When the Jazz Artists of Charleston announced their fifth annual Jazz Series this spring, JAC executives Leah Suárez and Charlton Singleton were giddy about presenting two weeks worth of concerts at a new downtown venue called the Mezz. Designed in part by co-owner, veteran jazz drummer, and JAC member Quentin Baxter, the Mezz is a listening room and bar crafted specifically for jazz performances. Then everything turned upside-down.
The Mezz is the same spot that held fabled jazz/blues bar Mezzane, which closed in 2004 after a lively run. Both Suárez and Singleton had performed there as young musicians, and the historical significance of the place is celebrated by the JAC veterans. The JAC had just released a handsome poster for "Upstairs at the Mezz." Programs were ready at the printer. But sadly, four days before the scheduled kick-off show on May 23, the Mezz pulled out from the series due to "unforeseen construction delays."
"We saw what Quentin and his partners were doing at the Mezz, and we decided to go forward with it," Suárez says. "As far as we all knew, things were in place, but we knew going in it was a risk. It was important for us to support that effort. Sermet's and the old Mezz had been so supportive of jazz over the years, and it was exactly what we were looking for, a real jazz venue where we could simply come in and plug in. It was exciting to support our friend and colleague, and that has not changed at all."
Fortunately, jazz people are excellent improvisors. Suárez and Singleton scrambled frantically to find a last-minute replacement, and they successfully solved their sudden dilemma in short order.
Suárez says that the JAC simply took a deep breath and set out to find access to a new room. Within a day, after looking at a number of venues, they found a spot where they could present a diverse showcase of musicians, and entertain their patrons in a listener-friendly environment, when they happened upon Father Egbert J. Figaro Hall, a small parish hall on the second floor at 493 King St. Part of the historic St. Patrick Catholic Church (down the block on St. Philip Street), the parish hall was named in honor of the late Rev. Egbert J. Figaro, the first African American to pastor a Catholic church in South Carolina.
"We're very grateful to St. Patrick Church and Rev. Henry Kulah for taking the time to meet us and work with us to make it happen," Suárez says. "Thankfully, our core base understands what we're trying to do. We're grateful and appreciative to them for their patience and understanding."
The JAC is accustomed to elegance. They held the first two years of the Jazz Series in the upstairs room at Mistral in the Market, a cozy, L-shaped room with a corner stage and a high-end bar. Over the last two years, they moved to McCrady's and held shows in the beautiful Gallery Room on the second floor. With its tall ceilings, ornate rugs, wide windows, and chandeliers, McCrady's made patrons feel like they were attending a regal event.
The atmosphere at Figaro Hall is less dramatic and more generic. The room has white tiled floors, low drop ceilings, and a basic layout, so it seems more like a decent place for an office holiday party or a middle school dance than a chic jazz club. The JAC hustled to put their mark of high quality on the room, though. Staffers and volunteers assembled a sizeable stage and a top-of-the-line PA system near the middle of the room. They hung curtains and framed behind-the-scene photographs from their recent See Jazz show, and they set white tablecloths and candles and hired a crew from local company Icebox Innovative Beverage Services to handle the full bar and table service. They also recruited catering from HoM restaurant (just up the block).
"One of the things that we wanted to do was to apply something uniquely different — something that the ticket buyers couldn't find at a typical jazz show at a local club," Singleton says. "We wanted to present custom-tailored shows for the patrons. They all have themes, and the musicians are specially prepared for each show."
Charleston pianists Tommy Gill and Gerald Gregory opened the series on May 23 with a fluid and dynamic program titled Four Hands Full of Keys. The room was nearly full for the 7 p.m. set. Behind two baby grands (one white and one black), Gill and Gregory faced each other on stage and played through a half-dozen Monk, Ellington, and Fats Waller pieces, an amusing "fuguetta," and two original numbers. By the end of their opening tune, any awkwardness from the new setting disappeared.
On May 24, Singleton and his backing quartet of Mark Sterbank (sax), Richard White (piano), Jeremy Wolf (bass), and David Patterson (drums) performed a program titled Trumpet Greats to a full house. They blazed through a set of Singleton's favorite pieces by Harry "Sweets" Edison, Clifford Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Wynton Marsalis.
In his introduction to a Gillespie tune, Singleton mentioned, "There's a difference between playing and entertaining, and Dizzy knew it." When it comes to JAC performances, Singleton hopes anyone who attends any of the shows leaves feeling enlightened and entertained. "We are very serious about what we do with our organization, in terms of our mission, educating the community, the historical aspects of it all, and in providing high-quality performances and production," he says. "I think we've been consistent, and we're proud of that. There's been a lot of hard work from people in the office, on the bandstand, and behind the scenes. We're very fortunate that they believe in us and are spreading the word."
JAC Jazz Series at Figaro Hall continued on May 25 with performances by the Lewis-Gregory-Wiltrout trio. Upcoming shows this week include Asheville, N.C.'s Michael Bellar and the As-Is Ensemble, and a Suárez/Singleton-led combo handling Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong selections. Two additional special events included Hymns and Spirituals at the Circular Congregational Church and the Holy City Homecomin' (featuring Fred Wesley and the New JBs) at the Charleston Music Hall.
The final string of JAC events at Figaro Hall feature performances by Faces for Radio, the Sterbank-Suárez combo, the Matuto Trio, Modus Bone, Gennaro's Jazz Ensemble, Cameron and the C-Notes, and the Charleston Latin Jazz Collective.
Suárez is relieved and excited about the ongoing series, and she's confident about the ongoing collaboration and camaraderie that propels JAC. "When tourists are in town, it's nice to get their attention, and we work hard to market the JAC and get the word out," she says. "We see every event as an investment. Some people wrongly assume that we're rolling in money, but that's not true. We put money back into what we have coming up. We invest in the goal to have a strong community in place for the musicians, audience, and visitors, and we want the city of Charleston to get the full credit it deserves as a cradle of jazz."