Charleston jazz historian, advocate and author Jack McCray dies

Jack McCray

Jack McCray, a downtown Charleston native who devoted his life to preserving the city's jazz heritage, died Wednesday.

McCray co-founded the Charleston Jazz Initiative, a nonprofit research project that documents jazz tradition locally, and he penned the history book "Charleston Jazz," which tells the story of the Holy City's rich yet unsung contribution to American jazz. A former staffer at The Post and Courier, he also wrote a weekly jazz column for Charleston Scene.

Longtime friend Herb Frazier said 64-year-old McCray complained about back trouble on Monday, but Frazier did not know how McCray died. Frazier said he and McCray talked about Charleston history and culture — everything from politics to food to hospitality. McCray's greatest love, though, was live music. He worked to keep musicians working and to tell their stories along the way, Frazier said. "He had a passion to tell the story of how Charleston influenced jazz in this country," Frazier said. "In this country so many people think New Orleans had the greatest impact on jazz, but Jack believed Charleston predated New Orleans' contribution."

A group of jazz artists looking to organize as professional musicians gathered together at Andolini's pizza parlor in the summer of 2007 and invited McCray to serve as their moderator. Jazz Artists of Charleston, a nonprofit group that promotes local jazz culture, developed out of that casual gathering, and McCray remained an advising member of its board.

Frazier said McCray himself played trumpet in the Burke High School band and sometimes talked about picking up his old instrument once more. "His desire was to one day again be able to hit a high C," Frazier said.

Former Charleston Scene editor Marcus Amaker called McCray "the definition of cool" and that McCray's jazz column marked Amaker's smartest decision while leading the publication.

"I often got positive feedback about the column from everyday folks — in grocery stores, on the street and elsewhere," Amaker said. "People connected to Jack. Jack connected to people."

Dottie Ashley, who worked with McCray for 18 years at The Post and Courier, said McCray helped to organize jazz events that packed rooms with black and white audience members alike.

"He brought together the races," Ashley said. "Jack's goal was not only to bring together musicians but to bring together the community as well."

Her husband, Franklin Ashley, recalled his favorite McCray-ism Thursday morning: "No matter what, it's got to swing."

Check back later for information on funeral arrangements.