Local writer Jack McCray digs deep into his hometown’s musical background in his new book, Charleston Jazz (Arcadia Publishing), a 127-page collection of essays and images that explains and reassembles many of the scattered stories and accounts from the last 100 years.
McCray, 59, has been a dedicated fan and critic of local and international jazz music since playing trumpet in various local middle school and high school bands. He started writing professionally about local jazz clubs and musicians 15 years ago at the Post and Courier.
McCray helped establish the Charleston Jazz Initiative (www.charlestonjazz.net) in 2003 as a multiyear research project that celebrates and documents the African-American jazz tradition in the Charleston area.
His work as lead researcher led him to document artifacts, photographs, sheet music, manuscripts, and recordings from a golden age — a period sparked in large part by the dedicated music programs and bands at the Jenkins Orphanage (founded in 1891 on upper Meeting Street and later on Franklin Street, now known as the Jenkins Institute for Children) and the Avery Normal Institute (founded in 1867 on Bull Street by the American Missionary Association for freed blacks).
Through a half-dozen concisely-written chapters and several photo essays, McCray ties the early 20th-century activities of the Avery-Jenkins bands and musicians through the swingin’ heyday of the 1940s and ’50s to the modern-day jazz scene, tracing the generations of Jenkins family directors, starting with Rev. Daniel Joseph Jenkins, and other composers and musicians.
“Given the way things have worked out, a very good case could be made for an Avery-Jenkins tradition, an approach to life and history with its own standards and practices with the pursuit of excellence as its base,” he writes
Some images of playbills and sheet music contain typical racial language of the period — some of which was typical of the period at the time (the Jenkins Orphanage band that traveled to the Anglo/American Exposition in London in 1914 was billed as the “Pickaninny Band,” for example, which implied a band of children rather than something derogatory), and some of which was overtly racist (an image of an early jazz band flyer from 1919 promotes “darkie folk songs”). Other pages offer much more celebratory and positive scenes from special events such as the MOJA Arts Festivals and annual Charleston Jazz Initiative conferences.
Charleston Jazz mostly shines the spotlight on the local masters and mentors. Many of the black-and-white photographs show full horn sections backed by full rhythm sections in full bandstand action — groups such as Louis Gaillard & The Royal Sultans (pictured on the book cover) and various S.C. State College big bands. Featured musicians include saxophonists St. Julian Dash, George Kenny, and Lonnie Hamilton, pianist Oscar Rivers, bassist St. Julian German, trumpet players Joey Morant and Jabbo Smith, and many others, including a handful of prominent contemporary players.
“Artists are the truth tellers of society,” writes McCray. “Jazz artists in particular, because they tell of themselves through their art, deserve special recognition.” Amen, Jack.
Charleston Jazz by Jack McCray was officially published and released this week by Arcadia Publishing. Visit www.arcadiapublishing.com for more.