Thriving Lowcountry jazz scene keeps local musicians from leaving

Kevin Bales (from left), Rene Marie, Kevin Hamilton and Quentin Baxter perform at the Festival Internacional de Jazz Peniscola on July 21 in Peniscola, Spain. The Rene Marie Quartet had six gigs in Spain and two in Scotland on the heels of a swing around the United States.

I'll tell you a little secret about the live jazz community around here.

We live in constant fear of losing our treasured musicians to some far-flung place. We know how good they are and the rest of the world is slowly, but surely, realizing this.

We're not as frightened, though, as we used to be. As our scene continues to build, the more Charleston becomes as good a base as anywhere else to pursue a fulfilling, materially rewarding career in performing jazz music.

Just as good as, say, Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C., Denver, Minneapolis -- any of them.

They all have thriving (or, since the recession, surviving) local jazz scenes, and the quality of life available there affords a resident an opportunity at a lifestyle that promotes curiosity, camaraderie and creativity.

The cities cited also were tops on a recent tour undertaken by the Rene Marie Quartet, a recording and touring ensemble that is popular around here. Its performing prowess has made it a Spoleto Festival USA favored artist, having turned in multiple concerts at the internationally acclaimed festival held annually in Charleston.

The force-of-nature-style singer has a classy act, and it includes Charleston's Quentin Baxter, the band's percussionist, music consultant, sound engineer and sommelier. He's been on the road with Rene Marie for a decade now.

He's always come home, though, despite all kinds of offers.

On this last tour, June 24-July 27, the needle on the I-hope-they-don't-leave meter spiked.

This time, it was because Charleston bassist Kevin Hamilton, aka Slamilton, joined the band. "Great for him!" we were all saying when we heard. We all knew he was fully capable and that it was a home run of a career move.

Marie is a major artist on the prestigious Motema label. She's in a class with the likes of a Dianne Reeves, a Cassandra Wilson or a Dee Dee Bridgewater -- all, by the way, fellow Spoleto performers and the cream of the jazz vocalist crop.

Right on, Slamilton.

But would he come back?

He sure did.

Whew!

I spoke with Hamilton and Marie shortly after he got back home. It was a great experience for both of them, they reported, but it didn't lure Hamilton to seek greener pastures somewhere else.

In fact, it seems that it only solidified Hamilton's ongoing pursuit of excellence on his instrument and an insight into living and working at home that's put in greater perspective by venturing out from time to time.

I don't think we'll lose him. Instead, we've retained a native son who has decided to dig his roots deeper as he continues to explore outwardly.

Hamilton replaced longtime bassist Rodney Jordan, who lives in Florida and has decided to work more with pianist Marcus Roberts. Marie said both Baxter and Jordan vigorously recommended Hamilton.

"He worked really hard," Marie said. "When there was down time, his nose would be in the books, looking at charts, on the iPod, talking to guys, talking and asking about this and that.

"... He wants to do well, and that meant more to me than anything else. He took it seriously. He was coming to a group where you can't just rely on standard jazz chord changes."

If anything, Marie's band is original in its approach to its own material and covers. All the members are virtuosi, so improvisational interaction is what you get with her groups. Its songbook is huge.

"I have a deeper knowledge of the music," Hamilton told me. "I talked to (pianist) Kevin (Bales) a lot. I grew a lot. He talked to me on a very deep level. I realized they were playing on that kind of level, going to the core of what the music was, who wrote it, the lyrics, the chord structure, when was it written, how we're doing it now."

He rose to the occasion when he was out front.

"We were doing duets," he reminisced. "I knew she would call them. At Yoshi's (legendary San Francisco Bay Area club), the first tune is a song. It went very well. People dug it. It was just me, Rene and the bass."

Hamilton survived the built-in perils of the road -- the canceled flights, the failed loudspeakers, the occasional bad instrument, all of it.

He's a full-fledged member of the band now.

Marie said, "We were all championing him. By the end of the run, he was on it."

The band is looking to go out again later this year. It will be supporting Marie's "Voice of My Beautiful Country," recorded in Mount Pleasant, and "Black Lace Freudian Slip," an October release, both on Motema.

Jack McCray, author of "Charleston Jazz" and founding board member of Jazz Artists of Charleston, can be reached at jackjmccray@aol.com.