FEATURE STORY ‌ The Baxter Factor 

Drummer Quentin Baxter spreads the message and leads the way

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"Quentin is my guru," boasts young college student and drummer Ian Springer, from local electric jazz/funk quartet Metropolis. It's a phrase oft-repeated among student drummers and budding amateurs.

"I don't know anybody better around here," Springer says. "He's the drummer to be taking lessons from. College of Charleston's music program is really awesome. It's a pretty contained core of people who all know each other and are able to call each other up. Everyone wants to become as good as they can and everyone is friends."

Springer is one of many up-and-coming musicians in Charleston who not only cites drummer and music teacher Quentin Baxter as a mentor, but praises him as a vital character in the local jazz community.

During a recent Metropolis set at the Mt. Pleasant Kickin' Chicken, the young drummer worked in some tricky rhythmic patterns and pulled off a few wildly dynamic snare drum rolls and cymbal accents, sounding, well, very "Baxter-esque."

While most of the college-aged kids around the bar are oblivious to the drummer's sophisticated attempts, a few take notice of the risk and groove — cool stuff inspired and nurtured in large part by Baxter "the guru" and his professional endeavors.

Watching Baxter at work, setting up his five-piece, custom-made mahogany drum kit for an evening gig at FIG or the Charleston Grill, he certainly seems the epitome of a hard-working modern jazz musician. Up close, he's immersed in music, constantly thinking about rhythm and melody — and how to communicate ideas through both.

Splitting his time between duties as an adjunct professor of jazz percussion in CofC's music department and various local and touring gigs, he keeps time and trades licks in jazz/improv combos Gradual Lean and Quentin Baxter & Friends.

On a typical Tuesday evening on lower Meeting Street, one might catch Baxter and his Gradual Lean bandmates — double-bassist Kevin Hamilton and electric guitarist Lee Barbour — loading into the back corner of FIG ("Food is Good"), a fine-dining restaurant run by chef and music fan Mike Lata and a spot they've called home for most of the year.

The setup is simple: a small amp, a folding chair, an abbreviated drum kit with a cymbal or two on a small area rug, and Hamilton's handsome bass standing tall behind it all.

Being an "off-night" works well for the trio. Many of the working jazz musicians around town have Tuesdays off and can swing by, while the "audience"— half of whom look forward to the trio's spirited approach to reworking old standards and improvised new material, and half of whom couldn't care less — actually loosens up by the hour. During the second set, they take the music in any direction they want.

"Gradual Lean started out years ago," Baxter says. "The gigs used to be much later than they are now. I was actually the last person to join the band. The concept wasn't so much about playing gigs; it was more about 'leaning.' Let's say, you and your lady were celebrating her birthday, so you'd let us know her favorite song and we'd just walk into the restaurant and perform it at the table — that's called leaning. That's how the band formed. From that point on, we've been having a beautiful time."

After several years working in and around the spotlight, Baxter stands out as one of the brightest stars in the local jazz world — a recognizable character with a striking look (accented by his lengthy dreadlocks and curious grin) and a dynamic, almost feathery playing style that's emulated by students and young timekeepers throughout town.

"It's still pretty straight-ahead stuff in the tradition of this music," he says of his weekly performances. "Our clientele is from across the board; younger and older people. We also explore with different sounds and create stuff on the spot and improvise elements to a different level. We just love creating sounds and space with grooves."

Such local groups as the Kopaja Trio, the Frank Duvall Trio, the Joe Clarke Band, the Kevin Hackler Quartet, Havanason, Toca Toca, Ann Caldwell Trio, the Walkin' Mike Wolk Trio,

and numerous others seem as determined to find settings for inspired call-and-response jam sessions and spurts of creative inventiveness.

click to enlarge (L to R): The original Gradual Lean (with Charlton Singleton and Quentin Baxter), trumpeter/bandleader Kevin Hackler (live at High Cotton), and bassist-in-demand Kevin Hamilton (with pianist Michael Bellar)
  • (L to R): The original Gradual Lean (with Charlton Singleton and Quentin Baxter), trumpeter/bandleader Kevin Hackler (live at High Cotton), and bassist-in-demand Kevin Hamilton (with pianist Michael Bellar)

All three members of Gradual Lean are right in the middle of the current action, revered and respected by most of their colleagues. They specialize in a loose, cool style of improv and interpretation — from classic swing and bebop to more contemporary styles and arrangements ... smooth grooves, wild jams, reworked standards, and original pieces.

