The time has come.
After six years of formal jazz presentations, consolidating local talent, establishing a world-class big band, putting an administrative structure in place and working with several managers of venues and restaurants, Jazz Artists of Charleston is ready for the next big step: the inaugural Charleston International Jazz Festival.
The idea is not exactly new, said JAC Executive Director Leah Suarez. In fact, it's been done on a smaller scale in the form of the Piccolo Spoleto Jazz Series and the JAC Jazz Series. But with the imminent opening of the new Gaillard Center and a local jazz scene that's reached a certain critical mass, the folks running the organization knew it was the right moment to make a big splash.
They've got the relationships, they've got support from the city, they're working with the Convention and Visitors Bureau, there's a ticketing and marketing infrastructure in place, they've got corporate and individual donors, they've got a growing number of musician-friends.
"Having that kind of support is like having the wind at your back," Suarez said.
The jazz festival, sponsored by Corbellus Capital, runs Jan. 22-25, mostly at the American Theater (446 King St.), with "Jazz@Noon" concerts at The Mezz (276 King St.).
The festival will present its spectacles on five stages: the "main stage" (ballroom), upstairs space and screening room of the American Theater; The Mezz, the intimate listening room operated by Quentin Baxter above Sermet's restaurant; and the Charleston Music Hall, which will host a free Family Jamboree finale at 3 p.m. Sunday.
The main stage will feature sets by the Charleston Jazz Orchestra Chamber Ensemble, Vida Latina, Garage Cuban Band and Charleston Latin Jazz Collective.
Matuto, a New York-based band led by College of Charleston graduate Clay Ross, will offer its unique jazz-roots-Brazilian sounds. JAC(K) Talks will precede one or two of the shows, and jazz-related movies will be screened in the theater.
Ross said he left Charleston 10 years ago to widen his circle of collaborators, but never burned bridges and often returns to town with his band Matuto or to sit in with his friends.
In New York, he found an enormous and diverse musical community to help him refine his own goals. But during the past 10 years, Charleston's jazz scene has matured, making it easier for musicians to move back and forth, Ross said.
"I still want to feed those relationships that are important to me, like relationships in Charleston" with people such as Baxter, Charlton Singleton and Kevin Hamilton. "People who have mentored me. It's a powerful and potent music scene."
Matuto has gained real traction in recent years with its mashup of styles and energy. The band tours regularly and performs around 200 shows a year, Ross said, adding that he's honored to participate in the festival.
"Charleston is my musical home," he said. "I'm blessed to have been able to do this so long now as a living. All that for me started in Charleston. So to see Charleston continue to grow through the efforts of people like Leah, and everything they've done through the Charleston Jazz Orchestra, and everything they're doing to align themselves together to draw attention from the international jazz scene, I admire that so much."
Suarez said what began as an idea tossed around by the late Jack McCray, herself, Singleton and others, has taken root in rich soil. A big band was formed, which helped galvanize local jazz players and provided a focus.
Last year, Jazz Artists of Charleston relocated to a storefront at 93 Spring St. and transformed the space into a public "Jazz House" where musicians can gather and patrons can listen to and talk about jazz in an informal, intimate setting.
The energy devoted to the Piccolo and JAC series now is being channeled toward this new enterprise, which organizers hope will grow significantly in the coming years, Suarez said.
"We want it to be authentic and feel really good," she said.
The festival also includes a serious educational component. JAC has teamed with Karen Chandler and the College of Charleston's Charleston Jazz Initiative, a research project, to schedule a JAC(K) Talk and other events. During the festival JAC will announce one of its new outreach initiatives, the Jazz Citizenship Awards. More education programming is in the works, including a collaboration with voice teacher Jill Terhaar-Lewis, local jazz musicians and Hammond High School in Columbia, Suarez said.
Chandler said her talk, called "Cradle of Jazz in Charleston," is part of an ongoing effort "to blend and marry the current live jazz scene with the storied past."
"(Suarez) didn't want a big festival to happen without any discussion of history," Chandler said.
That history is compelling. Increasingly, Charleston is recognized as one of America's primary seats of jazz, from which the influential Jenkins Orphanage Band emerged to set a tone around the world.
The festival is another way to celebrate that legacy, Chandler said.
"It seems to me to be the next logical step for JAC, and, frankly, the next logical step for Charleston," she said. "The city needs this. We've got all these musicians here. They're busy. But a focus that connects the tourism industry to the current jazz scene I think is pretty cool."
The jazz on offer during 2015 begins with the festival and continues throughout the year. Jazz will be heard at the North Charleston Arts Festival in May and Piccolo Spoleto Festival at the end of May and beginning of June.
The Charleston Jazz Orchestra's new season begins Feb. 8 with a big band concert on Kiawah ("Swing! Swing! Swing!") followed by shows at the Charleston Music Hall on Feb. 21, March 21, April 25, Sept. 19 and Oct. 24.
The band will celebrate the influential year 1959, Herbie Hancock, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk and Louis Armstrong.
In December, the big band will present its annual "Holiday Swing" concert in the new Gaillard Center concert hall.
"It's been a while since we started something (new)," Suarez said. "You've got to take risks, get the energy back and propel forward. It feels good. It feels right."
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