If you don’t know Quentin Baxter from the virtuosic drum solos that pepper his frequent performances with his fellow Charleston jazz lovers, you probably know him from his dreadlocks. “They’re 19-years long now,” Baxter says. “My daughter is adamant about me not cutting them yet.”
Like the rest of his family, Baxter’s daughter lives here, a student at the College of Charleston, where Baxter also teaches drums. And although he’s also a seasoned world traveler — he’s toured the world off and on with renowned jazz vocalist René Marie for over a decade — it’s clear that his heart remains in the Lowcountry.
The Holy City native was born into a family full of drummers. His mom and dad plus his two older brothers all played the drums, so he was steeped in music and rhythm from day one. The family mostly played in church, which is where Baxter got his start. “It’s always been a part of me. When I was on my way, I mean, I was going to church with [my mom],” he says. “And what’s amazing about it, is that all the memories I have from playing have always been fun ones — standing in the back pew and just having some drumsticks and playing on old Sunday school boxes. You had to prove yourself to the drums.”
Drumming was his passion from early on, and he showed incredible promise as a young kid. But like most talented youngsters, there were times when he needed to be taken down a peg. Luckily, his mother had no trouble doing just that. “I remember a really good lesson that my mom gave me to make sure that when I play music it’s still a thing of service and humility. I thought I was getting good and she saw that, and I was kind of like showing off in church. So she took the sticks out of my hand and she played. And all my friends saw that,” he says with a laugh. “I was like, ‘OK, I get it.'”
By the time Baxter was a young adult, he was not only touring as a jazz musician, but also teaching and going to school at the College of Charleston. As a composition major, Baxter — who also composes and arranges — worked closely with Dr. Edward Hart, the chair of CofC’s music department, and Professor David Mays, further developing his desire to learn all he could. “I used to read scores, classical scores, as if they were novels. I’d just get on a flight and read a Bartók string quartet, because that’s what I was into. It was so fascinating for me, and humbling, because these were things that, especially starting out, were above my head,” he says. “It’s finding out how much more music there is out there that you don’t know about that gets you to approach what you do in a fresh way. It’s inspiring.”
That’s why Baxter is a dedicated cross-culturalist, even though his primary genre is jazz music. He especially loves South American music, both Argentinian tango and northeastern Brazilian music, as well as Japanese taiko drumming. “Because I’m Gullah, the rhythms that I incorporate and play, and the rhythms that I grew up with as a kid and hearing in church, they have a lot of cross-references with other cultures,” he says. “So when I’m traveling the world, I’m always seeking out opportunities to, one, be submerged in the cultures I’m in and then also understanding how they all are intertwined. It’s really, really amazing, and I would love to do more of that.”
When he’s not busy traveling or touring, Baxter can often be found at the Mezz, Charleston’s one and only dedicated jazz club. It sits above Sermet’s on King Street. Baxter’s company, Baxter Music Enterprises, LLC teamed up with Sermet’s in January of 2012 to re-open the club. He produces all the Mezz’s gigs and performs there at least a couple of times a month with his quintet or octet. “Most of the musicians who are in my bands, I’m in their bands, because they’re all bandleaders as well,” Baxter says. “We have some of the greatest musicians in the world here that I get to come home and play with.”
And Baxter soaks it all up, from the time he gets to spend with stellar jazz musicians like Mark Sterbank and Lee Barbour here in Charleston to his experiences with taiko drummers and Argentinian composers on his travels. “I am all that I have met, good and bad,” he says. “Everything has influenced everything I’ve done.”