Jazz And Its South Carolina Roots

June 9, 2009

A Jazz History and Education Model of the Charleston Jazz Initiative

“Corner Pocket,” “Whirly Bird,” “Trouble in Mind,” “Ballin’ the Jack,” “Tuxedo Junction,” “Since I Fell for You,” and “Brother Blake.” What does each of these musical compositions have in common? Each is connected in some way to South Carolina and Charleston, in particular.

Written by the nearly 50-year veteran of the Basie band, Charlestonian Freddie Green’s “Corner Pocket” is a tune he composed which was later popularized by Sarah Vaughan under the title “Until I Met You.” Search YouTube for a 1965 Basie band performance of “Whirly Bird” featuring Eddie Lockjaw Davis on tenor sax and Charleston native Rufus “Speedy” Jones on a speedy drum solo. Charlestonian, Bertha “Chippie” Hill recorded “Trouble in Mind” on Okeh Records in Chicago as a bandleader with sideman Louis Armstrong sitting in on cornet on February 23, 1926. One of the great dance tunes of the mighty jazz dance era was Chris Smith’s fox trot “Ballin’ the Jack.” Born in Charleston in 1879, he composed the tune in 1913. It became a world dance craze nearly a decade before “The Charleston.” Julian Dash, a Charleston native and Erskine Hawkins’ tenor saxophonist for nearly 20 years co-composed “Tuxedo Junction” with Hawkins and William Johnson. Another jazz standard “Since I Fell for You” was composed by bandleader, Buddy Johnson of Darlington, South Carolina. Johnson had one of the more popular rhythm and blues bands that toured throughout the southeast in the 1940s. His vocalist sister, Ella Johnson was responsible for many of the band’s hits. “Brother Blake” was written in 2005 by the gifted drummer and Charleston native Quentin Baxter (currently touring with jazz vocalist Rene Marie). It is an homage to William Blake, a music teacher with Charleston’s famed Jenkins Orphanage bands. And then there’s the city of Cheraw native, Dizzy Gillespie South Carolina’s most celebrated musician.

There’s also Cat Anderson, Jabbo Smith, Bubber Miley, Fud Livingston, Jimmy Hamilton, Freddy Jenkins and many more…nearly 65 bandleaders, sideman and composers uncovered to date by a small but formidable jazz research project that I direct the Charleston Jazz Initiative (CJI). In fact, Dan Morgenstern, the preeminent jazz historian believes that the number of musicians that came from South Carolina and Charleston in particular is actually “quite remarkable.” Some can be found on the CJI’s Web site www.charlestonjazz.net. Many of these musicians have South Carolina roots while others received their first musical training at the venerable Jenkins Orphanage in this coastal city.

Charleston is a hot jazz city today and by all accounts, it was this way in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its story begins in 1891 and is one of vision, charity, entrepreneurship, discipline, and the teaching of music at two Charleston institutions one, an orphanage the Jenkins Orphanage and the other, a private-turned public school called the Avery Normal Institute.

The Jenkins Orphanage, one of the longest-operating black orphanages in the country, was founded in 1891 by Reverend Daniel Joseph Jenkins, a Baptist minister. Three years later in 1894, its bands were formed and became widely acclaimed. Reverend Jenkins’ strategy was to raise money for the orphanage by teaching music to the orphans, and having them perform in Charleston, around the country, and in Europe. Brass was the instrument of choice. Since so many orphans had tuberculosis, Jenkins felt that teaching them to play brass instruments would strengthen their lungs.

What happened in 1894 at the orphanage was the beginning of a seminal American jazz story the birthing of the Jenkins Orphanage Bands that just one year later in 1895, had them performing on the streets of London to raise money for the orphanage. There were not one but five bands between 1895 and the 1930s that toured up and down the east coast, to Europe, the Midwest and other places in between. It was a management tour de force each band had its own manager, cook, and valet and traveled from town to town spreading this hot new music and collecting funds for the orphanage all at the same time.

