Leah Suarez is a multilingual singer, valve trombonist, composer and band leader known for her work in Charleston’s jazz community.
She graduated from the College of Charleston with a degree in music performance and jazz studies and later co-founded Jazz Artists of Charleston, a nonprofit aimed at preserving Charleston’s jazz heritage, with Jack McCray in 2008.
Suarez spoke with Charleston Scene this week about leaving her post at the organization this year, and what she has in store for 2016.
Q: You founded and ran Jazz Artists of Charleston for eight years, until June 2015 when you stepped aside. What was your greatest joy about that achievement? Were there any challenges or disappointments that stand out in your mind?
A: My greatest joy was the work itself: Working with a passionate team to build a community that supports a mission I wholeheartedly believe in, in my hometown. At some point, the revolution becomes the institution and building one that is mission-driven, sustainable and passionate is and will always be a challenge for anything that seeks evolution, relevancy and support. It has been the experience of a lifetime for which I am grateful.
Q: Somehow during those years you managed to keep up a performing career, and now you’re focused on strengthening that career, an effort that includes some travel to Mexico. Tell us a bit about that.
A: My focus now is on combining all of my professional and life experience into my career’s next season as a musician and in my business De La Luz, LLC, (meaning “of the light”) as a collaborator, producer and uniter. My business will engage on multiple artistic and cultural levels “where light meets life,” both here and abroad.
My time in Copenhagen 10 years ago, all that’s been created in this past decade, and my roots and travels to Mexico are all greatly contributing to the next season of my career and life, and I look forward to all that is next.
I am currently in production for my first full-length album release expected later this year. 2016 is shaping up to be quite the year!
Q: What sort of music are you performing in Mexico and how has it been received? What’s the jazz scene like there?
A: I am mostly performing my mix of jazz while in Mexico. I am also studying traditional Mexican music from various regions and subgenres, while exploring the intersection of my personal American and Mexican roots, and the interconnection of North, Central and South American Atlantic port cities.
There are tremendous musicians in Mexico who are versed in many styles and traditions. They love American jazz and I feel fortunate to have had a very warm reception, performing with the city’s top musicians. I love their openness and passion. I have spent most of my time in DF (Mexico City) and have started building my community there that has been overwhelmingly supportive.
While Charleston is home, I look forward to diving deeper into the scene in DF, establishing a home base there and performing more throughout Mexico.
Q: You have a couple of important local gigs coming up in the first part of 2016. Tell me about those.
A: I am thrilled to partner with the College of Charleston for its “YES! I Am A Feminist” event Feb. 23 for the third year in a row. I am also collaborating with Tiffany Silverman at The Citadel on a personally rewarding project highlighting women in jazz (on) March 22. It will be a premiere of my first professionally commissioned composition. I will also be the featured artist for Circular Church’s Jazz Vespers series March 13, with a nod to Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day on March 8.
Q: What is your prognosis of the jazz scene in Charleston? How might it evolve, or how should it evolve, in your view?
A: Charleston is and will always be an important cradle for America’s music. Jazz is improvisation and I believe that is the key to evolution and progress. The words of mentors Jack McCray and Clark Terry, respectively, say it best: “Submit to the swing” and “keep on keepin’ on.”