When Charleston’s Gatsby Orchestra plays “The Charleston” during Piccolo Spoleto, don’t expect the tinny-sounding, scratchy-needle-on-a-Victrola 1920s jazz you hear in the movies or on TV. The music played live is full and luscious — just as it was in Jay Gatsby’s day in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. It has been 100 years since the birth of “The Charleston,” an internationally known song/dance combo that shares a deep history with its namesake city.
Charleston-area residents William “Bill” McSweeney and Jack Pettit founded the Gatsby Orchestra in 2019 and still serve as band leaders. The pair met 20 years ago while playing in a Charleston Stage production and bonded over a shared love of jazz, especially from the 1920s. The orchestra also benefits from McSweeney’s extensive jazz knowledge: The 66-year-old taught history at the College of Charleston for 25 years and grew up listening to and playing music from the period.
“Bill is a unique component of the Gatsby Orchestra,” said Pettit, 52, who plays tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone and clarinet. “He is a living connection to that era, and bringing that authenticity to the music.”
According to McSweeney, the originator of “The Charleston” song was James P. Johnson, a Black songwriter from New York who wrote music for Broadway. Johnson visited to Charleston and played with musicians like Duke Ellington and Count Basie at the Jenkins Orphanage, known as “The Cradle of Jazz.” He took the Charleston sound, which likely came from Black dock workers, and took it back to New York, which led to dances created from similar music. In 1923, Johnson wrote the Broadway hit “Runnin’ Wild,” which featured “The Charleston.”
“It crossed cultural barriers,” said McSweeney, who serves as the orchestra’s emcee, singer and trombonist. “Everybody who danced to anything in the Roaring ‘20s danced to ‘The Charleston.’ ”
Acting as “musical archaeologists,” McSweeney said he and Pettit dig up the past to find what was important to that era and try to recreate it in a way that’s faithful and true. The Gatsby Orchestra is a standard 1920s-style ensemble featuring three saxophones, two trumpets, a violin, a trombone, a tuba, a banjo, a piano, a drum set and a bandleader. Its music is a cross between traditional jazz and World War II-era New Orleans swing music.
The orchestra’s motto is “where you take center stage” because it considers audience participation to be a central element to its music. People are encouraged to dress up in clothing from that era and learn how to dance the Charleston from choreographer Stephan Duane.
“Music brings people from all backgrounds together,” said Pettit, who was a music major at the University of South Carolina and is now a music teacher for the Charleston County School District. “If there’s one thing in Charleston’s history that seems to have brought people together, it’s the song and dance ‘The Charleston.’ ”
There can be many different styles of the basic steps for the song, depending on variants like twists, kicks and energy. People may be reluctant to hit the dance floor at first, Duane said, but they tend to loosen up, goof off and have fun once the line dance starts. “It’s such a freeform authentic jazz that really anything goes,” he said.
While McSweeney and Pettit have played past Piccolo Spoleto festivals in other bands, this year marks the Gatsby Orchestra’s Piccolo debut. It will be at the opening ceremony at City Hall on May 26, with another performance occurring at a later date in June.
“Gatsby Orchestra loves being involved with every event that takes place around Charleston,” McSweeney said. “We feel as though we’re just Charleston ambassadors.”
Joyelle Ronan is an arts journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.
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