"Charleston is jazz-friendly in the sense that a lot of restaurants hire jazz musicians, and there are lots of private events we can play to earn a living," says Barbour, who also plays as a solo performer with singer/songwriter Cary Ann Hearst's pop/rock band and a new local project called Illuminati Outro, featuring drummer Ron Wiltrout, multi-instrumentalist Nathan Koci, and bassist Jeremy Wolf. "While this is a blessing for those of us that make our living playing music, I think it also has a lot to do with the lack of forward-thinking, genre-bending music that comes from places where it's not quite so comfortable."

Baxter isn't the only influential member of the band. The original Gradual Lean featured guitarist Clay Ross (now based in N.Y.C.) and horn player Charlton Singleton (a local teacher and session guy, also currently of party band Plane Jane) on trumpet, and Hamilton on bass.

Gradual Lean's current players regularly perform, compose, and instruct outside of the group. Their progressive approach has not gone unnoticed.

Barbour received his Bachelor of Arts degree in jazz performance from USC, where he led his own combo. Since 2001, he has performed around Charleston in various jazz and experimental groups. He also teaches jazz guitar at CofC. Hamilton is a well-versed player who regularly performs with various jazz, funk, and concert music ensembles.

"Lee is a fantastic guitarist," says Alan Brisendine, keyboardist and sax player with funk band Booty Call, drummer with progressive rock band Vehicle, and regular jazz stand-in around town. "He just gets into it so raw and modal and eloquent and pristine. Clay Ross was great, too, but he's in New York now, I think, and shows up every so often to remind us he used to be a local. And Baxter is just the best drummer in town. He can do more with a snare drum and one cymbal than most drummers can't do with a seven-piece kit."

Drummer Ron Wiltrout, currently of the Illuminati Outro and the Kopaja Trio (who gig every Wednesday evening at Cordavi) agrees. "Baxter is an amazing musician who has inspired many musicians, and not just drummers," he says. "His openness on the bandstand — as well as his ability to bring such strength and character to everything he plays — makes him a constant joy to see perform, which brings a lot of young musicians to his gigs. He's also by far the most public of Charleston's jazz musicians, what with his ubiquitous local media presence and tours of the world with Rene Marie and others. And Hamilton can find just the right thing to play to propel a moment forward. He's a creative player that seems to have always had a very natural feel and output."

"Obviously Quentin Baxter and Kevin Hamilton have done a lot for jazz and music in general," says Nathan Koci, of the Kopaja Trio and the New Music Collective. "They have been around for a long time here, and I couldn't imagine the jazz scene without them. That being said, I think that there are some folks who are newer to town who stand out as well."

Trumpeter Kevin Hackler is one of those standouts, a solid player with a wide range and a handle on different musical styles.

"Most of the musicians on the jazz scene here know each other," says the trumpeter. "It really is a small community of people and everyone takes an interest in everyone else. I think there are very many sounds happening here ... but I wouldn't say that we have a collective 'sound' that Charleston can call its own. We all know a lot of the same tunes, though!"

A regular collaborator with Baxter and Hamilton, Hackler has a combo that handles jazz standards and original pieces every Wednesday and Thursday evening at High Cotton (199 East Bay St.). The dapper young horn player leads another combo every Sunday evening at Chai's Lounge & Tapas (462 King St.).

click to enlarge (L toR): Applauded not only for their jazz chops, but for their diverse repertoire as well, pianist Joe Clarke and vocalist Ann Caldwell are celebrated regulars on the local club circuit
  • (L toR): Applauded not only for their jazz chops, but for their diverse repertoire as well, pianist Joe Clarke and vocalist Ann Caldwell are celebrated regulars on the local club circuit

"Hackler can play any standard in the book, rearrange modern rock tracks for his quartet, and be found on stage at Johnson's with an impromptu funk jam on occasion," says Brisendine, who recently completed a month-long gig at the Pour House with the trumpeter for a season in the Fatty Arbuckle group. "Very, very versatile."

