages with their musical heroes. It will be a life-changing experience for our students, and a prestigious opportunity for our university,” said Dr. Lenora Helm Hammonds, interim department chair and director of Graduate Programs/Jazz Studies, North Carolina Central University.

Large and small jazz ensembles from NCCU are frequently featured at major venues, festivals, and conferences such as the Jazz Education Network’s annual conference, the Newport, Montreux, and Vienne jazz festivals, and the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) Conference. NCCU’s Jazz Combo I has also appeared for the last three years at the Jack Rudin Jazz Championship Combo Showcase at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City.

North Carolina Central University Jazz Combo I and staff will receive free round-trip flights to MJF66 from Raleigh to Monterey, California by Alaska Airlines, a partner of the festival. “For a company to be able to support young people in their journey is beyond belief. Watching last year’s students perform was priceless. We’re looking forward to helping fulfill more dreams this year,” said David Tucker, Managing Director, California Public Affairs for Alaska Airlines.

“AT&T works to provide access to equitable opportunities that provide pathways to equality for all by connecting communities and people to greater possibility.  When there is access to education, economic empowerment, and an inclusive workplace environment, the door to opportunity opens.  I feel this is a great opportunity for students from HBCUs to work with experienced artists and to be part of the best world-class jazz festival,” said Bettye J. Saxon, Ed.D. AT&T External Affairs.

“We look forward to welcoming NCCU to the 66th Monterey Jazz Festival and are pleased to present this opportunity to be showcased on a world stage and engage with and learn from legendary jazz artists,” said Colleen Bailey, Monterey Jazz Festival’s executive director.

For more information on the 66th Monterey Jazz Festival, including artist lineup, schedules, and ticket packages visit: