Charleston has a rich history of jazz music, and Karen Chandler, the co-founder and director of the Charleston Jazz Initiative, can fill you in on virtually all of it.
The Charleston Jazz Initiative is a multi-year research project that documents the African American jazz tradition in Charleston, the South Carolina Lowcountry, and its movement through the U.S. and Europe, so it makes sense that Chandler can tell you the actual year that jazz history began in our region.
“If I had to put a date on it, I probably would put the date that is the founding of the Jenkins orphanage, which is 1891,” Chandler said.
The Rev. Daniel Joseph Jenkins founded The Jenkins Orphanage, and the African-American children who lived there were taught music on donated instruments by local musicians P.M. “Hatsie” Logan and Francis Eugene Mikell.
The band even had a role in helping popularize the whirlwind craze of “the Charleston” dance step of the Jazz Age — even if that role was a bit concocted. A 1926 visit by New York-based vaudeville dancer Bee Jackson saw cameras rolling in front of the Franklin Street orphanage, as the band carried a tune in the background.
The rest, as they say, is history.
“Many of the orphans ended up on the bandstands of Count Basie, Duke Ellington or Jimmie Lunceford, some of the early big bands,” Chandler said. “And they were instrumental in taking the style of Charleston with them, the sound of Charleston, that Gullah rhythm.”
The Gullah connection is paramount, because as Chandler points out, the music that the children played at the orphanage originally wasn’t jazz, per se. They were simply playing music, influenced by African rhythms of their Gullah ancestors.
“It is the polyrhythms that were brought by those who were enslaved Africans from the windward coast of West Africa. Those rhythms that they brought in that horrible trans-Atlantic slave trade were retained and were heard primarily in many of the praise houses on some of the barrier islands in and around the Lowcountry and in the Georgia sea islands as well. And so those polyrhythms are what we refer to as Gullah rhythms.”
Those rhythms were carried into the world by some soon-to-be-famous names.
“Oh, let’s see,” Chandler said. “There’s Freddie Green, who was Basie’s rhythm guitarist. Basie himself even said Freddie’s rhythm guitar was the definitive foundation for swing. There was Cat Anderson, who was Duke Ellington’s high-note trumpet player. There was Jabbo Smith, who used to duel all the time with Louis Armstrong, and it’s said that Jabbo was actually technically a faster player.”
On and on, the list of venerable jazz names goes, including alto saxophonist Willie Smith, who played with Jimmie Lunceford, Harry James and Duke Ellington. There’s Julian Dash, a swingin’ tenor sax player who also co-composed “Tuxedo Junction,” one of the most popular jazz tunes of the 1940s. And don’t forget Bertha “Chippie” Hill, a powerhouse singer who performed with Louis Armstrong.
“I would say those are the predominant ones,” Chandler said, “but there are other people like (bassist) James Jamerson who, though he began his career in jazz, he obviously didn’t stay there because he ended up with a Motown. But he had a very strong jazz beginning; he was Pearl Bailey’s bassist for a while.”
Those early influences can be traced into one of the country’s hottest roots jazz groups of the moment: Charleston’s own Ranky Tanky, which took home a Grammy Award for its Gullah-inspired self-titled debut in 2017.
“Ranky Tanky has taken what the Charleston Jazz Initiative has been researching and has basically said, ‘Hey guys, there is something very unique about Gullah culture,’ ” Chandler said. “They have popularized these songs and are now taking that out to the world. So that’s pretty phenomenal, to be able to start talking about this music really from before 1891 and now Ranky Tanky spreading it to the world. So you can start in the 1700s and work our way to the present.”
Ranky Tanky frontman Charlton Singleton takes the stage June 4 at 7 p.m. with his band, Contemporary Flow, for a show at Brittlebank Park to feature familiar and original rhythm and blues and jazz.
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Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.