Jenkins not only trained its orphans and later, other students of music, to read and play all kinds of music, but by the turn of the 20th Century, the institution had developed a well-oiled and funded machine in the bands with patronage Reverend Jenkins meticulously cultivated from Charleston’s wealthy families. From 1894 through the 1960s, the institution used music as a learning tool and produced many great musicians. The residents read music printed scores were the norm. They were taught basic musicianship not jazz. But elements of jazz playing seeped quietly into Jenkins from runaway orphans who returned with the latest jazz technique. Gus Aiken was one of them, who would later play with Louis Armstrong. He introduced the art of flutter-tonguing and growling on the trumpet to Jenkins’ brass players a technique used widely by trumpeters in Duke Ellington’s orchestra.

The Jenkins bands toured extensively in the United States and in Europe, played at the inauguration of President Taft in 1909, and created a world dance craze that became the symbol of the Jazz Age, “The Charleston.” The popular 1923 song, “The Charleston,” composed by James P. Johnson, was inspired by observing Charlestonians and Jenkins’ musicians dancing movements called “geechie.”

Another important institution in Charleston was the Avery Normal Institute (now the Avery Research Center). It was one of the country’s first private schools for newly freed blacks founded in 1865 after the Civil War. Avery trained many Charlestonians to be teachers until 1954. With a rigorous arts and music curriculum, Avery hosted programs for its students Langston Hughes read poetry there in the 1930s, and recitals were performed by Roland Hayes and Marian Anderson. Julian Dash and Willie Smith emerged from Avery with stints with Erskine Hawkins (Dash), Duke Ellington, and Jimmie Lunceford, among others. Edmund Thornton Jenkins was an alumnus of Avery too. A classically trained composer of orchestral and ensemble works, instrumentalist, and student of London’s Royal Academy of Music, Edmund was a son of Reverend Jenkins.

In the infancy of their musical careers, musicians from Jenkins, especially brass players, were recruited into the bands of Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, and many others. In fact, Basie and Ellington were known to frequent Charleston scouting brass players from the Jenkins ranks. In speaking about the training of these musicians, well known jazz advocate A.B. Spellman stated in an oral history we did with him several years ago that what is fascinating about Charleston’s jazz history is that “these musicians left here [many in the late 1920s] and hit New York, the most competitive jazz scene in the world, fully hatched, and in full command of their instruments and styles. This indicates that they must have come from a vibrant jazz scene.”

So, we at CJI believe that New Orleans could not have been the only crucible for American swing. When Louis Armstrong was born in 1900 or 1901, players from the Jenkins Orphanage were already swinging melodies in the United States and Europe as early as 1895, five years before Louis Armstrong was born. And more food for thought: The Southern Syncopated Orchestra and James Reese Europe’s 369th U.S. Infantry Band, often credited with introducing jazz to Europe around 1919, had Charleston and Jenkins players in their bands…trumpeters Arthur Briggs, Amos Gaillard, and Francis Eugene Mikell; trombonist Herb Flemming; twin drummers Stephen Wright and brother Herbert (who was tragically killed in Europe).

While it may be risky to say that elements of jazz emerged in Charleston in the 1890s with the founding of the Jenkins Orphanage Bands, we at CJI wonder. The first historian to document Charleston’s early influence in jazz was British historian John Chilton who wrote A Jazz Nursery (1980) a short but insightful book on Charleston’s Jenkins Orphanage Bands. In it, he said, “The early bands played a robust music that loosened up the formal ragtime arrangements, and produced emphatic syncopations when playing marches and two-steps. By ‘raggin’ marches and popular tunes of the day, I think the early bands imparted a ‘jazzy’ phrasing to their performances” (30-31). My CJI colleagues and I believe that this “loosening” of rhythms, and the syncopation and melodic improvisation that Chilton speaks of were actually elements of swing beginning to be heard in the bands’ sounds. Chilton, however, cautions us about referring to these sounds as jazz. Nevertheless, what is not disputed is that the Jenkins Orphanage was indeed a 19th and 20th century haven for music education that emerged from its hallowed and disciplined halls. And at that stately former marine hospital were produced many of this country’s most gifted ensemble musicians.

