Lonnie Hamilton III, 95, had his own local Lonnie Hamilton Show in the early '60s. | Photo by Ruta Smith

Charleston played a fundamental role in the formation of American jazz music, yet the story is not often told in the same breath as New Orleans, Chicago or New York. In this story, Holy City jazz musicians and industry professionals illustrate the importance of our city’s contribution to the genre throughout the 20th century.  

The story of Charleston jazz could not have been written without the Rev. Daniel Joseph Jenkins, a Charleston Baptist minister who opened Jenkins Orphanage in 1891. 

The Jenkin’s Orphanage Band developed well-known Charleston jazz musicians in the early 20th century. | Courtesy Avery Research Center

“Three years later, [Jenkins] created a fundraising machine with the Jenkins Orphanage Band [program] that trained orphans to play musical instruments while raising money for the orphanage,” said College of Charleston (CofC) arts management professor emerita Karen Chandler, who is co-principal of the college’s Charleston Jazz Initiative program in partnership with the Avery Research Center.

“The [Jenkins musicians] played for President [William Howard] Taft’s inauguration in 1909 and were in the orchestra pits for many of the new Black Broadway shows that were opening in the early 1900s,” she said. 

Jenkins’ students learned to capture the syncopated rhythms, intricate harmonies and improvisation that characterized early jazz. Jenkins, who was born into slavery in South Carolina around 1862, is not as well-known in U.S. history as Black empowerment pioneer Booker T. Washington, but Chandler said some historians recognize Jenkins for his social contributions to uplift Blacks in America as much as they do for Washington and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois.

“Jenkins was so successful that he had a Charleston and Harlem office, and his bands toured with a manager, a valet and cooks,” she said. “His obituary was published in The New York Times and his funeral in Charleston drew nearly 2,000 people.”

Jenkins Orphanage is known as the starting place of some of Charleston’s well-known jazz forerunners of the early 20th century. Now called the Jenkins Institute for Children, its 132-year legacy as a refuge for the youth remains strong. 

‘Charleston’s jazz story is an American jazz story’

Lowcountry musicians are “the main characters in a seminal American jazz story that’s yet to be fully told,” Chandler said. There was Charleston-born singer and bandleader Bertha “Chippie” Hill, who can be heard on 1920s recordings with Louis Armstrong; and Edisto Island native James Jamerson, the innovative bass player for singer Pearl Bailey and then the pre-’60s Motown studio band Funk Brothers behind many famous hits; and Charleston-born rhythm guitarist Freedie Green who played in the Count Basie Orchestra for over 50 years. 

James Jamerson, an Edisto Island native, is considered an iconic American bass player. | Courtesy Earl Van Dyke

“Count Basie hired Freddie and used to say that his playing was pivotal in maintaining that swingin’ pulse that defined the Swing Era,” Chandler added. “The little-known careers of these and other musicians from right here on our Gullah-Geechee soil of Charleston and the South Carolina Lowcountry contributed mightily to the development of jazz in America and in Europe. Charleston’s jazz story is an American jazz story.” 

To shed light on Charleston’s role in cultivating and innovating jazz music means recognizing the city’s heritage of oppression, said Tatjana Beylotte, executive director of Charleston Jazz. The new International African American Museum, for example, overlooks the wharf where an estimated 40% of enslaved Africans entered North America, she said, referring to the transatlantic slave trade from the late 17th to early 19th century.

Bertha “Chippie” Hill was a blues and vaudeville singer and dancer born in 1905 in Charleston. | Courtesy William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress

“The foundational elements of jazz music were brought here by enslaved Africans,” she said, “and they influenced the rest of the people here, essentially creating what’s now known as blues and jazz. They infused the community with their culture, including their music and their rhythm. You can’t argue with that — that makes Charleston an instrumental player in the formation of jazz.”

Laws and societal restrictions in 19th century Charleston prevented Blacks from being able to congregate and define their own culture as much as was possible in New Orleans, said Quiana Parler, acclaimed vocalist for Grammy Award-winning Gullah ensemble Ranky Tanky. She said the vestiges of Spanish and French colonization in 19th century New Orleans gave greater opportunity to Black musicians to cultivate jazz performance than the social climate in the Lowcountry.  

“New Orleans was a racist and slave-owning society also, but Charleston’s history was far more conservative than New Orleans, and the rules in Charleston restricted Blacks way more,” Parler said. 

The wild ride of Lonnie Hamilton III

Legendary Charleston saxophonist/clarinetist Lonnie Hamilton III, 95, has spent his lifetime immersed in performance and music education. He has lived the life of a Charleston jazzman.

Hamilton said when he thinks of Lowcountry jazz figures, “most times, they have been neglected. No one has taken much time to be with them and talk to them about jazz itself. And many times, you get the history verbally from some other musician as to what happened with them.”

