Jazz drummer Ron Free's journey leads him back to Charleston 

The Beatkeeper Goes On

People light up when they start discussing music they love. I sat through an enjoyable pow-wow with the main executives of the Jazz Artists of Charleston last week. JAC President Leah Suárez, Vice President Charlton Singleton, advising member and concert producer Jack McCray, and staffer Erin Fornadel were already jazzed up about the Charleston Jazz Orchestra's big Singin' on Basie concert that weekend (with Singleton conducting, as always), but everyone's mood became incandescent when the topic of their upcoming Upstairs at McCrady's jazz series was mentioned.

In conjunction with Piccolo Spoleto, the JAC has booked a slew of local cats in various configurations for the 11-night series, including some familiar combos and a few new collaborations. As a series closer, a one-set-only Charleston All-Stars concert is scheduled for Fri. June 11 at McCrady's. Some of the usual suspects in the JAC gallery of players will be on hand. But the big news is concerns the very special guest drummer: Charleston native and underground legend Ron Free.

Now based in Virginia, Free first made his mark in the New York City jazz scene in the late '50s and early '60s, when he jammed, recorded, and resided at the notorious Loft in lower Manhattan.

The Loft was the home of Life magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith and composer/pianist Hall Overton, and it was also the bohemian headquarters for some of the hippest jazz musicians at the time, including pianist Thelonious Monk, sax player Zoot Sims, bassist Charles Mingus, sax player Sonny Rollins, pianist Freddie Reed, drummer Roy Haynes, sax player John Coltrane, and many others.

McCray nearly fell off his chair as he started to tell the story of the Loft and the newly released book, The Jazz Loft Project, by Sam Stephenson. He remembers seeing and hearing Free at a few low-key gigs at the old Chef and Clef venue downtown.

"Ron Free was and is a musician's musician," McCray said. "He's not celebrated like some jazz drummers, but he is well known by musicians."

Released this winter, The Jazz Loft Project is an impressive documentation of Smith's eight years at the Loft, where he diligently photographed and recorded the rehearsals, jam sessions, and casual get-togethers in and around the space. Stephenson spent years collecting, researching, and assembling Smith's massive vault of old reel tapes, black-and-white negatives, and prints.

Barely in his 20s, but able to collaborate and hang with his musical peers and idols alike, Free pops up quite a bit in The Jazz Loft Project. A chapter titled "What Happened to Ronnie Free?" tells most of his early story, from his fruitful professional career as a teenager in Charleston and his all-too-brief heyday as a rising star at the Loft to his battles with substance abuse and recovery. Free moved out of New York in 1960 and stepped away from playing music altogether. Fortunately, he came back to the drum kit with his remarkable touch intact.

Now in his 70s and living in Hot Springs, Va., Free is healthy, happy, and back on the jazz scene (although very casually and selectively) with the Elmer Gibson Trio and other regional combos.

It will be an honor and a privilege for the musicians and attendees to see and hear Free at McCrady's in June. No wonder the JAC folks are so giddy this season.


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