Near the back of the Charleston Music Hall, a hush fell as students from Baptist Hill High School craned their necks to see Charlton Singleton, trumpeter and bandleader of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra, rise from his seat in the crowd and play — What else? — the Charleston.
The orchestra, in coordination with the Jazz Artists of Charleston, launched its youth outreach program SWING OUT! with a world-class free concert Friday morning, putting on a show for a crowd of about 300 elementary, middle, and high school students from all over Charleston County School District. Leah Suárez, executive director for Jazz Artists of Charleston, said student involvement was one of the goals when she helped start the organization in 2007.
"That's the only way to carry on what we're doing, is for it to live and breathe in the next generation," Suarez said.
As for Singleton's dramatic entrance, the longtime jazz collaborator chalked it up to piquing the students' interest.
"We make sure that they can understand it," Singleton said as the students filtered into the concert hall. "At the beginning of the show, you'll hear me play something that you probably recognize, followed by a way of changing it and improvising on it, and then I'll give them a definition of what I just did." After playing the Charleston, Singleton mounted the stage and segued into John Philip Sousa's "The Stars and Stripes Forever," followed by a quick improvisational run with members of the orchestra. Other songs in the program included the theme from Pink Panther (still instantly recognizable by the youngest generations, it turns out) and the Count Basie Orchestra's "Corner Pocket."
Between songs, Singleton briefly explained the history of jazz in Charleston, starting with the Jenkins Orphanage, a downtown institution that helped produce such jazz legends as Duke Ellington Orchestra trumpeter Cat Anderson and Basie Orchestra guitarist Freddie Green.
"We had this wonderful place where the kids were playing this wonderful music," Singleton said. "And by the time that they were able to get a good feel of what they were able to do ... these kids were going all over the world and touring and performing this music in front of hundreds of people. Sometimes they would just play on the street corners; they were playing at the World Fairs; they were playing for presidents; they were playing for kings and queens. And they were from here. Charleston."
At the end of the event, which was sponsored by the Charleston Place Hotel, the Gullah Roots Project, Toyota of Charleston, and Wells Fargo, students received free CDs from the musicians and got to eat lunch with the Jazz Orchestra members and Etienne Charles, a Trinidadian trumpeter and percussionist in town for Saturday's Latin Night show at the Music Hall.
Some of the first students to arrive in the concert hall were a group of eighth graders from Jerry Zucker Middle School. Knowlyn McCall, who plays trombone in the school band, says he recently joined an after-school group call the JZ Jazz Band, which enlists the help of high school band students. He says he has also become a fan of jazz. "Mostly it's just how it sounds," McCall says. "I don't know how you explain it. It's just nice."
Mark Romano, the band director at Zucker, was impressed last year when the high school students in the JZ group picked out the Katy Perry song "Fireworks" and taught the group to play it, without his help. He said the group is working toward playing more jazz music.
Romano said he hoped the students took one lesson away from the musical field trip: "To practice. That they can be musicians, that if they practice now, they can get a scholarship when they get to college."