Although it only came to life a year ago, the Charleston Jazz Orchestra already bounces to its own cool rhythm. Led by trumpeter and conductor Charlton Singleton, and supported by the now-established Jazz Artists of Charleston (a nonprofit organization serving the jazz community), the traditional big band pushes things with a confident stride.
After nearly two years' worth of pre-production, musical arranging, rehearsals, and elegant concerts, the CJO headlines its first-ever collaborative concert this Tuesday evening when the Holy City Homecomin' hits the Charleston Music Hall stage.
Singleton and the CJO welcome guest conductor Bob Belden — a composer, arranger, and skillful musician — to the grand big-band performance. Originally from Goose Creek, Belden studied at the University of North Texas before working with Woody Herman's Orchestra, Donald Byrd, the Mel Lewis Orchestra, and Red Rodney, among others. He's buddies with Lou "Blue Lou" Marini (of Blues Brothers fame), and he's most celebrated for his ability to transform non-jazz material into jazz.
"We know there's a Charleston jazz musician diaspora," says author and Post and Courier columnist Jack McCray, an advising member of the JAC and producer of CJO events. "That has always occurred here. There are musicians who grew their chops here and have gone on to other places. We give them the opportunity to stay rooted here."
For such a small market Charleston has a ton of great musicians. According to McCray, the JAC wants to contextualize that and demonstrate to the general public that there is a terrific scene here.
"The only way to get that out is to organize in a forthright way, promote it, and create a situation where we continue to grow.," McCray says. "It's an outlet for what we think more and more people need to know about. We keep stretching out. One of the things the CJO prides itself on — and one of the reasons we've become so popular with fans — is that we do very, very challenging material. Familiarity has its benefits, so we do standards, but everything we've done has been extremely challenging, going all the way back to the Carolina Jazz Parade."
Belden's original piece "Genesis" was a part of the successful Carolina Jazz Parade program. Obviously, the local audience was open and receptive, and appeared to enjoy the experience.
Last year, the first Homecomin' concert featured a mix of musicians and bands, with the Gradual Lean guys on hand throughout. This year it looks like a more focused and possibly thunderous affair.
"Holy City Homecomin' doesn't necessarily have to be a 'big band' event," says Singleton. "Last year, we had Clay Ross come back with a combo, the founding members of Gradual Lean, and other guests. Because the big band has surfaced this year, and because of the relationship that we have with our Lowcountry brother, Bob Belden, it made sense to do the concert this way. We get the exposure for the big band, and any type of publicity we can get is certainly welcome. Bob is a very strong advocate for jazz, or any kind of music, for that matter — in the Lowcountry. So it's the perfect scenario. We're ecstatic about it. The program will have something for everyone — I can promise you that," Singleton adds. "It really is a great reflection of Bob's career as a musician and as an arranger and composer."
Whether with funk/rock band Plane Jane on weekends or with his own combo lineups, Singleton confidently handles the usual small-band gigs with ease. However, he considers concerts like this one to be cherished occasions. Singleton has his eye on a couple of goals this week and beyond — not only as the usual conductor of the CJO (and vice president of the JAC), but also as a participating musician.
As demonstrated over the last year and a half of CJO performances at the Music Hall, the sound coming off the stage during a big band concert can be pretty powerful.
"It's a different kind of excitement when you play with a big band," Singleton says. "Anyone who has seen the Charleston Jazz Orchestra and watched me on stage, they know I'm definitely not one to stand still. I get excited up there because the music is powerful and moving — and I gotta move with it."
Sometimes delicate, and oftentimes deep and booming, it's a full sound that some local jazz fans may be surprised to hear and feel on Tuesday evening.
"There've been some big bands in town going on," says Singleton. "Cranking up the big band sound, people forget how powerful that is. We try to present different moods. A lot of different shows that we plan on having are going to present a lot of different genres of music, a lot of different styles.
"It's going to be a great night, he says about on Tuesday's gig. "I hope everybody gets into it now. I hope they check out the website and look at what we're doing. There's a lot going on. We're proud of the progress we're making, and we want as many people to be aware of what we're doing as possible."
CJO events are happening throughout the year, and the JAC is looking into securing a spot dedicated to being a regular performance venue.
McCray's already quite proud of what his colleagues have done to raise the artistic level of their music.
"The way that the CJO does things, I think we've gone a long way to dignify the art form," he says. "We present it as professionally as we can. We work hard and prepare. It's not just a bunch of cats showing up and freewheelin' a blowin' session with no preparation. It's classy. It looks and sounds good on stage. And it elevates jazz in the mind of the uninitiated. What we do and how we do it is very comparable to the other art forms around here."