Shared Notes that Swing in Time

High Notes in the Lowcountry:  The Charleston Jazz Initiative.

Catherine Pyke

Jazz at high noon! It’s The Mezz, located above Sermet’s Downtown, King Street, in the heart of historical Charleston. I share a table with other San Francisco Bay Area writers attending the annual Southern Sampler Artists Colony workshop. Along with local patrons, we have gathered to celebrate and support the Charleston Jazz Initiative. I look around the room with its exposed brick walls, heart pine floors, and small tables covered with crisp white cloths—a bud vase containing a single red rose in the center of each. It’s easy to imagine that I have found myself in a well-appointed living room, now filled with chatting folks eagerly anticipating the arrival of the Quentin Baxter Quintet, who typically work into the wee hours and rise late in the day.  I sip my sweet tea—a concession to Southern taste—and wait, my curiosity piqued. A devotee of jazz, I know little about its origins in the Lowcountry.  In my mind, jazz belongs to New Orleans.

An undercurrent of excitement sweeps the room when Quentin, a native Charlestonian, drummer, and founder of the quintet, steps on stage and introduces his fellow musicians. A slight man with dreadlocks and an engaging smile, Quentin acknowledges that this is indeed an unusual performance time, but from the first notes, it seems that the musicians have been playing as one, night or day, for years.

The riff begins . . . notes gently offered and received . . . circling back whole. Charlton Singleton, the trumpeter-composer, explains that his song “Delicate” came to him while untangling his three-year-old daughter’s hair. “Now she’s twenty and won’t let me anywhere near her hair. Time passes too quickly,” he says.

Mesmerized by the music and stories, I vow to research the Lowcountry jazz legacy, but never would have guessed that some of its development traces back to a Charleston orphanage.

Later I learn that the Jenkins Orphanage bands began with the Reverend Daniel Joseph Jenkins, a Baptist minister. In December 1891, while loading timber for his wood business, Jenkins stumbled across four homeless boys who were warming themselves by a fire. Taking pity on the boys, he took them home with him and appealed to his Baptist congregation to establish a charitable association to assist these and other orphaned children. The resulting organization—established as the Orphan Aid Society and later known as the Jenkins Orphanage—became one of the oldest private, black orphanages in the nation.

From 1894 on, Jenkins’ instructors used music as a learning tool, focusing on wind instruments to develop young boys’ lung capacity. Soon they became well known for the high trumpet playing style. Indeed, many Charleston musicians learned their craft through the Jenkins Orphanage bands’ technique, attracting the attention of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Holloway, and Lionel Hampton, who recruited them for their bands and ensembles in the Golden Age of Swing. Side men, the Jenkins players could always be relied upon to read music and exhibit a fine sense of style. As one alumnus put it, “During the day, we played the music as it was written. But at night, we had jam sessions like you wouldn’t believe.”

That day at the Mezz the music was fresh and alive, just like one of those jam sessions.

Click here for Teri Gross’s interview with Randy Tanky!

Want to join us for the SSAC 2018 Retreat? Email to apply, and click here to see the daily schedule!

Catherine Pyke finds women philanthropists colorful and compelling. Her fascination was sparked by her nearly thirty-year career as a program officer for the Hearst Foundations. The tapestry of her interests also weaves in the founders of the college and university that she loves: Scripps College and Stanford University. She is currently writing a narrative non-fiction book about the lives and legacies of Phoebe Hearst, Jane Stanford and Ellen Browning Scripps.

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