If you go
What: The Charleston Jazz Orchestra’s World of Bebop
When: Saturday, doors for the first set open at 6 p.m. with the show starting at 7 p.m.; doors for the second set open at 9 p.m. with the show starting at 10 p.m.
Where: Charleston Music Hall, 37 John St.
Price: $25-$40; ages 18 and under get in for $10 with the purchase of a regular-priced tickets, ages 6 and under get in for free
When most jazz fans consider the very general genre of bebop (or “bop,” as some cats call it), they tend to think of amazing improvisation, fiery horn solos, blazing tempos, virtuosic playing and primal rhythms. Certainly, many of the pioneering bebop bandleaders and musicians achieved legendary status through these aspects, but they also explored a more emotive, relaxed, melodic side.
According to trumpeter/conductor Charlton Singleton, artistic director for the Charleston Jazz Orchestra and the co-director of the Jazz Artists of Charleston, the softest and heaviest sides of the harmonic and rhythmic language of bebop is worth exploration and experimentation.
“Rather than everyone thinking that bebop is just lightning-quick, which much of it is, not all of it relies on speed and technique,” Singleton says. “We decided to take some of those top players and showcase some of their tunes that aren’t so fast, like ‘Round Midnight’,” for example.”
Those tunes, in addition to various bebop-era hits, bop-tinged standards and several in-house arrangements, will be performed Saturday as led by Singleton and JAC co-director Leah Suarez, a skillful vocalist and horn player in her own right.
CJO’s personal touch
Designed as a Charleston-based nonprofit organization aimed at promoting and encouraging jazz musicians, fans, education and events in the Lowcountry, the JAC and its ever-expanding family of players and supporters have diligently worked on the local scene for six years.
In 2007, Suarez, Singleton and several local jazz musicians teamed up with late music historian and jazz advocate Jack McCray to plant the seed for the JAC.
By 2008, they’d incorporated and started booking various special events and developing an annual downtown jazz series.
In the spring of 2008, the JAC execs also put considerable time and effort into assembling the Charleston Jazz Orchestra as a proper traditional “big band,” with between 18 and 22 members on stage.
With East Cooper native Singleton in position as bandleader, they began organizing a string of concerts at the Charleston Music Hall. Their first few performances were dynamic, tight and energetic enough to dazzle local audiences.
Five “seasons” later, the CJO is known as the city’s “resident big band.”
“The JAC and CJO have solid relationships with musicians and music supporters in and out of town, and it definitely gives us a sense of legitimacy,” Suarez says.
When McCray suddenly passed away in November 2011, his Jazz Artists of Charleston colleagues were shocked and knocked off track.
They’d lost a crucial friend and leader. McCray had already been writing about Charleston jazz bands and venues for more than 20 years as a reviewer for The Post and Courier, and he’d helped establish the Charleston Jazz Initiative in 2003 as a research project.
Between 2007 and 2011, McCray worked diligently alongside Singleton and Suarez to establish the JAC as a serious, well-grounded organization.
McCray often served as a sage emcee at JAC and CJO concerts, introducing acts with an elegant tone. He was the avuncular mentor and hero to many in the organization.
Suarez says that she and the JAC family still hurt from their sudden loss. They’ve grieved hard, and they’ve struggled a bit to reach their financial goals since 2011, but they have pushed ahead in a positive direction.
“Dealing with the ups and down over the last two years has been a big challenge for us, but we’ve been able to stand and we’ve been able to get through the weeds,” she says. “If anything, we have an opportunity to be even more ambitious than before, and we can more easily fine-tune that ambition.”
It’s one thing to select a theme for a particular concert, assign the instrumental duties, rehearse the material and deliver a set with flair and confidence.
It’s quite another for members of the CJO to pick a handful of standards and obscurities and totally rearrange them for their bandmates. In recent years, in-house arrangements have become a habit with Singleton and several of his regular cohorts.
“When we all get together and start kicking around ideas for new themes, everybody usually comes to the table with something in mind,” Singleton says. “Usually, it’s something we figure will include a lot of material, then the challenge becomes whittling it down.”
Musically, if the CJO may have played things fairly straightforward at their earliest concerts, they’ve stretched things out considerably over the past two years or so, experimenting with tempos, instrumentation, phrasing, harmonics and melodies.
“We have a very smart audience,” Singleton says. “They now understand the difference between something they’ve heard that’s sort of a historical recording versus an arrangement that’s been done by somebody in the band. It was last year when that really started to creep into their mind. The ‘Porgy and Bess: Reimagined’ show really hammered that home. The classical program (‘Symphonic Swing,’) was another eye-opening show for our patrons and season ticket holders.
“Everyone was at least a little bit familiar with the opera, songs and pieces, like ‘Summertime’ or Mozart’s 40th symphony, but they’d never heard them this way, the way that we presented it.”
Singleton first started considering the role of a large ensemble’s arranger while under the guidance of former Wando High School band director Basil Kerr in the late 1980s.
His first official foray into arranging music happened while he was a member of the marching band at South Carolina State University in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
“Being the band geek that I was with Mr. Kerr, we always talked about the composers and how significant they were,” Singleton remembers. “He always emphasized the role of each instrument and what they represented. With the band at State, it was pretty much just listening to what the late, great Ronald Sarjeant (the longtime band director at S.C. State) did. I kind of figured out his system of having certain instruments handle certain things. I did a couple of test runs, just flying by the seat of my pants, and they worked out.”
