Lowcountry Jazz Festival: Smooth sounds get funky for a healthy cause
By Stratton Lawrence | Wednesday, August 29, 2012
If you go
What: Lowcountry Jazz Festival
Where: North Charleston Performing Arts Center, 5001 Coliseum Drive
Price: $20-$60 depending on the event
For more info: www.lowcountryjazzfestival.com
Is it a coincidence that the musicians we most often hear piped in at the doctor’s office are banding together to help “close the gap” in health care disparities in the Lowcountry?
No, not exactly. When Dr. Thaddeus Bell and his wife dreamed up the idea for a jazz festival to promote their charitable organization, Closing the Gap in Health Care, they naturally looked to the artists they admired and enjoyed the most.
“I play a lot of music in my practice, so it’s not uncommon for patients to come into my office and hear jazz,” Bell said. “A lot of the artists that you’ll hear on stage this year are playing in my office all day.”
Now in its fourth year, the Lowcountry Jazz Festival is coordinated and produced by Charlotte-based promoter Tammy Greene of Jazz Diva Entertainment. At another of her concerts, she met Lowcountry DJ and producer Jazzy Jay (at that time of R&B station Magic 107.3), who told her about Bell’s organization and his jazz festival idea.
“I’d been thinking that Charleston would be a great place for a festival,” said Greene, who kicked off the first year with a one-day event featuring saxophonist Boney James and pianist Alex Bugnon. “That went really well and made Closing the Gap some money, so we did it again in 2010.”
Doubling their attendance in the second year, the festival expanded to two days in 2011.
With interest growing even more, this weekend’s event now encompasses three full nights and a special jazz brunch on Sunday.
“This is the way I dreamed of it all along,” Greene said. “Dr. Bell has been going on faith with me.”
Each evening of the 2012 Lowcountry Jazz Festival includes three acts, highlighted by a national headliner to close the show.
Friday’s lineup begins with pianist Marcus Johnson and guitarist Matt Marshak before culminating with keyboardist/trombonist Brian Culbertson and saxophonist David Sanborn, who are touring the country together on “The Dream Tour.”
For the 39-year-old Culbertson, who has recorded with Herb Alpert and recently released his 13th full-length album, “Dreams,” playing with the six-time Grammy-winning Sanborn is a dream come true.
“It’s incredible,” said Culbertson, on the phone with Charleston Scene from a soundcheck at a gig with Sanborn in Milwaukee. “We’d been running into each other at various festivals for a while, and we ended up hanging out with each other on the Smooth Jazz Cruise last January.”
For their current tour, Sanborn and Culbertson combine their bands into one, sharing the stage for the duration of the show.
“It’s a true collaborative duo show, which I think is truly exciting,” Culbertson said. “There’s a lot of great ups and downs in the musical moments. It’s a good flow, with a lot of funky stuff and a lot of beautiful arrangements.”
For the set list, the duo draws from Culbertson’s catalog as well as Sanborn’s entire career, dating back to 1975. As a session sax player, Sanborn’s resume includes recordings with a who’s who of musical icons, including Stevie Wonder, The Grateful Dead, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie and James Brown.
“Mixing in David’s classic material is what I’m really excited about,” Culbertson said. “That’s the stuff that really got me going in high school.”
Culbertson has his own impressive resume, including 2008’s “Bringing Back the Funk,” which drew on players and influences like Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White and Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bootsy Collins.
The festival’s all-star lineup continues Saturday, when returning favorite saxophonist Gerald Albright pairs with guitarist Norman Brown for another duo show. They’re preceded by saxophonist Ronnie Laws and festival veteran Alex Bugnon.
Promoter Greene is quick to mention Albright among her favorite performers from last year’s festival, jumping at the chance to book him again.
“People are still talking about that performance,” she exclaims. “From the music to the energy, it’s a moment that people remember.”
Albright is a session veteran with credits that include The Temptations, Whitney Houston and Anita Baker. He and Brown are touring on their joint 2012 release, “24/7.”
