Cradle of jazz

Charleston Jazz Orchestra

Popular opinion, mythology, and natives of New Orleans believe that it was the Big Easy gumbo combination of the blues and ragtime that came together in the clubs and back rooms of the Crescent City and created jazz. Charleston's jazz aficionados, though, might respectfully disagree.

And the Jazz Artists of Charleston's (JAC) Piccolo Spoleto jazz series is in some ways the proving ground. Featuring the Charleston Jazz Orchestra (CJO), making its Piccolo Spoleto debut, and the CJO Chamber Ensemble, the three-concert series gives JAC a chance to plant its flag firmly in the Lowcountry soil.

Tonight the CJO Chamber Ensemble presents "East of Ellington," a tribute to the Duke at the Charleston Music Hall. Saturday at the Hall the full big band will turn their horns toward Count Basie for its "Swing! Swing! Swing!" show. The series wraps up with a Sunday afternoon "Jazz for the Family" concert, featuring standards and hits from TV and the movies, also at the Music Hall.

"We've been around for six years and we have a very good following, but there is still a really large amount of people that have never heard the orchestra," said Charlton Singleton, artistic director and conductor of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra. "And with a city that has a history like we do with jazz, it's frustrating that we don't talk about it or promote it more. ... New Orleans and Charleston, those are the two cities you can argue that created jazz."

This genesis of jazz in the Lowcountry is the Jenkins Orphanage, according to Singleton. Originally located on Franklin Street (the current facility is located in North Charleston), the orphanage was once exclusively for black children. The man in charge, the Rev. Daniel J. Jenkins, formed a youth band that became a progenitor of the jazz sound. The Jenkins Orphanage Band gained in popularity, eventually attracting non-orphans interested in learning the music, and it even toured.

Dozens of influential jazz musicians got their start in the band: Freddie Green, William "Cat" Anderson and Jabbo Smith among them.

Anderson (trumpet) and Green (guitar) would become key members of the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the Count Basie Orchestra respectively.

"When you talk about big band you basically talk about Duke Ellington and Count Basie," Singleton said. "And they both have ties to the Lowcountry through Anderson and Green."

In a sense, the series is as much a musical statement as it is an entertainment featuring Charleston's best sons and daughters of jazz.

"They're seizing the opportunity to take the 'Swing, Swing, Swing!' CJO show, which will be the Charleston Jazz Orchestra's Piccolo debut, and the 'East of Ellington' show so that they can reach as many folks in town (as possible)," said Scott Watson, executive director of the Office of Cultural Affairs. "And one of the delights about the Charleston Jazz Orchestra is not only that the musicians onstage are local. Almost all the charts on the music stands are (arrangements) by members of the jazz orchestra."

"Jazz for the Family" show is the first time JAC is targeting local young people - future jazz fans.

"The show is not geared to just kids but everyone," JAC's Executive Director Leah Suarez said. "We're going to perform songs everyone's familiar with, like television and movie themes, along with jazz standards."

New Orleans is a vital part of the jazz creation story, but local players will continue to provide evidence that Charleston, too, is important.

Nick Reichert is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.