Singleton encouraged CJO section leaders such as woodwind players Robert Lewis, Jon Phillips and Mark Sterbank to have a go with original arrangements.
In recent years, several other CJO regulars have contributed their own arrangements to the band, including drummer Quentin Baxter, pianist Tommy Gill, bassist Kevin Hamilton, flautist Dave Heywood, trumpeter Dan Bellack, and sax players Simon Harding and Jack Pettit.
This week, trombonist Terry Adams, guitarist Tyler Ross and bassist Jeremy Wolf are among eight of the big band’s team of arrangers.
“That’s the beauty of the in-house arranging,” Suarez says. “These musicians know each other well, so this plays to the strengths of the band. That helps elevate the overall sound.”
Twists on legends
There are usually four or five dozen local musicians in the CJO’s rotational roster, and the lineups regularly change from show to show. But every player has the technique, knowledge and feel to perform their duties with the big band. With such a high level of skill at hand, Singleton says he feels at ease when it comes to adding subtle and not-so-subtle twists on familiar compositions.
“The standard for writing and arranging in a jazz band would be Duke Ellington,” Singleton says. “If you look at any of his scores, you’ll see that he wrote specifically for certain musicians, showcasing their style and personality. He knew which button to push and which direction to take it to.
“The Count Basie Band is definitely a major influence on us, as well,” he adds. “They were more like a dance band that you’d see at the night club. If you want a band that will swing you under the table, that’s Basie all day.”
A casual jazz fan might assume that a swing-style big band might struggle a bit when it comes to jumping into other genres such as bebop, but the CJO gladly dismisses the usual musical boundaries.
“It’s funny; a lot of people seemed nervous for us when we did the Miles Davis and John Coltrane shows,” Suarez says of some of the CJO’s previous bebop-tinged programs. “I assume they feel that way about this show this week. Like, ‘How is a big band going to tackle a small ensemble piece?’ But it’ll be great.”
This week’s set list will feature works by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Clifford Brown, Charlie Christian and renditions of several other pieces of the bebop era and beyond.
“We’ve really concentrated on some of the major players in bebop,” Singleton says of this week’s two-show program at the Charleston Music Hall. “When you think about bebop, two A-listers usually come to mind: Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. But then, you’ve got people like (pianist) Thelonious Monk and others, and you start getting into all of the people who played with these main artists on a regular basis, like bassists Ray Brown with Dizzy and Oscar Pettiford with Monk and Miles Davis. There’s drummer Max Roach, who played with everyone, guitarist Charlie Christian, trombonist James ‘JJ’ Johnson and so forth.”
The JAC looks ahead
Singleton could very well be one of Charleston’s busiest musicians.
For nearly 20 years, he’s worked in the local jazz scene as a skillful performer, conductor and arranger. In addition to his work as the conductor of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra and as one of the leaders of the Jazz Artists of Charleston, he teaches private lessons and in local school districts.
Singleton released his latest solo jazz album, “Soul Cavern” in August. Recorded live at The Mezz, a King Street listening room and jazz venue co-owned by CJO drummer Baxter, the seven-song collection includes bits of bebop, blues, Latin jazz, ballads and hard bop.
With roots in jazz, Broadway music and Latin styles, Suarez has been immersed in music for years, too.
Growing up in a musical family on Sullivan’s Island, she developed a deep appreciation for musical styles from all over the world.
After she graduated from the College of Charleston with a degree in music performance, Suarez toured the U.S. and Europe with various jazz groups and performed regularly in the Lowcountry.
In 2007, she released her solo debut, “Found Freedom,” just as the earliest assemblage of the JAC was coming together. Over the past six years, she’s dedicated much of her time and efforts to leading the JAC from season to season.
The CJO’s personnel has stayed intact over the years, and the musical chemistry between the bandmates, many of whom play together outside of the orchestra, is ideal at the moment. Both Singleton and Suarez want to harness the energetic camaraderie and enthusiasm within the band and push forward into new territory as they approach the new year.
“We’re concentrating on being able to do more throughout the year and getting our own festivals up and running,” Suarez says. “We’re trying to establish Charleston for what it is in its roots to jazz and what that means from a world view and a national perspective. That’s our strength. There’s no other city that can say it. We have an opportunity right now to have something institutionalized in a good way, without losing any artistic magic.”
Until recently, the JAC has been anchored in offices at what they call the Charleston Jazz House at 185 St. Philip St., but they recently pulled up stakes and began renovating a new space in downtown Charleston.
Singleton and Suarez haven’t yet announced the official location, but they say it’ll be a welcoming spot that will feature a performance room and reception area.
“It’s like building a new house and wanting to have everything fixed up the way you like before announcing your grand opening,” Singleton says. “I think people trust us with this.”
While their headquarters is in flux, the JAC’s plans for the next year are solid. They recently announced the dates and programming for the CJO’s 2014 season, their sixth anniversary season. Show themes early in the calendar include tributes to vocalist Nina Simone and composer/pianists Billy Strayhorn and Horace Silver.
“Next year, we’re sticking with two sets per night, but we’ve moved the show times to 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.,” Suarez says. “We’ve also moved the months on the front end, so we’ll start in February, March and April and then continue September, October and November.”
“You can see a lot of these musicians and combos playing around town regularly, so these shows offer something different,” Singleton says. “There’s something for everyone on the schedule, whether they’re jazz listeners or not. That’s a testament to the range of talent.”