Watching the Charleston Jazz Orchestra perform at the Charleston Music Hall, you'd never think it was operating on a shoestring budget. The men wear tuxedos, the women black evening wear. The 17 musicians sit behind stylish CJO podiums. A curtain of twinkling lights forms the backdrop.
And that's just what you see, of course — what you hear at a CJO concert is even more impressive. The orchestra expertly plays famous works by some of jazz's greatest composers, from George Gershwin to Billy Strayhorn to Antonio Carlos Jobim, often bringing in guest artists, vocalists, or even full orchestra sections to perform with them. Conducted by trumpeter, pianist, and bandleader Charlton Singleton, the CJO is nothing if not polished and professional.
With that kind of presentation, you'd expect the CJO to be backed by a large administrative staff, or at least a donor base with deep pockets. Yet the CJO is operated by the small nonprofit Jazz Artists of Charleston (JAC), which — among its many other functions — hires CJO players (all of whom are paid) and produces six full CJO concerts each year. "We look 10 years older than we are," says Leah Suárez, the founder and executive director of Jazz Artists of Charleston. "We're working on a very limited budget, probably half of what we ideally should be working at," and 70 percent of that budget is earned revenue, an unheard-of figure for nonprofits, which usually rely on donations and grants to survive.
Suárez founded the JAC five years ago with Singleton, the JAC's artistic director, and the late Jack McCray, a jazz advocate and writer who worked at the Post and Courier for many years. The three worked with a small founding board as well. Though the CJO is an integral element of the JAC's mission, it's far from the only one. Suárez and Singleton have a far-reaching vision for their organization, one that is rooted in developing Charleston's jazz culture and creating a strong community of jazz performers, consumers, students, and teachers. To that end, the JAC offers everything from small, intimate concerts to educational discussions to formal jazz history presentations. They also maintain a Jazz Around Town calendar, which lists live jazz performances in bars, restaurants, and other venues in Charleston.
What might make them most unique is their focus on in-house arrangements. Rather than performing the same classic arrangements, the JAC encourages its CJO musicians to create their own, like saxophonist Robert Lewis did for this past spring's Porgy and Bess Reimagined. "Everybody knows all the songs from Porgy and Bess," Singleton says. "But the lead saxophonist, he just redid the whole thing. Everybody was in there and they were literally having a wow moment every song."
Those in-house arrangements are what really set them apart from other jazz ensembles and orchestras, not just in Charleston but around the country. It's also become a source of great pride for CJO patrons. "Our audience now recognizes the difference in all of that, especially if it's something they're accustomed to hearing. For example, there are recordings that are historic — like when you hear 'Take the A Train' by Duke Ellington, or by Billy Strayhorn, who wrote it. There is one arrangement that everybody knows," Singleton says. "If we do that song, and I say to one of the musicians, 'Could you arrange this?' the audience understands when they hear the song. They know the tune, but they see it's arranged by someone from around here. And they appreciate that."
Like most nonprofits — especially those which started in the heart of a recession — the JAC has had its share of struggles in the past five years, most notably McCray's death in 2011. Just three months before he passed away, the JAC had signed a lease to take over the full building at their headquarters at 185 St. Philip St. Suárez had left graduate school to focus completely on the organization, and Singleton had already started as a full-time employee. The three founders were ready to begin strategic planning for the JAC.
So while McCray's passing was a devastating blow for Suárez and Singleton personally, it also put the JAC in a difficult position. "Jack was working — he had retired from the Post and Courier and was full-time volunteering with us, essentially," Suárez says. "That's what a lot of people don't know. They don't know that the loss was not just a personal one, not just a board member, a founding member. It was work being done. He was working all the time for the mission of what we were doing, and of course in our community."
Fully recovering from the loss of McCray — from a professional standpoint, that is — took them about 18 months, Suárez says. Now she and Singleton feel like they've finally gotten to a point where they can celebrate the five years they've put behind them and start looking forward to the future. They've changed the times for the JAC's season six performances (5 and 8 p.m. instead of 7 and 10 p.m.) and refocused their efforts on promoting gigs by individual jazz performers with the Jazz Around Town calendar. They're also beginning year six in a new, as-yet-unannounced location that will give them double the office and performance space, so they can host more events in-house instead of renting halls.
Having a performance space dedicated to jazz and the JAC is important to the two leaders. They started hosting in-house concerts last year during their first JAC Week, which presents several small, unique events — like reinterpretations of classic albums or movie nights — over four or five days. "We started using the space how we intended in doing these tiny little concerts for JAC Week," Suárez says. "This year we did it again, and it just felt right. That's the kind of environment we want to try to be, so the patrons can have direct contact."
They'll announce their new home, the Charleston Jazz House, sometime in October, and open their doors to the community soon after that. Eventually, Suárez and Singleton want it to become a kind of community jazz hub, hosting business workshops and lectures for musicians, offering educational programming, and generally supporting and promoting jazz in the Holy City.
Ideally the Jazz House would be similar to the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco, which is the first stand-alone building in the country built specifically for jazz. "People say, well you have the Gaillard and Charleston Music Hall, but they're not just for what we do," Suárez says. "I think that would be a dream come true to one day be able to walk into a building that hopefully overlooks the beautiful harbor, but something that feels the way we live essentially as jazz musicians. There's a long history of that in Charleston. It's not just jazz per se, it's American music."
Of course, in order to get there, the JAC will need support. They were recently awarded a small grant from Charleston County, and their season subscriber list continues to grow — at this point, patrons are renewing their subscriptions before the year's performance schedule is even announced. But an organization this ambitious needs committed donors if they're going to accomplish the goals they've set for themselves. "I think JAC gives [our patrons] that ability to feel good that musicians are supported. We've seen our contributions increase, because they see the value of what they're getting and they see musicians working together," Suárez says. "It's not just another organization where their executive director or development director comes to them and asks for money— we're working on, 'Hey, can you pay for the stands, would you pay for the lights, would you help us keep our light bill going, do you want to help this artist get his album out?'"
If the organization can continue to grow its donor base, she and Singleton will be able to concentrate more and more on the reason they started JAC in the first place: the music. "This institution is a grassroots effort and has really taken a lot of sacrifice — I mean, we all sacrifice a lot to make sure it survives, because we care about it. My hope is that this is our forward-moving year. This fifth year was a celebration of what we've come into," Suárez says. "Now we're looking at where we're headed."
Learn more about Jazz Artists of Charleston and the Charleston Jazz Orchestra at charlestonjazz.com.