By Kristen Wright-Matthews
For as long as I can remember, the people of the Lowcountry have counted on Jack McCray for the scoop on the local jazz scene. As a reporter and editor for the Post and Courier, a host on WSCI-FM Radio and now a freelance columnist, for more than 30 years he has provided us with timely, colorful descriptions of the art form that exemplifies Charleston’s bold musical heritage. A veritable warehouse of information, he is not simply a great writer; in the Holy City, the name Jack McCray is synonymous with jazz. Therefore, it is no surprise that JAC is the acronym for the Jazz Artists of Charleston, a nonprofit organization that cultivates and preserves the culture and history of the genre in Charleston.
McCray has played a key role in advancing Charleston’s music culture and bolstering its claim as a fountainhead of jazz. In 2003, he co-founded the Charleston Jazz Initiative, a multi-year research project documenting the African-American jazz tradition in the Lowcountry and its diasporic movement throughout the United States and Europe. While New Orleans often has been called the birthplace of jazz, CJI research shows that the genre might have appeared earlier in Charleston, courtesy of the Jenkins Orphanage Band. The orphanage was established in 1891 by former slave- turned-minister Rev. Daniel J. Jenkins, while the band, formed in 1894, gained worldwide recognition with performances throughout the United States and before the Queen of England. McCray produced a tribute band called the Franklin Street Five to honor Charleston’s jazz tradition.
Charleston’s “Mr. Jazz” pens a weekly column for the Post and Courier and also wrote a book, ”Charleston Jazz.” He produces the Charleston Jazz Orchestra, a 20-piece band based at the Charleston Music Hall, and is the founding president of Charleston’s MOJA Arts Festival and co-founder of the Piccolo Spoleto Festival Jazz Afterhours series. He is a founding board member of the Jazz Artists of Charleston.
Native sat down with Jack McCray to get the lowdown on his lifelong passion.
Native: What attracted you to the music?
McCray: Jazz was the popular music when I was young. I couldn’t help but like it. Live music was commonplace, and it was everywhere. Even in my home there was a piano. I particularly liked jazz because it was the highest form of musical expression. I was even more attracted to the social stuff that surrounded it. I kept listening and adapting. Later I started to figure out that this was the biggest contribution this country has made to world culture. It gave me a significant amount of pride as an African-American in terms of being the inventors of this art form. To watch it grow and be embraced around the world by everybody, everywhere who do their own form of it makes me like it even more.
Native: Do you have any early memories of jazz?
McCray: I came into it when Louis Armstrong was big but later lost interest in him because Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis matched more of my experience. Instead of the tuxedo and handkerchief, they wore dashikis and berets, and they spoke a language that was more relative to the overall culture and the time.
Native: Have you ever wanted to be a musician?
McCray: As a child I studied piano, and I played in the high school band. I left Charleston mid-high school and moved to the Northeast. There I was exposed to so much. It was amazing seeing what was going on in Harlem, in Greenwich Village and at the Apollo. The gratification I received as a consumer outweighed any desire to play.
Native: How did you emerge into the jazz industry?
McCray: When I returned to Charleston after college, I heard radio host Osei Chandler playing live jazz on WSCI-FM. I contacted him just to let him know that I loved what he was doing. We connected and he taught me how to produce a radio show. When he decided to incorporate reggae, he asked me to help with the jazz show. We did a show called the Wednesday Night Jam Session, and that sparked my interest to produce live shows. We found some local musicians and formed a band we named “Return to the Source.” We held jam sessions, a money-in-the-hat type deal to pay the musicians, and, before you know it, that evolved into a series called Jazz After Hours presented during Piccolo Spoleto. I took over the jazz program for much of the 1980s.
Native: How did you start writing?
McCray: Osei created a segment called the Community Bulletin Board. One of the ways I helped was to do some interviews. It was my first experience at journalism. I turned out to be pretty good at it. In the mid-80s, I took a part-time job as a clerk at the News and Courier and worked my way up. My dad taught me that in the world of work, you have to diversify yourself to increase your longevity. The more you know, the better chance you have to keep your job. While at the paper, I learned how to copy edit. I thought it would be more creative. It wasn’t, but it was another skill set.
Another lesson I learned was that in order to keep a craft, you have to practice it, so I started writing sports. The first music piece I wrote was a book review. I started asking for opportunities to write feature stories, particularly jazz, which nobody was doing at the time. They were open because I was giving it to them. In fact, if you look at my old HR folder, I was a copy editor. The only time I was ever paid for stories there was when I was a sports reporter.
Native: What about jazz fascinates you?
McCray: There is more of a desire for individual self-expression; that’s what jazz is. All the other art forms have improvisational aspects but not nearly as much as jazz. Jazz is risky. It’s scary because it is in real time. That’s what makes it a great art form because you seek perfection in real time. A painter, photographer or writer can start over or edit what they’ve created, but, in live music, you can’t do that. It’s sort of like boxing. It’s just you and the other guy. You’re just out there.
Native: What sets jazz musicians apart from musicians of the other popular art forms?
McCray: There is fellowship among jazz musicians. They really delight in discovering each other, maybe because there are fewer of them. They only have in common a language – a vocabulary. An R&B band probably wouldn’t take the stage without rehearsal. If you know “the book,” as they call it, a body of work, a certain amount of songs, and if the artists know and trust that another knows the vocabulary, they’ll go up on the bandstand without ever having spoken before. Plus I’ve noticed that jazz musicians can play more of the other forms than the others can play jazz. It is very difficult, and, because of that, they are courageous.
Native: Some people think jazz is a snobby art form. Why do you think that is?
McCray: Jazz musicians take what they do seriously, but they don’t take themselves seriously. They know how to differentiate that which is hard to do for human beings. I think this happened early on with people who weren’t into it. They probably thought jazz musicians and lovers were snobs, that we somehow thought we knew something that they didn’t know. Jazz is a music of submission. You can’t enjoy it if you’re sitting there judging them being outside of what they do. What you do is play along with them in your head and your heart and hope you like where they take you, but you have to give of yourself. That’s why we sit there and listen and we wait for that reward. Most people don’t have that faith. That’s why we applaud when we applaud, at a point where you let them know you like where they just took you. Sometimes you’re disappointed, but that’s life.
Native: Do you prefer to listen to jazz in a large concert hall or are you just as comfortable in a local bar?
McCray: Jazz is global. What happens in the old village of Mount Pleasant by a good player is just as important as what happens at Lincoln Center in New York by a celebrated player. If you really like the music, you’ll enjoy that cat in Mount Pleasant just the same.
Growing up, McCray recalled the “fantastic things going on” around him. Among others, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Malcolm X, John Coltrane and Miles Davis defined pop culture.
“I was born six months after Jackie Robinson broke into baseball. It was an amazing time,” McCray said.
And Jack McCray has had an amazing effect on jazz in Charleston.
To follow McCray’s blog, log on to www.jazzartistsofcharleston.org/jacks-corner/.