Feature JAC

Published on May 23rd, 2013 | by Ballard Lesemann


JAC’s ‘Jazz Series’ Celebrates Charleston’s Jazz Community

Independent musical nonprofit the Jazz Artists of Charleston (JAC) will usher their annual Jazz Series back to King Street with a slew of great local talent, special visiting guests, and an invigorated sense of confidence and innovation. The Jazz Series runs from May 23 through June 7 at the cozy Father Figaro Hall, located on the second floor at 493 King Street. The intimate setting is well suited visually and acoustically for the thematic and specially arranged programs on the roster.

JAC executives Leah Suárez and Charlton Singleton — both founding members of the JAC and actively performing vocalists and musicians in town — are eager to welcome hardcore jazz fans and curious listeners to the shows planned for this week and next. They feel strongly that each show will offer something unique and memorable for the audience.

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The Charlton Singleton Quintet at Figaro Hall, 2012 (photo by Alice Keeney, courtesy of Jazz Artists of Charleston)

“One of the things that we do as part of the application is to ask the performers to build up a specific presentation as part of their show, something as a theme that’s genuine,” says Singleton, who also serves as the conductor of JAC’s partner the Charleston Jazz Orchestra (CJO). “You can see lot of these musicians and combos playing around town regularly, so these shows should be something different.”

Both Singleton and Suárez were in fine moods when they chatted with Metronome this week, perhaps from the lingering sense of relief and satisfaction after guiding the CJO through dynamic sets of house-made arrangements of Porgy & Bess at the Charleston Music Hall last weekend. The concerts went quite well, and the house was packed for both sets.

“One of the things that contributes to the success of the CJO is that while we do only six shows a year, the band members play together in different settings throughout the year,” Singleton says. “Plus, the personnel has stayed in tact over the last few years. The chemistry is at an all-time high right now.”

“I don’t think there are too many people in and around the orchestra that hasn’t worked with somebody else outside of the big band,” he adds. “We’ve all played together before, and everyone knew each other’s strengths and got along really well. That goes a tremendously long way.”


Charleston trumpeter Kevin Hackler (provided)

Many of the regular players from the CJO will hit the small stage during the Jazz Series. The whole thing kicks off on May 23 with two separate performances by skillful trumpeter Kevin Hackler and his backing combo, who will render the music of Miles Davis’ landmark jazz album ‘Round About Midnight from front-to-back.

On Sun. May 26, Suárez and Brazilian-born singer/guitarist Duda Lucena will perform “Mas Que Nada,” a set of American jazz standards, reworked pop tunes, and a mix of bossa novas, sambas, and choros from different regions of Brazil. Suárez and Lucena have worked together numerous times before, in from the CJO and in smaller club settings. Bassist Ben Wells will accompany them at the Figaro Hall this week.

The first week’s schedule also features the New South Jazzmen handling an assortment of Dixieland, guitarist Lee Barbour’s experimental Post-Cobra project, Suárez and singer/vocalist Duda Lucena with a Latin-themed set, a deep-funk tribute to keyboardist Herbie Hancock by local troupe Super Deluxe, and trumpeter Cameron Handel’s tribute to the brassy music of flügelhorn great Clark Terry.

The series continues into the first week of June with performances by the Jamie Slater Trio (featuring sax man John Cobb), the Charlton Singleton Quintet, the sax team of Mark Sterbank & Robert Lewis, the Charleston Latin Jazz Collective, the Rudy Waltz, and Michael Bellar and the AS-IS Ensemble.

“There’s something for everyone on the schedule, whether they’re jazz listeners or not,” Singleton says. “That’s a testament to the range of talent.”

Singleton’s own quintet — featuring tenor sax player Mark Sterbank, pianist Richard White, bassist, and drummer Quentin Baxter — will present a program titled “Contemporary Flow” on Sun. June 2. The set is relatively new territory for the combo, who normally handle standards, Latin-tinged numbers, be-bop, and more traditional pieces. For this one, they’ll get funky with some Grover Washington and Prince, tread onto fusion-y ground with Jeff Lorber, a brassy bit of Wayne Shorter, and debut several new original compositions.


The JAC’s Leah Suárez (photo by AliceKeeney)

“The musicians love it because it’s an opportunity do something we wouldn’t normally do at a regular gig,” Suárez says. “A lot of us play at restaurants and clubs where the set needs be very listenable for people. But these shows allow the musicians to try something new.”

Although the dates of the Jazz Series coincide with the events of Spoleto Festival USA and Piccolo Spoleto, the series is unaffiliated with either. While the JAC has hooked up with Piccolo a few times in the late 2000s, the organization chose to step away from the city-run estival and book, promote, and present their shows on their own terms. Both Singleton and Suárez feel that some officials view the JAC as a young organization that’s still trying to prove itself, despite the fact that they’ve established a firm reputation as a solid entity capable of producing solid events and terrific performances.

