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Lenora Helm Hammonds (p/k/a Lenora Zenzalai Helm) is a artist-educator with a passion for all things Jazz. She intersects her love for jazz and penchant for crafting communities of practice to empower artist-entrepreneurs to take control of their art and work.
CEO and Owner of her own label, a multi-faceted performing artist, and a professor at an HBCU, read more about Dr. Hammonds rich career below.
Hey Lenora! Can you tell us about how you got your start in the music industry?
After graduating Berklee College of Music with a film scoring degree, I landed a job at a major booking agency in NYC, and shortly thereafter at Sony Music in their Business Affairs unit.
I learned a ton between those two jobs about the music business, and decided to pursue my performance career as an artist-run label. I always was someone who had a slash career-mindset; vocalist/composer/arranger/bandleader was my first set of career titles, then as I learned about what was needed to take control of my career I added producer/label owner/CEO.
Woah. That’s a lot of hats. Did you intentionally strive to take on so many kinds of roles? Or did it sort of just happen?
I was intentional about cultivating opportunities to work as a performer who composed their own music, bandleader who developed opportunities to tour and perform, and record label owner who made decisions about how to forge and impact creative directions in the music industry.
So, what this looked like in action was stints working as a touring U.S. Jazz Ambassador, who would come from the road to record albums, perform the jazz club and festival circuit, teach as a teaching artist in between tours and develop an audience and creative team. It was very intuitive and often scary, but exhilarating.
Necessity is the mother of invention and it was clearly from this concept that I created and forged my paths. I can’t say that the outcomes I was able to manifest were as clearly defined at the outset as it may sound. I just stayed focused on my end goals, and would be very organized with 3, 6, 9 and 12 month goals about each step I needed to master. I had/have amazing mentors and a bad-ass village.
How did all that lead to what you do today as the owner of Zenzalai, and an artist-educator?
How all of this led to the work I do today was pretty clear cut.
Zenzalai Music was a record label that had to manifest to allow me to maintain creative freedom of my ideas and work.
I purchased the masters of the previous recordings I made on other indie labels at the start of my career to add to my catalog, and I just kept moving forward after those purchases, developing the label to the 7 releases we currently hold.
The teaching artist work prepared me for my current role in academia as music professor in a music department at an HBCU. My curiosity about the process as it relates to the creative journey lit the fire of my desire to obtain my doctorate degree in music education.
Being a composer is probably the truest thing I am; I was writing lyrics and composing songs as a little girl, even before I knew that rules and a craft existed around both endeavors. Graduating from Berklee with a film scoring degree was a foundation that I have recently returned to with upcoming projects, and I was ALWAYS going to sing as long as breath was in me!
What surprised me–and still surprises me–is the Grace of the Creator to connect all of the dots for me in a way where the sum of the parts of me have created a full circle, lived experience. I’m having so much fun I often have to pinch myself.
Are there any projects that you’re currently working on that you’re most excited about?
Yes!! I’m thrilled to share that music I wrote for a play, Dreaming, is premiering in NYC at the La Mama Theater this week (October, 2021), and I’m working on scoring a documentary film, Native/Wright & Green, about the creative relationship of Black writer, Richard Wright and his last project to turn his book Native Son into a theatrical play with playwright Paul Green.
I also have won a grant to produce virtual concerts for Chamber Music America’s Presenting Jazz program in first quarter 2022 with my chamber ensemble comprised of Tribe Jazz Orchestra members. We will record my original music of an eleven song suite, Journeywoman. First quarter 2022 will also be a new recording project and release of Journeywoman. I also won a grant from North Carolina Arts Council to produce a JazzGirls weekend to support emerging middle, high-school and college women who play jazz. These projects will keep me quite busy for the first and second quarter of 2022 as well.
Another Wow! Congratulations on all these incredible projects! Amongst all these achievements, is there a success story or career milestone that you are most proud of?
Well, I just completed an 8-year journey to earn a doctoral degree from Boston University’s College of Fine Arts. I now am Dr. Lenora! lol. The last CD release for Zenzalai Music, released at the start of the pandemic reached the JazzWeek Top 50 releases of 2020. That blew my mind because it was the first release of my new band, The Tribe Jazz Orchestra®. So yeah, I’m very proud of reaching those two milestones.
Outside of your work in music, do you have any other hobbies/ particular areas of expertise/interest etc.?
My hobbies are pretty boring, lol. I am a bookworm and I love to read. I love gardening and cooking, and I love traveling with my husband, Fred Hammonds. I’m a step-mom to two grown men who are fantastic dads and between them I am also step-grandma to ten grandchildren! I’m an avid daily meditator and love yoga. My meditation and yoga practice is at the core of my creative self and balances my very full life.
I wouldn’t call any of that boring at all. Before we end, are there any final words of wisdom you’d like to share with our readers?
I believe that as Creatives we are obligated to do our very best to manifest our full expression.
For up-and-coming music executives or artists, I have one big secret that a mentor shared with me; “don’t pimp your art for your self-esteem!” Work on your developing yourself, and understanding who you are, whether that is through therapy, personal development classes and books, etc., You can’t create anything lasting or of value to anyone from an empty or dysfunctional vessel.
Our work is just as important as the work of a doctor, lawyer, engineer or scientist because we work in the humanities–the branch of creativity that deals with what makes us human. The best road to success and manifesting your dreams is to help someone else get to their dreams and goals. In the process you learn how to become an alchemist who makes magic happen! I look forward to connecting with everyone, and thanks a million for giving me this opportunity to share!
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A2IM is a 501(c)(6) not-for-profit trade organization headquartered in New York City that exists to support and strengthen the independent recorded music sector. Membership currently includes a broad coalition of more than 700 Independently-owned American music labels. A2IM represents these independently owned small and medium-sized enterprises’ (SMEs) interests in the marketplace, in the media, on Capitol Hill, and as part of the global music community. In doing so, it supports a key segment of America’s creative class that represents America’s diverse musical cultural heritage. Billboard Magazine identified the Independent music label sector as 37.32 percent of the music industry’s U.S. recorded music sales market in 2016 based on copyright ownership, making Independent labels collectively the largest music industry sector.