The 7th Annual Greater Charleston Lowcountry Jazz Festival will be filling the night air of the Holy City once again this year with a lineup of international jazz superstars. Charleston’s own trumpet player Charlton Singleton, sax players Gerald Albright and BK Jackson, and composer and bassist Marcus Miller will all perform, but perhaps no name shines as bright as singer and guitarist Jonathan Butler. Butler’s laid-back jazz-tinged approach to R&B sounds has brought him accolades across the decades from smooth jazz afficionados. As Butler blends new world influences with gospel, his silky stylings at once remind the listener of the soundtrack to a chic hotel lobby and a Sunday morning worship service. In fact, the South African expatriate is considered a forerunner in bringing world music influences into the jazz genre, a status that the artist doesn’t shy away from.
“I’m a world music artist. I don’t just live in the world of jazz, I live in the world of music, and that is the world I choose to live in,” Butler explains. “Music is wider than just the sun, and because of my culture in South Africa, it influences my view of music. We speak 11 languages, our music has very rich sounds and rhythms and melodies, and incorporating that within jazz and gospel is what is unique with how I view music and the way hear it and experience it and the way I want my fans to experience it. I want them to experience it with a more worldly view instead of just viewing it as coming from a jazz artist.”
The veteran performer remembers his first tour of the United States with a wistful sigh. “Oh man, I was in my 20s. It was complete culture shock. Just Brooklyn alone was bigger than Cape Town, my hometown,” he recalls. Butler toured on the strength of his breakthrough album, More Than Friends, which featured the Grammy-nominated hit “Lies,” and opened at huge venues for Whitney Houston. The success he found performing alongside one of the most popular female artists of the 1980s — while producing the most commercially successful albums of his career — allowed the musician to cross over for a short time onto the more mainstream adult contemporary charts.
At this point in his life Butler was living in the United Kingdom, where, unlike in America, he enjoyed a large following. It had been this way since the dawn of jazz, when American artists like Charlie Parker would travel to the UK to perform, only to stay in Europe where they felt much more appreciated than back home. Before that first tour, Butler was made aware that the genre’s popularity had waned in the States, but being a young man raised under the yoke of apartheid, he wasn’t one to turn down a chance to travel.
“I was aware of it, but I was still very excited to be here,” he says. “The United States is still the home of jazz, so to me it was really an amazing experience to be here at the time. I was able to learn more about the music and be around some very amazing people. All I wanted to do was just to soak it all up.”
When asked if he has found Southern audiences to be radically different from others throughout the States, he scoffs at the notion.”I have only ever had amazing experiences performing in front of U.S. audiences. When you play in the United States, you are playing in front of folks who have seen Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, James Brown, so you had better deliver when you step onto the stage,” says Butler.
While music fans will definitely have the opportunity to watch legends perform before them this weekend, they will also be helping a good cause. The jazz festival serves as the primary fundraiser for Closing the Gap in Health Care, Inc., a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization whose primary mission is to decrease health disparities and increase health awareness specifically for African-Americans and the under served communities found throughout South Carolina.
Also benefiting from the festival will be the Thaddeus John Bell, M.D. Endowment Fund created to assist students pursuing a health science degree from the Medical University of South Carolina, and to help facilitate the increase in African-American health providers in the state.
Butler has a long history of performing for various benefits including the crisis in Darfur. “I think it’s important for artists, or anyone in sports or any field, to contribute and give back. I think it’s really important to realize that is why we are called upon to do what we do,” he says.”It’s not just about music, but to be available when we are called on to help people.”