“It’s a shame that the CJO has not been a part of Piccolo Spoleto, and it’s a shame that the JAC’s Jazz Series isn’t, either, but at the same time we’re not going to sacrifice what we know we’ve done and worked for that’s good,” Suárez says.

“It is disappointing,” Singleton adds. “It’s always just a head-scratcher because of the popularity and rapid growth of the CJO, the economic boost that the CJO provides when it performs, the artistic value, the history … you can make a long list.”

The JAC initially held the Jazz Series at the old Mistral on North Market Street and then moved down to the elegant second floor dining hall at McCrady’s on East Bay Street. Last year, the original plan was to shift things up to the Mezz, a newly renovated venue above Sermet’s. Unfortunately, unforeseen construction delays forced them to abandon the Mezz the week before kick-off. After hustling to find a replacement venue, they snagged Father Figaro Hall, a parish hall named for Father Egbert J. Figaro of the historic St. Patrick Catholic Church, located nearby on St. Philip Street. Figaro was the first African American to pastor a Catholic church in South Carolina.

“Building a relationship with St. Patrick’s and and developing that camaraderie as neighbor is important to us, too,” Suárez says. “They also want to see more opportunity for synergy between them and the jazz program that we have. As a nonprofit, that’s great for us. We’re constantly building a community, and this ties in well with that.”

Designed in part by co-owner Quentin Baxter (a top-notch jazz drummer and JAC board member), the Mezz finally opened in the summer of 2012 as a listening room and bar crafted specifically for jazz performances. The JAC has utilized the Mezz for special events, like the South Caroline Hit Parade during the recent JAC Week.

Robert Lewis & Mark Sterbank

Robert Lewis and Mark Sterbank of Tenor Madness (photo courtesy of the Jazz Artists of Charleston)

“We have a great relationship with the Mezz,” says Suárez. “But given the presentation and the amount of nights we were going to be in and out, we decided to book the Jazz Series at the Figaro Hall again this year. We’ve scaled back on a few things, For instance, we’re not serving food this year, only beer and wine. But we really feel like we’re in a space that we can make our own.”

“It’s like a blank canvas where you can make it into anything you want,” Singleton says of Figaro Hall. “Last year, on very short notice, we were very fortunate to have a lot of family and friends help us put a lot of hard work and sweat to make the Jazz Series what it was. We actually had a lot of positive feedback and compliments on the presentation, despite the scramble. When it came back around to this year, we considered the Mezz and several other places, but we stayed with the Figaro.”

The JAC partnered with local retailer the Charleston Beer Exchange to design a craft beer menu for the series, and they partnered with several restaurants on and around King Street (HoM, Fish, Barsa, and Osteria la Bottiglia) to offer discounts and specials with ticket stubs through June 7.

As the Jazz Series winds down, Singleton, Suárez, and the JAC team will press ahead with plans to relocate the Charleston Jazz House multifunctional office and performance space from the corner of Cannon and St. Philip streets to a spot soon-to-be-determined.

Suárez believes that a successful Jazz Series is one that will demonstrate survival, consistency, and openness. “We feel like this is our pinnacle. We’ve done this for six years, and we’re planning ahead for the next six or ten years. We’re making some adjustments behind the scenes. This series is like a launching pad for us.”

The JAC will also have three more major CJO concerts at the Music Hall on the horizon, including the Brazilian-themed Latin Night set for Sept. 21.

“We’re concentrating on being able to do more throughout the year and getting our on festivals up and running,” Suárez 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.”

Each JAC Jazz Series night will feature two shows (7 p.m. and 10 p.m.). Wine and beer will be available for purchase. Tickets are available for $20 per show. Visit jazzartistsofcharleston.org for more.

May 23 – Kevin Hackler Quintet — ‘Round About Midnight
May 24 – The New South Jazzmen — Dixieland: A Southern Tradition
May 25 – Lee Barbour — Post-Cobra
May 26 – Leah Suárez & Duda Lucena — Mas Que Nada
May 29 – Super Deluxe — Electric Herbie
May 30 – Cameron Handel — The Happy Horns of Clark Terry
June 1 – Jamie Slater Trio (featuring John Cobb) — Jazz Moods
June 2 – Charlton Singleton Quintet — Contemporary Flow
June 4 – Mark Sterbank & Robert Lewis — Tenor Madness
June 5 – Charleston Latin Jazz Collective — ¡Bailamos!
June 6 – Vintage Voices (featuring The Rudy Waltz) — Over the Rainbow: A Tribute to Judy Garland
June 7 – Michael Bellar & the AS-IS Ensemble — An Evening with Michael Bellar & the AS-IS Ensemble

Top photo of Charlton Singleton by Alice Keeney, courtesy of Jazz Artists of Charleston.



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About the Author

Ballard Lesemann

is a musician and writer. Born and raised in Charleston, S.C., he spent years playing in bands and working for Flagpole Magazine in the bustling music town of Athens, Ga. He returned to his hometown and served more than seven years as the Charleston City Paper's music editor. He's better at drumming than he is at playing guitar.

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