Looking back at The Barn, a bygone Wilmington jazz club where the greats came to play

One of the few existing photos of Wilmington jazz club The Barn, which was active in the 1940s and '50s.

Back in the 1940s and '50s, jazz was among the most popular forms of American music, particularly the "big band" sound practiced by large orchestras led by the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie.

In Wilmington, one of the primary homes for these types of touring acts during the days of segregation was The Barn, a jazz club in a Black neighborhood on South Eleventh Street where patrons could dance the night away to the songs of musicians who were on their way to becoming legends in their own time, if they weren't already.

In the latest edition of StarNews history podcast Cape Fear Unearthed, our guest is Wilmington native and jazz scholar and historian Larry Reni Thomas, who now lives in Chapel Hill. Thomas, who is also a veteran radio broadcaster, does a weekly jazz show for WCOM in Carrboro.

Thomas has written extensively about jazz in North Carolina, and is working on a book about what he calls the "Carolina jazz connection," about the dozens of well-known jazz artists — including such giants as John Coltrane, Nina Simone and Thelonious Monk — who had to flee the racism of their home state in order to find success playing music. He said he plans to include a chapter on The Barn in his book.

Wilmington native and writer Larry Reni Thomas, seen here in the documentary "Wilmington On Fire," about the Wilmington massacre of coup of 1898.

Thomas has been researching The Barn since the 1980s, and said he grew up around the corner from South Eleventh between Wright and Meares streets, where The Barn was located. The building that housed The Barn was torn down long ago, but Thomas said his fascination with it started at an early age. Walking past the dilapidated building as a child, Thomas said he would ask his father what it was. That's when his father told him about The Barn and all of the famous acts who played there.

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In an article titled "The Barn: Wilmington's Jazz Mecca" for Come Hear North Carolina, a website celebrating North Carolina's musical history that is part of the North Carolina Arts Council, Thomas writes about The Barn as "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." (The article was originally written for the Wilmington Journal in 2002, Thomas said, republished on his blog in 2009 and picked up in 2019 by Come Hear N.C.)

In 2002, for a story written to promote a Wilmington music series Thomas started called Jazz Night at Town Hall on Castle Street, Thomas told the StarNews that he had talked to Dizzy Gillespie, who died in 1993, after a concert by the trumpet great at Thalian Hall, and that Gillespie told him that he remembered playing The Barn.

Thomas said he interviewed Gerrie Lemon, the granddaughter of Barn owner Charles Whitted, and she told him that legendary band leader Lionel Hampton would play The Barn regularly, as would greats like Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

Jazz saxophonist Jimmy Heath, who graduated from Wilmington's all-black Williston High School in 1943, played in a Wilmington jazz and big band group, The Melody Barons, before going on to play with the greatest jazz players of all time, including his own brothers, bassist Percy (of the Modern Jazz Quartet) and drummer Albert or "Tootie," (who just played a show in Wilmington earlier this month that Thomas reviewed) in The Heath Brothers.

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Before he died in 2020, Jimmy Heath told Thomas he came back to Wilmington to play The Barn as a member of the Nat Towles big band.

"The Barn had gotten a name as the place where big bands thrived, where the good times rolled," Thomas quoted Heath as saying. "The place was known for great 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.”

Bands who would play The Barn would typically also play for all-white audiences at Lumina in Wrightsville Beach as part of the same tour, Thomas said. (While whites were known to frequent The Barn, the segregation of the day prevented Blacks from attending shows at Lumina.) Owner Whitted also worked with a jazz club in Kinston to coordinate acts playing at both clubs.

Thomas, who said he prefers to call jazz "American classical music" — in part because of the skills of its best composers but also because he believes the word "jazz" derives from a pejorative term used by early 20th century whites to describe the music — also interviewed Helen Morgan, who grew up in Wilmington and whose mother worked at The Barn. (Morgan has an amazing back story in her own right, and Thomas' interviews were used in part as the basis for 2016 jazz documentary "I Called Him Morgan.")

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The StarNews of the 1940s and '50s, then called the Wilmington Morning Star and the Sunday Star-News, did a generally poor job of covering the Black community and didn't typically report on places like The Barn unless something went wrong.

A story from November 1951 covered the murder trial of three Black members of the U.S. Marines Corps from Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville who were charged with the murder of a Black Wilmington man after an incident at The Barn, which the paper identified as a "local Negro dance hall."

An item from the paper in January 1953 notes that "Negroes of the county will have a March of Dimes ball at the Barn Saturday night, with music furnished by an all-girl Negro orchestra brought in from New York."

The last listing found for "The Barn Dance Hall" and "Club Barnette" in the Wilmington City Directory is 1956. Advertisements listing "The Barn" and "The Barnett" for rent appeared in the StarNews in 1959 and 1960.

That the StarNews covered a murder that happened at The Barn but not the greats who played is sadly typical of its day

If not for the work of people like Thomas in bringing this history to light, it's possible that The Barn would've been forgotten. Thanks to his efforts, however, the light that burned brightly for a short time in Wilmington at The Barn isn't likely to be forgotten.

Contact John Staton at 910-343-2343 or John.Staton@StarNewsOnline.com. 

This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: At bygone Wilmington NC jazz club The Barn, the greats came to play