Before Hamilton graduated Burke High School in 1947 he said he had played all around Folly Beach and the Charleston area with a local ensemble called William Lewis Gaillard and the Royal Sultans and toured with the Jenkins Orphanage Bands. 

“During those days being a Black person, hell, you didn’t get in the paper … In the early days when I played with William Lewis Gaillard, nothing would be published about you then.” 

Lonnie Hamilton III stands outside the jazz club he operated on Market Street in the early ’80s. | Courtesy Lonnie Hamilton

After his college years, he ended up taking up a 20-year post as bandleader for Bonds-Wilson High School in North Charleston from 1955 to 1975. He said the Bonds-Wilson band was known up and down the coast under his leadership.

Hamilton dived into cultivating the Charleston jazz scene in the early 1980s with his jazz club Lonnie’s on Market Street downtown, before taking up a residency from 1987 to 1996 at Henry’s On The Market during which he established the well-known act, Lonnie Hamilton and the Diplomats. The Diplomats were active in the late 1990s and up to the pandemic, performing consistently in Charleston’s Spoleto Festival USA and opening for international jazz acts such as Dizzy Gillepsie — also a South Carolina native. 

“From the early days, you had what they then called ‘New Orleans jazz’ — but the Charleston people were doing their own thing. And they considered themselves to be the historians for jazz, because when George Gershwin came to Charleston, [he] used to hang out in the Black community. And [he] copied a lot of the things that the Blacks were doing then, in order to use for his own for his own composition.”

Jazz mainstay Rivers reflects on notable players

Virtuoso saxophonist and pianist Oscar Rivers Jr. was born in 1940 downtown on Richmond Street. He was playing saxophone in a 12- to 15-piece jazz orchestra called Carolina Thumpers by the time he turned 15, and went on to graduate Burke High School in 1957. His classmate Joey Morant, the late world-class trumpeter, performed with the Carolina Thumpers. “He taught me how to play jazz,” Rivers said of Morant, who also played with the Jenkins Orphanage Bands.

“Jazz music is improvisational — it’s a gift,” Rivers said. “You cannot play what you cannot hear. By listening to records when I was in high school by the great alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, I was able to emulate the style of playing called Be-Bop, which originated in the early ’40s with Dizzy Gillepsie.”

Rivers left Charleston for decades to pursue higher education, studying the piano extensively in Chicago, Mexico and South America before returning in the 1980s. He played keys with Lonnie Hamilton and the Diplomats on and off for nine years. He formed his own group Rivers & Company in the early ’80s with his late wife, jazz vocalist Fabian Rivers. Their band played 10 concerts in South America as part of the International Music Festival in 1988. 

Oscar Rivers, 83, still performs regularly at Hotel Indigo in Mount Pleasant with vocalist Kat Keturah as Oscar Rivers and Company. | Jonathan Boncek file photo

Rivers played in ensembles at the Moulin Rouge in the 1950s, Touch of Class in the 1980s and Topside Lounge on Kiawah Island in the 1990s. Currently, the Oscar Rivers Jazz Quartet plays with vocalist Kat Keturah at Hotel Indigo on Mount Pleasant on Saturdays.

“A lot of great musicians came out of Charleston that people don’t even know about,” Rivers said. Georgia-born trumpeter Jabbo Smith, who lived and learned to play at the Jenkins Orphanage, gained notoriety in New York City in the 1920s playing alongside big name musicians such as Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. Greenville-born jazz trumpeter Cat Anderson, who also lived and learned to play at the orphanage, performed in stints with the Duke Ellington Orchestra from the 1940s to the 1970s. 

21st century tales

Vocalist Elise Testone started singing in the Charleston jazz scene back in 2006. 

“What stands out in my mind,” she said, “is hearing the soft yet intentional drum stylings of Quentin Baxter or Ron Wiltrout; the guitar tone of Lee Barbour as he played his own unique interpretations of old favorites — while Mark Sterbank or Robert Lewis soars through the song on saxophone over an upright bass played by Kevin Hamilton or Jeremy Wolf; and Gerald Gregory playing through his entire soul on a beautiful grand piano.” 

Testone said she remembers how vocalist/instrumentalist Leah Suárez and the late journalist Jack McCray, founders of Jazz Artists of Charleston (JAC) nonprofit, worked tirelessly to sustain the city’s jazz culture throughout the early 2000s. “Their impact remains a staple in the community,” she added. 

JAC and its community partners solidified the organization’s rebranding to Charleston Jazz in 2017, which encompasses Charleston Jazz Orchestra founded in 2008, Charleston Jazz Festival launched in 2015 and Charleston Jazz Academy established in 2017. 

“Charleston has every right to claim a part [in] the creation of what we know of as jazz,” said acclaimed trumpeter and Awendaw native Charlton Singleton. “I wish that all Charlestonians would have the same vigor for that [claim] as our brothers and sisters in New Orleans and Savannah have for their part in the creation and advancement of jazz.”

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