It was seven years in the making, although the origins of Jazz Artists of Charleston’s (JAC) Inaugural Charleston International Jazz Festival are rooted in a scene that’s been percolating here for ages.
“We have a really strong [jazz] history here and a strong community that’s been supporting that for a quite sometime,” says JAC’s executive director Leah Suárez. “This organization is seven years old, but it’s built on many years before that of work and community and the natural history here, which shares something with New Orleans. As our co-founder, the late great Jack McCray, would say, ‘We’ve just been doing it longer.'”
The first stirrings of JAC came out of a desire to encourage changes in the Piccolo Spoleto jazz series. But what began as a small forum of like-minded musicians quickly grew into something more. “[We said], ‘Let’s try to make this one a non-profit, and let’s make it stick,” Suárez says. “It’s really just our dedication and really trying to form alliances not just with musicians, but making sure musicians understood how we can communicate to businesses, the city, and the town to get their support, because I think that’s what was missing.”
Co-founder Suárez and McCray created their own intimate 50-person venue, the Charleston Jazz House, began the Charleston Jazz Orchestra, and started offering concerts, discussions, and jazz-related events. With the Charleston Jazz Festival, Suárez hopes to take the JAC to a new level, while building awareness around Charleston’s rich jazz history.
She credits local venture capital firm Corbellus Capital for stepping up with a sponsorship commitment that’s allowed them to plan this as an ongoing event, and the Convention and Visitors Bureau with helping them with working out some of the logistics, such as the early January timing of the festival. “It’s the dead season, which means there are more hotel rooms, it’s easier to get venues, easier to get artists, and that we can do this when we’re not competing against the international scene with other festivals,” says Suárez. “You know, Charleston is not a bad place to be in January.”
She says her own connection to the city and its culture — Suárez grew up on Sullivan’s Island — is one of the things that drew her to jazz as a musician. It’s true, she says, that she enjoys jazz more than classical music for aesthetic reasons, but there’s a deeper essence too that many relate to. “Jazz is special in that it’s a way of life and a culture, not just music. I’m classically trained and a lot of my colleagues are as well, and I think we appreciate so much of the classical foundation, but then we also know that we have that freedom in jazz.”
While hoping to build the Charleston International Jazz Festival into a truly international festival, the JAC is intent upon maintaining a hometown focus, which is reflected in the mix of local and regional artists with an international pedigree.
“The important thing is that we never want to lose that connection, and that it will always have that local and regional component,” she says. “But there are people from Charleston that are on the international stage, and I think that’s the point.”
She points to festival artists like Matuto and the Michael Bellar and the AS-IS Ensemble. Bellar and the AS-IS Ensemble have performed at the Lincoln and Kennedy centers and on The Late Show with David Letterman, Conan, and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Bellar, who’s a pianist, and his drummer, Brad Wentworth, are both regional, hailing from humble Boone, N.C.
Another one-time local performer is singer and guitarist Clay Ross, the leader of Brazilian-bluegrass improvisationist band Matuto, who will play during the festival.
Then there’s Georgia horn-man Fred Wesley, who made history as James Brown’s musical director. Wesley’s been through town before with his band the New JBs, even engendering a guest turn by JAC artistic director and Charleston Jazz Orchestra maestro Charlton Singleton.
“You don’t get any more international than James Brown’s music director. Let’s be real here,” Suárez says. “People just need to continue to support live music and know how important it is to go out and listen and invest in these experiences and these artists who are working really hard to create — not just to create beautiful music, but a quality of life that makes Charleston better.”