“It’s a special festival,” said Albright, speaking last week as he boarded a flight after a show in New York. “Everything is just top notch, and we really enjoy the audience in Charleston. They embrace the performers, and that makes for a wonderful experience.
“Plus, it’s nice to know it’s for a worthy cause. Music is a magnet for bringing people together, so we’re glad to be a part of that.”
On Sunday morning, the festival debuts the Lowcountry Jazz Brunch at 11 a.m., featuring saxophonist Jessy J.
That evening, the weekend concludes with headliner Al Jarreau, preceded by pianist Cyrus Chestnut, and local trumpeter and bandleader Charlton Singleton.
Jarreau, a seven-time Grammy-winning jazz singer, counts George Benson, Bill Withers and Al Green among his contemporaries. With a discography dating back to 1975, the 72-year-old still records and tours internationally. His most recent Grammy Award came in 2007 for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance for the song “God Bless the Child,” a collaboration with Jill Scott and Benson.
With three nights of headliners, Greene said that the “stars aligned” for this year’s festival, allowing for just the right combination of diverse performers.
“I’ve never heard Al Jarreau in person before,” said Closing the Gap’s Bell when asked who he’s most excited about seeing this year. “He’s an icon in the smooth jazz community.”
From 1995-2004, Bell served as the director of the Office of Student Diversity at the Medical University of South Carolina.
It was during that time that he fully realized the disparity in health care for African-Americans in the state. Determined to take action, Bell formed Closing the Gap.
Today, the organization hosts youth fitness seminars throughout predominately black neighborhoods in the Lowcountry and has a daily presence on FM radio stations across the Lowcountry that are popular with the black community.
The group also contributes to scholarships for African-American students at MUSC, an award given in Bell’s honor.
“We were looking for a better way to raise funds for our scholarship when my wife suggested the jazz festival,” explains Bell. “There were not a whole lot of resources to help African-American students attend the Medical University, so my major focus has been trying to promote the health care professions, so that we can do a better job of fixing the disparities.”
When the Coastal Community Foundation offered to partner with Closing the Gap to promote the scholarship, they challenged Bell to raise $250,000 in an endowment.
“We were trying to do it the old fashioned way, and we weren’t making a whole lot of money,” Bell recalls.
Since beginning the jazz festival, they’ve increased the coffers from $80,000 to $193,000, and they’re hopeful this year’s event will push them to their goal.
“I don’t want to count my chickens before they hatch, but there’s a good chance that we could reach the goal this year,” Bell said.
In addition to increasing radio addresses and fitness festivals geared toward children, Bell also contributes to his high school alma mater, C.A. Johnson High School in Columbia, which now includes an immersive health academy that prepares students for health care professions.
“Everything we do is trying to get children to appreciate the importance of being in shape,” Bell said.
Organizing the Lowcountry Jazz Festival goes part and parcel with their mission, said Bell, bringing the community together with a common purpose.
He emphasizes the multifaceted involvement of supporters like local Gullah artist Jonathan Green, who contributed a print for this year’s commemorative poster.
“If there’s one person who is passionate about what he does, it’s Dr. Bell,” Greene said. “There are so many people who support the festival, in part because they’ve been impacted by Closing the Gap. That’s a big reason the festival has grown like it has.”
As a genre, smooth jazz doesn’t enjoy the popularity it did during the late ’80s and early ’90s, when artists like Jarreau, George Benson and Kenny G were household names.
Contemporary performer Culbertson says that it’s still extremely popular, however, despite falling out of the mainstream consciousness.
“The fans are still there, and they’re passionate about it,” Culbertson said. “What’s changed is the radio format. We rely on Internet and satellite radio now for getting our music out there. Let’s face it, instrumental music is not going to be on today’s pop radio.”
The annual success of the festival serves to underscore Culbertson’s claims. Whether the crowds are coming out as longtime fans of the artists or supporters of Closing the Gap, the charity and the festival are enjoying success that further inspires Bell to continue on his mission.
“Our entire purpose is to decrease the health disparity in the African-American community,” Bell said. “We like to say, ‘We’re jazzing with a purpose.’ ”