By Kevin Murphy Wilson
The 18-member Charleston Jazz Orchestra (CJO) is set to launch into its monumental 15th season Feb. 25 with a “New ‘Awlins” concert. Two funky jazz sets at Charleston Music Hall feature renowned trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, a Georgia native whose plunger technique and scat singing exude a 1930s style.
“Wycliffe Gordon is one of the finest jazz performers of our time,” said Brent Swaney, director of performances for Charleston Jazz. “For our 15th season, we knew we wanted to open with something very special. Gordon’s flair for New Orleans-style jazz paired with our stellar lineup of CJO musicians brings the vibrant, electric energy we were looking for to launch this milestone year.”
Even so, Gordon told the City Paper he has never been concerned with markers of greatness. “I don’t monitor or try to gauge my development,” Gordon said. “Instead, I always work on trying to be a better human being. I’m a musician that tries to give the best of myself in performance on stage and in my life off stage.”
The song selection for the upcoming show has a New Orleans/Mardi Gras flair, and the title song “New ‘Awlins” is composed and arranged by Gordon himself, Swaney said.
Charleston’s Charlton Singleton arranged a rendition of the classic Fats Waller tune “Black and Blue” for the concert as well. Other highlights include “Hallelujah Shout,” “Dippermouth Blues” and “Umbrella Man.”
Swaney said producing and promoting CJO concerts with special guests is a sure-fire way of keeping the city’s history (and future) at the forefront of Lowcountry entertainment.
But, Swaney said, not many people realize that Charleston played a major role in developing the style of American jazz music.
“The Jenkins Orphanage Band put Charleston on the map [in the early 20th century] as one of the most significant cities in jazz history when they began touring to raise funds for the orphanage,” Swaney said. “Musicians would travel to the orphanage just to watch, observe and train with the musicians there and learn their techniques.”
Charleston Jazz is constantly looking forward and backward to establish and maintain relevance for Holy City players in the ongoing musical conversation that occurs throughout this extremely diverse cultural region that is the American South.
The nonprofit’s mission is to build a community through performances, education and outreach.
“We received special grant funding from South Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts to present a Southern-born artist,” Swaney said. That’s essentially how Gordon was chosen to kick off CJO’s 2023 concert schedule. It helps that his well-deserved reputation in his field added a little more gravitas to that decision.
Gordon said he first discovered the trombone at age 12 and continued to play through college, where he eventually met up with wellknown trumpeter, composer and teacher Wynton Marsalis and ultimately decided to go all-in as a musician.
This particular career move necessitated a daily cycle of “listening and practicing, followed by a lot more listening and practicing,” Gordon said. And it seems his meticulous attention to detail paid off in a big way.
Besides accumulating an assortment of academic accolades and numerous television, radio and film credits, Gordon is a veteran member of the Wynton Marsalis Septet and a founding member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
His freelance performance roster sees him brushing shoulders with notable names in the jazz world, including Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Paul Simon, Rene Marie, Dianne Reeves and David Sanborn.
“I play music that has meaning, contains stories and connects with people,” Gordon said. “It is important to educate [audiences] while entertaining.”
Gordon plays two concerts at Charleston Music Hall with the CJO at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. Feb. 25. Tickets are $25-$64 at charlestonmusichall.com.
Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.