Last year, the Historic Charleston Foundation reached out to Charles Carmody, director of the Charleston Music Hall, to create an event. The foundation was looking for a musical finale to a three-night package they'd put together with Kings Courtyard Inn that included a historical walking tour and a trip on the Charlotte Street house and gardens tour. But rather than go for a clichéd cover band or a stuffy orchestral performance, Carmody recommended the Foundation contact drummer Ron Wiltrout, a musical jack-of-all-trades who can handle just about any genre with ease.
"Charles is a great advocate for all things musical in the city. He's kind of an unsung hero in that regard," Wiltrout says. "He'd encouraged them to do something that was a little different, and I do a bunch of different things."
What Wiltrout came up with was an event called Jazzed Up In The Holy City, a three-band show that includes his trio, Lewis, Gregory and Wiltrout, the Garage Cuban Band, and CJO conductor and Artistic Director Charlton Singleton's quartet, the Contemporary Flow.
Wiltrout says his purpose from the beginning was to create a show that covered a wide range of musical styles. "Charlton's got a great group that's more of a smooth-jazz thing," he says. "Whereas Garage Cuban Band plays Cuban music band with a lot of singing and improvisation, and so to complete the picture, our trio that's opening the show is a much more free-form, aggressive jazz trio that's based on traditional ideas, but is more open to whatever might happen. So I thought it would be a nice combination of bands."
Wiltrout's trio (which also includes pianist Gerald Gregory and saxophonist Robert Lewis) has been playing together for seven years, and he says that time together has helped them create a kind of musical telepathy. "It ends up being like a conversation," he says. "I don't have to worry about them getting what I'm doing, or trying to find a way to justify or explain what kind of music I'm trying to play in the moment. It's like when you meet someone who understands your sense of humor — you don't have to explain your jokes to them."
For his part, Singleton says that playing the show, the proceeds of which will benefit the Historic Charleston Foundation's revitalization projects throughout the year, was a no-brainer for him. "Ron plays drums in the Charleston Jazz Orchestra, so when he asked if I'd be interested, I said sure, no problem," he says. "And once I learned more about it, I knew I would love being a part of it. You can't beat it: Playing on the Charleston Music Hall stage for a good cause, it's just going to be a fantastic night with really great music."
A trumpeter, Singleton doesn't really think of his group, which features keyboardist Stephen Washington, bassist Kenny Shider and drummer Calvin Baxter, as "smooth jazz," though. "This band plays more contemporary jazz," he says. "We do a lot of music like the mid-to-late '80s Miles Davis kind of stuff. And when you have a small group like a quartet, then the song can be changed dramatically at the drop of a dime. For example, if we play 'Summertime,' we can play it as a ballad, as a medium swing, a funk tune, or as an Afro-Cuban tune, and there could be a spot where we could change it up anytime we choose. That's the kind of freedom you have. Between Lewis, Gregory and Wiltrout and Garage Cuban Band, there's just a high level of musicality that's going to be presented that night."
Like Wiltrout, Singleton says he's happy that the three bands play such different styles of music. "One thing that I think that most people have come to see about Charleston musicians is that we're very diverse," he says. "Take Ron for example. He can play just about any style of music, and there are a lot of musicians in town that are in that same boat. Charleston has a lot of musicians who are very versatile, and this show is full of them."
Wiltrout says that though they might seem different on the surface, the musicians and the Historic Charleston Foundation have some of the same goals. "The foundation doesn't have very much to do with modern jazz, but they have a lot to do with a multifaceted city," he says. "We're hired to be the entertainment, but I want it to be more than that. I want people that are interested in the foundation to see the music we're playing as being part of the city, just like the foundation is, and we all play a part in the grand scheme of things."