In the small rehearsal room on the second floor of the College of Charleston's Cato Center for the Arts, Quentin Baxter's combo plays through a couple of tunes.
First is Miles Davis' "Boplicity," a foxtrot with tight harmonies. Then the band - Alan Schmitt and Wade Caldwell on guitars, alumnus David Grimm on bass and Brandon Brooks on drums - runs an original by Caldwell, the 20-year-old junior from Harrisburg, Pa. It's called "How Many One-and-Onlys," and it swings gently, suggesting an easy waltz.
"What's with the diminished ninth chord?" Baxter asks.
They try the chord, which includes an ill-fitting note coming from Schmitt's guitar. Grimm strikes the low note, and they play the chord again, still sour.
"Stay off the D," Baxter says.
And they repeat a section of the song, reinforcing the changes, refining the swing, preparing for their upcoming recital.
The combo is one of a few organized this year by the jazz program, and its members are part of a discernible system in Charleston that develops young talent and introduces it to live local audiences.
What we conceive of as "the jazz scene" in town comprises various interrelated enterprises and activities and populated by a surprisingly large number of musicians who maintain ties to the Holy City.
The scene is especially vibrant for a medium-size metropolitan area, and it's fueled in part by young players whose talents are cultivated at the College of Charleston. Leading that effort is Robert Lewis, director of the jazz studies program and an accomplished arranger and saxophonist.
Lewis said 12 to 15 students are typically enrolled as jazz performance majors at any given time. They get lessons and coachings, take jazz theory and arranging, and play in various ensembles. As music majors pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree, they also take regular theory and history classes.
Lewis relies on adjunct instructors such as drummer Quentin Baxter, who has been teaching at the College since 1997; guitarist Tyler Ross; and flutist-percussionist Dave Haywood, who directs the wind ensemble.
"(The program) is unique in the state, for sure," Lewis said. "The fact that Charleston has a professional scene means that I can hire really qualified people to be adjuncts and teach private lessons. They're top-notch."
The students benefit not only from professional instruction but from a range of performing opportunities.
"Everybody in the top combo is playing at least semi-regularly," Lewis said. "One of the advantages for students at the College of Charleston is there's a professional scene you can break into. Guys who do the best have the best chance."
A number of the program's graduates have stuck around and enriched the local scene. Keyboard player Gerald Gregory, drummers Stuart White and Jeremy Wolf and bassist Ben Wells are among those who were trained in the classrooms and combos of the college.
"Charleston is one of the best places on the Eastern Seaboard to come and learn," said drummer Adam Ray, a junior in the program.
Ray and his bandmates, bassist Brett Belanger, pianist Demetrius Doctor, sax player Kevin Patton and guitarist Bryan Motte, were preparing recently for one of the regular recitals during which each combo plays a couple of tunes.
Doctor, a senior from North Charleston who is a minister of music at Royal Missionary Baptist Church, already has performed at the local jazz listening room downtown, The Mezz. He said he's been playing piano since age 5 and is largely self-taught. Only recently has he formalized his studies.
"I didn't get serious about jazz until I got embarrassed about it," he said with a smile.
Motte, a guitarist from Summerville, just graduated from the program. He also studied for a time at Charleston Southern University with Mark Sterbank, a leading sax player in town.
Motte said he grew up listening to and playing rock and blues; his interest in jazz came late.
"I wanted to explore improvisation, so this was a natural choice for me."
Charleston Southern's music program is perhaps best known for its strong voice teachers and emphasis on classical and sacred repertoires. But it does have a star jazz musician on its faculty, Sterbank, who teaches improvisation and theory classes and sometimes works with his own jazz combo. The emphasis at CSU is to train educators, not necessarily performers, he said.
Since he arrived in Charleston in 1997, the jazz scene has grown and improved, Sterbank said. Fifteen years ago, there was a venue, the Chef & Clef on Market Street, and a couple of restaurants that supported live music, especially Charleston Grill.
And, of course, there were established jazz musicians, such as keyboard player Oscar Rivers, sax player Lonnie Hamilton and singer Ann Caldwell who provided a musical foundation upon which a burgeoning scene could grow. (They are all still active and, as they say in jazz circles, burning it up.)
Today, the population of jazz musicians is growing, fueled not only by the College of Charleston but by the city's reputation as a jazz hub that attracts talent from elsewhere, Sterbank said. Some players went away to school then returned; others have descended on Charleston from off.
And the more critical mass there is, the higher the level of musicianship.
"Everybody's developing," he said.
Sterbank's about to release his third record. Trumpeter and big band leader Charlton Singleton has made two jazz records. Lewis has produced four recordings. Baxter, an accomplished recording engineer, has spent more time in the studio than most, operates a local studio and tours.
"The younger guys are now starting to branch out and do those things," Sterbank said. "I'd definitely say it's a developing scene."
Baxter came of age with his friends and fellow musicians Tommy Gill and Kevin Hamilton. The three players were students at the college together, each approaching jazz from different angles. Baxter grew up playing a drum set in church; Hamilton studied classical guitar; and Gill once was a student of famed piano teacher Enrique Graf.
The original "Serenade Show," presented at the Music Hall in the 1990s, benefited from Baxter's banging, and Clara's Coffee Shop provided him with an "office." He organized Sunday jam sessions at Clara's.
Little by little, density was added to the local jazz scene.
"The scene grew to a point it became interesting for students to stay," Baxter said. Simultaneously, managers at restaurants and other venues began to take notice, offering a stage to young players.
Baxter, who tours with singers Rene Marie and Allan Harris, and has played with virtuoso trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, guitarist Charlie Byrd, pianist Marcus Roberts and others, said he likes to explore jazz from every angle then share what he's learned from others with colleagues and students.
He is a firm teacher with a refined ear and high expectations, and his students know it very well.
"My goal is for you to expect more from you than I do, before you graduate," he tells them.
Brandon Brooks, the 20-year-old drummer from Greenville in Baxter's combo, said he's new to jazz, He studied classical percussion at the Governor's School before moving to Charleston.
"Quentin beats me up a little but he uplifts me as well," he said. "He's not afraid to tell you what's wrong."
Grimm, who recently graduated, has been finding plenty to do in the city, playing gigs at the Pour House and other venues and providing the bass lines and some guitar licks in his fusion band Wadata, he said.
The combo prepares to run through part of Wade Caldwell's tune once more, to nail down the structure.
"Chorus, trade eights, head out," Baxter instructs them.
And off they go.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook/aparkerwriter.
Bryan Motte plays his electric guitar as part of the College of Charleston Combo 1 jazz group.×
Piano player Demetrius Doctor is part of the College of Charleston Combo 1 jazz group.×
Brett Belanger plays his bass during a rehearsal of the College of Charleston Combo 1 jazz group.×
Kevin Patton plays his tenor sax during a rehearsal of the College of Charleston Combo 1 jazz group.×
Adam Ray plays the drums during a rehearsal of the College of Charleston Combo 1 jazz group.×
Quentin Baxter (far left) coaches his combo at the College of Charleston last month.×
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