The FIG gig is a hit for Gradual Lean, and it seems that the weekly jazz/improv shows at other downtown spots cater to the same audiences with a great variety of styles. Despite it, though, lots of local players are concerned about the club scene. While there's not a legitimate jazz venue, perhaps, there are spots where a variety of local and touring players can play improvised music.

Recently, one of the best spots to catch expressive music that stepped away from the usual standards and loungy faves was the Mezzané, which shut down a year and a half ago. As part of Sermet's Corner at the corner of King and Wentworth, the upstairs, brick-walled Mezzané offered live jazz music in the afternoons and evenings five nights a week. In the early 2000s, this served as a hip, semi-bohemian hangout for local musicians and artists.

"It was short-lived, but came as close as it could to a legitimate jazz club," says local writer Jack McCray. "I don't know how much it expanded beyond the college-aged crowd. There's that whole other segment of the market who get out and enjoy the music. That's where the town really pays the price in terms of getting out all the segments of the market that are really interested in this music. For good reason, most of the recent efforts have been pretty much directed toward the younger crowd."

McCray, 59, has been a "cold-blooded" fan and observer of jazz music since playing in his high school bands. He started writing professionally about the local jazz clubs and musicians 15 years ago with the Post and Courier. As co-principal, he helped establish the Charleston Jazz Initiative (www.charlestonjazz.net) in 2003 as a multiyear research project that celebrates and documents the African-American jazz tradition in the Charleston area.

"The deal here is that there can look like there's hardly any scene at all — except for those special events and festivals — because there's no club here," McCray says. "The closest we came was the Chef & Clef and the original Myskyn's. It was a very hip scene."

Fortunately for fans and musicians, a number of jazz-friendly eateries have stepped up and offered solid opportunities for performers. FIG, Mistral, Cordavi, High Cotton, Tristan, and Chai's maintain weekly live music events with a great variety of styles.

"Mezzane had almost gained 'legendary Charleston club' status, but it wasn't open that long," says Singleton. "It had a lot of character and was a spot for the younger generation. Chai's is a newer club in town and they do very nice things with their jazz lineups."

There were other spots the last few years as well. Legendary sax player and local politician Lonnie Hamilton III actually ran a club for a spell. Small jazz-oriented restaurants came and went along the King Street corridor, but nothing ever stuck.

"That's why the scene appears fractured or even nonexistent," says McCray. "The music is almost underground because what you have is cats playing in other types of clubs and restaurants and they have to do the best they can under those circumstances. All of that is manifested by the recent birth of the Charleston Jazz Society, which is totally devoted to performance and putting the music first. In everyplace else, the music is almost an aside."

"Being that Charleston is a small town, musicians tend to stick pretty close together — at least in the jazz world," says Michael Hanf, 20, a regular in the Gradual Lean audience at FIG. Hanf is a local vibes player who performs around town with songwriter Lindsay Holler, members of the New Music Collective, the New Groove Quartet, and other projects.

"Club owners tend to take jazz musicians more seriously than other musicians. I've played some non-jazz gigs where bar owners simply refuse to pay the performers after making promises to pay up front. I've never had that problem with jazz gigs."

Whether or not a legitimate "jazz club" establishes itself in town may be beside the point. As Hackler points out, "High Cotton features eight jazz shows a week already ... that's pretty legit, isn't it?"

