Lenora Helm Comes to Aid of Family Displaced by Fire

Lenora Helm by Mel Brown
Lenora Helm by Mel Brown
Photos from performance by Lenora Helm by Mel Brown

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When vocalist Lenora Helm was thinking about the release of her new CD, Chronicles of a Butterfly, and what she might do to promote it, she had an epiphany of sorts. She thought about the idea of transformation and the idea of the “Butterfly Effect” — the phenomenon of a minor change in circumstances creating a large change in outcome. Rather than just do some performances to help publicize and sell the CD, she decided that instead she should do performances that help someone else-specifically someone else in need. As to whom that might be, the answer was in her own backyard. Almost literally. The Elms family resided in the same apartment complex where Helm lives in Durham, North Carolina. In late August, their apartment was completely destroyed by a fire. “When I saw the damage, I knew I had to do something. I really didn’t know the family, but I knew what they were going through. See, when I was 12, my family was burned out of our house on New Year’s Eve. We lost all of our belongings, just a week after Christmas. So it resonated with me. I wanted to do fundraising in the mode of the theme of transformation on the CD.”

The family was relocated, but nonetheless lost all of their belongings in the fire. Helm’s resolve stiffened further when she learned more details about the family. “The mother is a soldier who is serving in Iraq. The father takes care of the two boys, aged 8 and 4, and also works. I found out that the mother was able to come home from overseas just long enough to see the damage and trauma, but had to go back. Can you imagine the feeling she had having to go back, knowing that she couldn’t do anything to help her family?” Helm organized a show on September 18 to raise money for the family and the importance of her own CD became secondary. “I wanted the CD to matter by doing stuff for my community, not for myself. And it’s grown. Now I have organizations associated with my next few shows.”

In a twist to the usual CD release party, Helm does not sell her CDs, but rather gives them away with tickets. And the proceeds from the show go to the cause she’s chosen. But for Helm, it’s not just a matter of the money she herself raises. “Just doing shows like this helps to bring attention to the problem. It’s great to be pulling a community together, rather than just having a good time with music.”

This commitment to social issues came in part from her own experience with support from others in her community. “Within a 6-month period, I lost my father and lost a child through miscarriage and I had difficulty with my finances. I needed help and resources, but my fellow musicians really couldn’t help. I was surprised that I got help from strangers and people in my community who gave of themselves.” That support left an indelible mark on the singer. “When I perform now, it can’t be just about me. I need to ask myself: How can I be an artist in my own community?” Her answer was to use her music to bring people together to benefit specific issues and organizations in her local community.

When I asked Helm why more artists didn’t do this sort of thing, she said that she could only speak for herself and that her decision was personal one. “I do wish we as musicians would do more for others. But the things that can make you a great artist, also force you to focus on yourself and don’t necessarily make you a global citizen. And musicians are usually in such need themselves. Everybody has been affected by this economic crisis. But you know that there are people out there doings things, like [vocalist] Deborah Davis who raises money each year for Lupus.”

The notion of passing it on was not a foreign concept for Helm. For the past five years, Helm has been teaching at North Carolina Central University in Durham, where she’s become a mentor to a new generation of students. She herself was mentored by musician/educators such as Dr. Billy Taylor, Stanley Cowell and Andrew Hill, all of whom managed to keep playing their music while also committing themselves as jazz and music educators. Cowell particularly helped Helm to maintain focus on her own music, while at the same time being a part of her community. “He told me that the focus has to be the music first. Your journey weaves the expression, the story that comes through your music, but you have to submit to its challenges and joys. There is no one true ‘answer’ to doing all the things necessary to keep all the balls in the air at one time. He basically said that you have to know that to keep playing, performing, composing, keeps you on track — you are a musician first.”

Certainly, as a musician, Helm has been busy of late. Chronicles of a Butterfly was produced by another mentor, Branford Marsalis, who oversaw the recording at a church in the area where he had recorded before. “We spent two days in this church with the three musicians (Mulgrew Miller on piano, Neal Caine on bass and Doug Wamble on guitar), the engineer and Branford. I’d never done a recording like that. Branford was very hands-on and vocal about how to make the record better. I was very lucky to have his help.” In addition, Helm told JT that she received a New Jazz Works award from Chamber Music America and created a jazz suite for 11 pieces that she will perform live in 2010, when she hopes to record that piece for another CD. She’s also been working on a “Jazz Vespers” project, with her words put to music by John Coltrane, Clifford Brown, Wayne Shorter and Victor Young. Right now Helm seems much more interested in talking her support of T.I.E., a local organization that deals with victims of domestic violence. “They need a place to house them and it seems like they’re on their way with a space. We just need to help them with the necessary funds for real estate.” Helm is indeed paying it forward.

The next set of shows in the series, which Helms calls the Butterfly Concerts are:

Butterfly Concert #2 – T.I.E., (Transformation, Inspiration and Education), a nonprofit that supports women and children who have been victims of Domestic Violence;

Butterfly Concert #3, Turning Corners, a nonprofit that helps men and women who have been incarcerated get back on their feet, with a job and shelter.

For more information about the Butterfly Concerts go to Helm’s web site.