If you hear the word “opera” or “Shakespeare” or “jazz”, what associations come to mind? “Elitist” perhaps. “Sophisticated.” “Great art.” To the right?
Here’s the problem: All the performance art encompassed by those three words was once the opposite of great art.
Until the 20th century, operas were the Broadway shows of their time, and its patrons were quick to express their opinions loud and clear.
In Elizabethan times (and for the next three centuries), Shakespeare’s plays were popular entertainment that often hinted at contemporary concerns that peasants could understand.
And jazz started out as a noisy mishmash of musical styles, a boisterous medium of experimentation mostly derived from African-American culture.
Today, many of us think jazz – along with Shakespeare and opera – is out of our league. We reject it because we assume we won’t understand it. All those notes! All those fancy words! All that bellowing and fainting!
Jazz, especially big band jazz, is loud and upbeat. He taps his toes. It makes hearts beat faster.
The Charleston Jazz Orchestra begins its 12th season on Saturday February 15 at the Charleston Music Hall, with two performances by an ensemble devoted to the music of Duke Ellington, one of the most popular jazz artists of all time. The local big band will recreate – essentially note for note – the historic appearance of the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, which breathed new life into the group at a time when small ensemble bebop jazz had become dominant.
To prepare for the program, CJO Music Director Robert Lewis located several existing charts, but eight of the tracks had to be transcribed from scratch. Lewis divided the work among the regular members of the group. Saxophonist Mark Sterbank arranged two numbers, bassist Frank Duvall took two, flautist David Heywood took two and Lewis himself took two.
The process required careful listening to the famous recording, familiarity with Ellington’s music and the band’s staff, and a solid grasp of jazz theory, Lewis said.
The program will include 15 songs, performed by 18 lead musicians.
During the Ellington Orchestra’s original performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956, Duke offered a few old chestnuts, including reimagined versions of “Diminuendo in Blue” and “Crescendo in Blue,” tunes from 1938. Ellington connected both songs with a long section improvisation featuring tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, who would play a grueling 27-chorus solo – nearly six and a half minutes non-stop – which drove the cheering crowd into frenzy. It was a time for the jazz history books.
And that gives the CJO something to measure up to. But his fans are enthusiastic and more and more numerous. And a dozen years after its founding, the local big band has proven it can hold its own.
Growth and change
Founded in 2008 by Leah Suarez and the late Jack McCray, with support from Quentin Baxter, Nathan Koci, Clay Grayson, Steven Sandifer and Regina Ruopoli, Jazz Artists of Charleston was the non-profit vehicle that carried the sound of the orchestra to across town. Eventually he would add an annual jazz festival, change his name to Charleston Jazz, merge with the Leonard School of Music and expand its educational programming and musical collaborations.
The CJO’s first musical director was Charlton Singleton. In 2019, Robert Lewis, head of the jazz program at the College of Charleston, took over.
The early years of the organization were a bit hectic. McCray has dipped into his own modest bank account to cover costs, and the board has stepped up efforts to make sure things keep going. Suarez sought to balance innovation and musical risk-taking with the realities of running a nonprofit startup.
In 2015, Mary Beth Natarajan replaced Suarez as executive director and hired Brent Swaney, a veteran and Air Force musician, as performance director. They have helped consolidate the association’s concert programming, educational offerings and community outreach initiatives. In 2017, the organization merged with the Leonard School of Music and launched the Charleston Jazz Academy, hiring David W. Carter Jr. to lead it.
Last year Natarajan left Charleston and Director of Development Tatjana Beylotte, who was previously Deputy Director of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, took on the management.
Beylotte said her annual budget is now around $ 1.1 million, of which $ 400,000 is spent on education. When she arrived on board in June 2017, the Academy had around 20 regular students. Today there are 150 of them taking lessons and playing in a band, and most of them have scholarships, she said.
Carter said “Jazz Day for Kids,” a free CJO performance for students, is still going strong after eight years. It is also being developed this year in a two-day collaboration with the Center Gaillard. Carter and Singleton will host a jazz camp in June, also at the Gaillard Center. And, through a partnership with the Spoleto Festival USA, the Academy hosts masterclasses of festival jazz artists, exposing students to some of the best musicians at work today.
The Jazz Pass program, which ensures young students can attend Charleston Jazz concerts for free, is funded by regular ticket buyers willing to shell out an additional $ 10.
Big band swing
Over the past two years, Charleston Jazz has seen its audience grow by 28%, Beylotte said. About a fifth of the crowd on a given night is from out of town. Lately, the CJO has ventured into Walterboro with the goal of bringing its music to communities that otherwise would not have the chance to hear it. The group also performs annually on Kiawah Island.
During the festival last month, Charleston Jazz teamed up with the Forte Jazz Lounge, a new club on Upper King Street, to present local bands in an intimate setting. Each year the organization brings a few headliners to Charleston for the festival, most recently Regina Carter, Freddy Cole and Monty Alexander. For the past few years, guests have included Diane Shuur, Bobby McFerrin, Nnenna Freelon, and Arturo Sandoval.
The CJO series consists of six shows (two sets each) at the Charleston Music Hall. Each program has a theme: either it presents the music of a particular artist, or it takes on a certain style (Latin jazz, for example) or genre (film music or holiday songs or tunes from a favorite pop group). Lewis said he keeps track of all the ideas in a large spreadsheet.
A CJO concert is a bit like a well-made Bloody Mary, with a few extra spices: it’s familiar and tasty, yet complex and exciting. It is easy to drink, but challenges the palate as it descends into the esophagus.
The arrangements, many of which are brand new creations by the band members, often invite careful listening, even when the tunes are known.
Take the April 2018 show, “All You Need Is Love: CJO Plays The Beatles”. The set included an unusual version of “dear Prudence”, Arranged by Lewis, who started out with an electric bass solo, continued with Singleton playing the melody on the trumpet as the band dampened their solo with big major chords, then gave way to an inspired dissonant section. by Charles Ives. The band layered themes, citing another Beatles song, “Eleanor Rigby,” and destroying any semblance of tonality. Then, suddenly, it returned to normal. The melody returned, with those big major chords.
The public ate it.
So is jazz great art?
“Music can be complicated, but I don’t think it’s inaccessible,” Carter offered.
And because just about any big band tune can be arranged – including Ravel’s “Bolero“or tunes from Bizet’s” Carmen “- it’s easy to please any listener, Lewis added.
From the stage, he’ll share some interesting information or give a tip, perhaps suggesting what customers should listen to, and that helps a lot, he said.
“Just a little helping out and it’s a great experience, and they are coming back,” said Lewis.