All of this is being chronicled by CJI a research initiative based at the College of Charleston in the Arts Management Program’s School of the Arts, and in partnership with the Avery Research Center, a significant repository of South Carolina’s African American history. CJI maintains significant partnerships with many individuals and organizations throughout the country including Dr. Larry Ridley and the African American Jazz Caucus. Founded in March 2003, I am a co-founder and principal of the initiative along with Charlestonian Jack McCray, producer of the city’s new resident jazz orchestra, author of Charleston Jazz, and weekly columnist of JazzBeat(s) for Charleston’s Post and Courier. We are joined by musicians, media artists, educators, jazz and oral historians, archivists, family members of deceased musicians, and an international advisory group of jazz scholars including Dr. Ridley; Dan Morgenstern; A.B. Spellman; Jeffrey Green, British biographer of Edmund Thornton Jenkins; and Wolfram Knauer, director of Darmstadt’s (Germany) Jazz Institut.

CJI’s mission is to document the untold jazz history in Charleston, the South Carolina Lowcountry, and its movement throughout the United States, Europe and the diaspora beginning in the late 19th century through today. We’re examining this tradition through oral histories, public programs, creative collaborations with individuals and organizations, and an archival collection based at Avery of photographs, oral histories, manuscripts, and original works that illuminate Charleston’s past and living jazz history. Our objective is to honor the countless numbers of sidemen who made an indelible imprint on American jazz and world music, but who left South Carolina their native or first musical training roots largely unknown to many.

CJI’s focus is to document the social history of Charleston’s jazz legacy as well as its musical history. It is my belief that examining human culture and social experiences as CJI does must come from scholars in the academy as well as laypeople outside of the academy. So, to record this social history, it is the local community those with colorful memories, stories, and anecdotes who are helping us tell a rich story of Charleston’s place in jazz history. In their oral histories, they describe for us the faces, sounds, and stories of South Carolina’s musicians who they were, where they lived, how they dressed, and who they went crabbing with just as much as they and industry-musicians tell us about the cutting-edge and pioneering talent of these ensemble musicians. Through the proud and dignified voices of musicians’ sons, granddaughters, cousins, neighbors, family and musician-friends, teachers, and runnin’ partners, we tell their life stories.

Charleston’s jazz legacy did not end during the heyday of the Jenkins bands. It continues in the modern-day jazz landscape of this historic city in “live jazz” heard in Charleston’s many fine restaurants seven days a week, concert halls and small performing venues, the internationally-recognized Spoleto Festival and its regional counterpart, Piccolo Spoleto, new jazz clubs that are sprouting and reconfiguring themselves for a growing jazz audience, a new jazz organization Jazz Artists of Charleston, annual jazz galas among many social and civic organizations, the new Charleston Jazz Orchestra, a new weekly jazz column in Charleston’s daily newspaper, and a flourishing statewide jazz education initiative and countless documentary evidence by CJI.

South Carolina’s jazz story is an American jazz story. Biographer Jeffrey Green reminds us why: “Look carefully at the careers of the boys and girls who were raised in the Old Marine Hospital on Franklin Street, Charleston [the Jenkins Orphanage]. I am convinced…that there is a Charleston contribution to the arts of America that traditional views on jazz and other music have overlooked.”

Dr. Karen Chandler is associate professor of Arts Management, School of the Arts at the College of Charleston and co-founder and principal of the Charleston Jazz Initiative. A classically trained pianist, she has been a music and arts management educator, and academic administrator in colleges and universities throughout her 30-year career. She is editor of Charleston: A Cradle of Jazz (2005) and lead author of “…But the Greatest of These Is Charity”: The Charleston Jazz Initiative’s Study of the Jenkins Orphanage Bands,” Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society (Winter 2005).

The preceding copy was provided by The African American Jazz Caucus, Inc.

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