Jazz Artists of Charleston was born at the dawn of acceptance of jazz music as the classical music of the United States of America. Charleston, South Carolina has contributed mightily to the history of the country, especially with regard to African American culture, the crucible of jazz. The South Atlantic coast cradle of North American slavery is a big part of the genesis, evolution and legacy of jazz, an entertainment art form that married the best of European and African attributes in the New World.
Now about 100 years old, jazz is no longer the secular, profane novelty it was once considered to be. Instead, it is a spiritual, organic life force that embodies all that is good about the American experiment. It is taken seriously in sociological, artistic and educational circles at the same time that it carries enormous, socially redeeming entertainment value.
In the summer of 2007, vocalists Regina Ruopoli and Leah Suárez began to explore the idea of organizing their colleagues to better represent themselves as professional musicians. Charleston area musicians were contacted and a musician forum was held at Andolini’s – a local favorite pizzeria. In attendance was a small, but significant force of notable and working musicians, with one of Charleston’s most respected jazz advocates, Jack McCray, serving as the forum’s moderator. It was evident to the organizers of the forum and to the musicians in attendance that there was a desire and need for a working community of musicians to grow the performance scene and operate an organization that would have as its fundamental goal to work in the interests of participating performers, fans and advocates with shared resources, creating widespread positive and lasting change. Exploratory meetings ensued and a founding board began to take shape, including Leah Suárez, Quentin Baxter, Nathan Koci, Clay Grayson, Steven Sandifer, Regina Ruopoli and Jack McCray.
On January 16, 2008, a board of directors comprised of mostly musicians, and under the leadership of Leah Suárez, officially incorporated Jazz Artists of Charleston, and the fledgling nonprofit set about to do its work. JAC defined itself as primarily a presenter of live jazz and a prime builder of a jazz industry in Charleston.
Shortly after its formation, JAC proposed to the city of Charleston’s Office of Cultural Affairs to produce is Piccolo Spoleto Jazz Series, the highest profile local jazz performance entity in the Lowcountry. It staged as its first venture the landmark program Upstairs at Mistral, a jazz club style series of shows that showcased local artists over the length of the festival, the locally produced companion to the famed Spoleto Festival USA. Its offerings that spring also included a sampler event at the Footlight Players Theater, a Cuban Block Party at Marion Square, and a showcase of bands, also at Footlight, called Holy City Homecoming.
Just months later, JAC took on the presentation of the Charlton Singleton Orchestra, a 20-piece big band. The orchestra renamed itself the Charleston Jazz Orchestra and took on the mantle of being the area’s resident big band with a subscription season and operating alongside the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and the Charleston Concert Association, longtime subscription series organizations.
In terms of its advocacy, JAC also sees itself as a clearinghouse for jazz activities. It devised a comprehensive Web site, www.jazzartistsofcharleston.org, that lays out the purpose and programs of the organization as well as offering the most comprehensive and accurate calendar of live jazz in the Charleston area. The site serves musicians in that it is an outlet for all jazz activities. It serves fans because it outlines not only events but ways that fans can support the local scene. Its fundamental goal is to be a digital meeting place for all people and all things jazz.
While JAC is focused tightly on its mission, it is also inclusive and open to all people of good will. It is not a membership organization but any person, band or other group willing to work individually and collectively for the advancement of jazz is welcome to share in its tasks and rewards of working on the group’s objectives.
JAC takes its moral authority from the rich jazz tradition of the Charleston area. It recognizes South Carolina and the South Atlantic coast, whose artistic epicenter is Charleston, as a major cradle of jazz along with Savannah, Ga., Mobile Ala., Memphis, Tenn. and New Orleans, La., among others. Players and composers from Charleston and its surrounding areas have made major contributions to jazz, a fact proven by the work of the Charleston Jazz Initiative, a research project. The Group for Integrated Studies, a community based cultural collective from the 1970s and 1980s also did groundbreaking work advocating for Charleston jazz.
JAC works to assist and support musicians as well as to present them, particularly in the areas of promotion and marketing, contracts and networking. It also seeks to educate the business community on the advantages of participating in the jazz industry and sensitizing the larger community that jazz is a plus to any community. It is diverse and welcomes all. It is good business. And it profoundly nourishes the soil of the arts and entertainment landscape.