"The devoted venue for this music is on the way, hopefully, at some point," says Baxter, who's been around long enough to remember such places as Myskyn's, The Chef & Clef, and other much-missed local jazz clubs. "I think that's a sour note among some of my older colleagues. Those guys played in specific dedicated venues, so to say that there's not one now is a disappointment for them. At one time we had several joints for jazz, so I can see how some of the older cats feel like the scene is going down or whatever. It's not a good thing that we don't have a dedicated space — we understand that void — but, man, we're also in a very unique space when people don't have to go to the same damn place to get the music [laughs]. It's a plus to be able to go to one place and know what's going on, but it should be a plus to be able to pick where you want to go this week from several places."

That's a pretty positive approach to the business side of the jazz scene — one that's as wide open for inspiration, musical ideas, and improvisational opportunities as his approach to playing drums and teaching students. It reflects the possibilities for musical invention and expression at jazz hotspots like the Charleston Grill, FIG, and Cordavi ... or the Village Tavern, the Pour House, Johnson's Pub, and other places.

"I'm going for good music, no matter," Baxter says. "My whole thing is that jazz is a world music. Traveling the world, I realize that now. It's at home with most world music. It's folk music, really. It's a genre of world music to which we've contributed. That's the place for it now. It's ours and it's something to be proud of. That's really what Gradual Lean is. That's what we're doing at the Charleston Grill. I'm deep into it, and traveling through other countries allows me to bring new ideas back to it."

Going for "good music" is what it's really all about for the music fans and music makers in town. Fortunately, the current players in the Charleston collective of improv musicians are on the right page and determined to push ahead with their sophisticated craft — inspired not only by the dexterous Baxter and his immediate colleagues, but cool vibes and opportunities surrounding them as well.


THE WEEKLY GIGS
Live Jazz Music Around Charleston

WEDNESDAYS

» Charleston GrillFrank Duvall Trio, 7-11 p.m.

» High CottonKevin Hackler & Friends, 6-10 p.m.

» MistralThe French Collection, 8:30-11 p.m.

THURSDAYS

» Arlaana Restaurant Anthony Owens (piano), 7:30-10:30 p.m.

» Charleston GrillQuentin Baxter & Friends, 8 p.m.-midnight

» Diana'sAbe White (saxophonist), 7:30 p.m.

» Gennaro's Italian RestaurantRay Michaels Band, 8 p.m.

» High CottonKevin Hackler & Friends,6-10 p.m.

» MistralWalkin' Mike Wolk (piano), 8:30-11 p.m.

» Red Drum GastropubRDB3, 9 p.m.

» Satchmo's"Jazz Jam," 8 p.m.

» TristanAnn Caldwell Trio, 5:30-9 p.m.

FRIDAYS

» Charleston GrillQuentin Baxter & Friends, 8 p.m.-midnight

» Henry's on the MarketMichael Garrett, 8 p.m.

» High CottonJohn Slate & Joe Wilson, 6-10 p.m.

» MistralNew South Jazzmen, 8:30-11 p.m.

» Oak Steakhouse"Salsa Night" w/ Havanason, 10:30 p.m.

» O'Hara & Flynn"Local Showcase" w/ Bill Carson & Jonathan Gray, 8:30 p.m.

» TristanAnn Caldwell Trio, 5:30-9 p.m.

SATURDAYS

» Charleston GrillQuentin Baxter & Friends, 8 p.m.-midnight

» MistralWalkin' Mike Wolk Trio, 8:30-11 p.m.

» O'Hara & Flynn "Local Showcase" w/ Bill Carson & Jonathan Gray, 8:30 p.m.

SUNDAYS

» Chai's Lounge & TapasKevin Hackler Quartet, 9 p.m.-midnight

» Charleston GrillBob Williams, 7-11 p.m.

» High CottonJohn Slate & John Oden,Margaret Coleman, brunch and 6-10 p.m.

» TristanJoe Clarke Trio. 11 a.m.

» Wally Gator'sBobby Storm, 9 p.m.

MONDAYS

» Charleston GrillFrank Duvall Trio, 7-11 p.m.

» MistralMirage, 8:30 -11 p.m.

TUESDAYS:

» Charleston GrillFrank Duvall Trio, 7-11 p.m.

» FIGGradual Lean, 8-11 p.m.

» High CottonMargaret Coleman, 6 p.m.


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