Jazz in downtown Charleston is like sand in your car after a trip to the beach: it’s everywhere. Okay, bad analogy, but you get the point. An abundance of fine dining restaurants and upscale bars have live jazz multiple nights of the week. But outside of the peninsula, pickings can be slim.
Enter Starr Acheson, Folly Beach resident and renowned nationally touring jazz vocalist. “Out here on the island, jazz was such an untapped market,” she says. “So I started Jazz on the Edge three and a half years ago and it took off.”
Jazz on the Edge is a weekly jazz showcase fronted by Acheson. And it didn’t take long for a following to grow. “In seeing all the interest there was in jazz,” says Acheson, “we decided that we needed to try and do a festival.”
The Folly Jazz Festival was born, and the third annual fest takes place this weekend at Folly River Park. It’s a celebration of all things jazz: the history, the education, and, of course, the performance. And it’s free to attend. That’s right — not a single cent out of pocket for festival-goers.
“Jazz is really the art form, it’s not one particular type of music,” says Acheson. “So the festival is free because I think people need to understand that there are so many different kinds of jazz. In fact, in our lineup, we try to do every particular type that we can get our hands on.” And this year, they appear to have succeeded in that endeavor. This year’s festival features Latin jazz, bebop jazz, Dixieland jazz, big band jazz. You name it, they’ve got it.
So yes, this is about educating the public about the diversity of jazz music, but the educational aspect goes a lot further than that.
Jazz on the Edge is more than just a successful jazz series, it’s a 501(c)3 nonprofit that not only raises money to make the Folly Jazz Festival free, but it also hands out cash scholarships to jazz players in need.
One of last year’s winners, Stephanie Phillips, was a benefactor of the nonprofit. “We brought Stephanie down to play drums [at the festival], and we did not know before she got here that she did not own her own personal set of drums,” says Acheson. “So she left here with her cash award on a Monday, and on Thursday on Facebook she posted a picture of her new Gretsch Cocktail Kit.”
Obviously equipment and cash scholarships can further a player’s career, but it’s the camaraderie and mentorship of seasoned veterans that can truly prove invalu-able. “A great buddy of mine, Dave Morgan, has been a professional drummer all of his life,” says Acheson. “By the end of the festival he had taken [Stephanie] on, mentoring her, and he had this rudimentary book on drumming that he had carried around in his van for 45 years. And he pulled it out of his van and he signed it and he gave it to Stephanie.”
This is all true to the spirit of jazz, passing on knowledge, perpetuating the art form. “That’s what makes me happy,” says Acheson. “When I see this mentorship from these older people. It’s like growing a garden. This is our garden of music and we can only keep it growing if we cultivate this new talent and the love that these kids have for the music.”
Jazz is a multigenerational art form, and the old teaching the young is nothing new. In fact, in the first year of the Folly Jazz Festival, 90-year-old trumpeter Don Edwards — who Acheson says, “played his ass off” — was joined on stage by a 15-year-old guitarist from the Charleston School of the Arts.
Every year the festival features a high school band and a college band, and while some of the other performers may be getting on in their years, they still know how to get down.
Acheson will be performing Saturday afternoon with the Bob Alberti Trio. Alberti is an Emmy-nominated pianist who has played in the house band for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and has been a personal conductor/arranger for Paul Anka, Johnny Mathis, Bernadette Peters, and many more.
Headlining Sunday night is trumpeter Warren Vaché, who’s played at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Vienna Opera, the Newport Jazz Festival, and as a sideman with Benny Goodman.
These are some big time jazz players bringing their talent to the Lowcountry.
New to this year’s festival, donations will be accepted for the Smalls Institute for Music and Youth Leadership. “The Smalls Institute is a husband and wife team,” says Acheson. “They have a van full of instruments and they drive that van around to at-risk communities and they teach these kids music lessons out of that van.”
Each restaurant on Folly will be sponsoring an instrument with a donation jar in front of it saying, “Help us stuff the music bus.” The idea is that each restaurant will be able to raise enough money to donate their respective instrument to the Smalls Institute.
And for anyone who has an old instrument lying around, those kinds of donations are more than welcome.
Folly Jazz Festival: a weekend full of good music and goodwill, all set against the backdrop of Folly Beach. And who knows? By the end of the weekend, maybe a whole new crop of youngsters will be inspired to pick up an instrument.