Doing That Charleston Rag

Originally published on April 22, 2011 12:37 pm

What if the musical vibe of early 20th-century Charleston, S.C. paralleled what was concurrently happening in New Orleans? And what if jazz was actually experiencing a surge of popularity in Charleston today?

That's the message of a little segment on South Carolina ETV, the state's public broadcaster, on the current jazz scene in the city. Actually, it's not so little: It's a 20-minute-plus TV documentary segment, plus a 53-minute radio feature, about the past and present of jazz in Charleston.

It doesn't look embeddable, but you can watch the video and listen to/download the audio podcast online. SCETV e-mailed us with a link to embed the video, which is below, and follow the link for audio. [The Big Picture: Charleston Jazz]

I spent part of today watching the video segment and skimming the radio feature (the radio interviews were excerpted in the TV piece). And I think these points deserve amplification and/or clarification:

  1. It would seem a lot of the growing awareness of Charleston jazz has to do with two small groups: the Charleston Jazz Initiative, which is dedicated to researching and presenting the history of jazz in town, and the new-ish Jazz Artists of Charleston, a non-profit agency of artists banding together to support the jazz community. The primary interview subjects of the story are primary actors in these two groups.
  2. Some attention is paid to the music program at Jenkins Orphanage, as well it should be — all-time greats like trumpeter Jabbo Smith, rhythm guitarist Freddie Green, saxophonist Willie Smith (possibly) and trumpeter Cat Anderson spent time there. It also suggests the bluesiness and African roots in the music of the region's black churches, and in the general populace. This goes along with a point I heard Branford Marsalis make not long ago: In the South, there's a lot of music being passed on through families, in church and on the street. That makes for musicians who feel music organically, or at least people who grow up with music around them.
  3. ETV's story revolves a lot around the Charleston Jazz Orchestra, a big band. It's not unfeasible that a big band would be one pillar of a jazz scene, since it's happening where I live in Washington, D.C. But focusing almost exclusively on that also seems a bit odd to me; this group may be selling out its shows in a 900-seat auditorium, but that's only six concerts a year. (Not that it isn't great that people in 2011, for whom big bands are a hazy false memory, are enjoying that sound.) What of the everyday shows, the day-in and day-out of any jazz scene?
  4. We hear that you can hear "terrific live music almost every night of the week" — that the city's "hospitality industry" makes opportunities for musicians available. We also hear that a few members of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra make their livings as full-time musicians, but most have day jobs, mostly in music education. Indulge me for a second now. I'm not nearly so naive to be surprised by these findings. But in an ideal, fully healthy jazz scene — the Platonic form of the jazz scene, let's say — I'd like to think that more musicians could perform full-time, to venues designed primarily for listening rather than "hospitality," and that there would be palatable options for listeners every night of the week. This isn't to take anything away from what Charleston's jazz scene has accomplished recently, and amazingly. And yes, I know, dream on. But what's wrong with thinking big?

Looks like I'm going to have to visit South Carolina soon.

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