The second he graduated from what was then called the S.C. State College, 21-year-old Oscar Rivers Jr. hightailed it to the Windy City. A Burke High alumnus, Rivers’ dream was to play the saxophone for a living. Jazz great Sonny Stitt soon heard the young saxophonist in a Chicago club and invited him to join his band.
“He was so impressed with my playing at the young, tender age of 21,” recalls Rivers. “I told him I’d just moved there from South Carolina. He was just up in arms.”
A three-year stint with the Quincy Jones Orchestra followed Rivers’ time with Stitt, as well as gigs with Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, the Temptations, and the Jackson Five.
Rivers remained in Chicago from 1961 to 1979. Despite working with the era’s most successful musicians, it was a difficult time to make ends meet as a player. He supplemented his income by teaching music at schools, a second career he continues back home today at Memminger Elementary and Julian Mitchell Math and Science Elementary School.
Today, Rivers is equally well-known as a pianist. After studying classical piano for 10 years, he landed a job playing keys with Eddie Harris. These days, Rivers’ trio finds him behind the ivories, along with drummer Max Moore and bassist Chuck King.
“With the trio, we’ll play jazz-soul and a lot of Latin songs,” explains Rivers, whose favorite songs include “Teach Me Tonight,” “Don’t Blame Me,” and Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll.”
Rivers recalls the days when Charlie Parker was a household name, and every corner in Charleston seemed to house a jazz club. Today, he mentions Mercado, Magnolias, and Charleston Grill among the few places left to find real jazz in town.
“Charleston’s trying to get there, but it’s hard,” says Rivers. “We don’t have enough jazz clubs.”
For a night, at least, the Swamp Fox Restaurant will turn into an old-school jazz haunt, with hints of Chicago and a classic Lowcountry feel that only an original like Rivers can conjure.
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