Jazz Academy Bolsters the Scene in Charleston

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Symphonic Swing, one of the groups at the Charleston Jazz Academy, performs.

(Photo: JB McCabe Photography)

New Orleans is often called the “birthplace of jazz,” and it certainly has an incredibly rich musical heritage that supports that claim. But jazz also developed from African roots in other Southern cities, especially in Charleston, South Carolina, strongly influenced by Gullah musical traditions from the nearby sea islands.

Charleston’s jazz roots continue to thrive these days, thanks to the efforts of the non-profit organization Charleston Jazz — and especially its educational component, the Charleston Jazz Academy.

Founded in 2008, Charleston Jazz has established an annual four-day Charleston Jazz Festival that takes place each April, presents the Charleston Jazz Orchestra in an annual six-concert series, funds research into Charleston’s jazz roots — especially surrounding the renowned Jenkins Orphanage Band, which toured across the nation and Europe from the late 1800s through the 1920s, as well as the Gullah culture’s influence on jazz — and established the Charleston Jazz Academy in 2017.

“The Jazz Academy was the missing link in our mission,” said Tatjana Bellot, executive director of Charleston Jazz. “That mission is to cultivate jazz performance and outreach, preserve the history here, which connects to the amazing musicians who learned this art form at the Jenkins Orphanage like Freddie Green, Cat Anderson, Jabbo Smith and others. Now we have the opportunity to build on this legacy and carry it forward by teaching academy students to play jazz.”

Basil Kerr, current director of the Charleston Jazz Academy, led award-winning high school band programs for four-plus decades in the Charleston area before retiring from the Charleston School of the Arts and joining the academy. In configuring the new Jazz Academy, Kerr and David Carter, the first director, had conversations with jazz education and performance non-profits around the country.

“When we started, we talked with similar jazz organizations, and one of them was Jazz St. Louis,” explained Kerr. “Their structure is a little different, but they do a wonderful job with their education components, which are very goal-centered. It was a good model for us, so we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel for our program.”

“Once the Jazz Academy was up and running, the pandemic hit,” Kerr said. “David was offered a job as a professor at Coastal Carolina University, so I volunteered to take over for a year. We eventually got the students back, added new faculty, and Tatjana asked me to write up a job description for the director’s job. After I turned it in, she told me I had just described myself and offered me the job. I believed very strongly in the mission of the academy, and reaching students at smaller schools that don’t have all the resources of suburban schools. So I accepted the job, and one of my goals is to make the playing field a little more level for all students.”

Since its founding, the Jazz Academy has expanded from teaching private lessons to adding jazz combos in 2021. In 2022, the academy offered a two-week summer combo camp — expanding the combo camp to four weeks in 2023, with each week based around a specific jazz style. Kerr asked Gavin Smith, a graduate of Berklee and the academy’s trombone/combo instructor, to run the camp.

“It turned out to be a groundbreaking experience for me,” recalled Smith. “I could see the benefits of being able to help young students express themselves through music — especially in a one-week intensive camp. The four one-week camps had different themes. Week one was traditional and swing, week two was bebop and cool jazz, week three was contemporary and fusion style and week four was Latin jazz.”

“We now teach combos at the beginning, middle and advanced levels,” added Kerr. “And in our honor combo, five of the six students made it to All State Jazz, and the piano player is only a freshman. It’s great to have groundbreaking things like that happen.”

The Academy also follows through on its commitment to a “level playing field” for students. Tuition is charged for individual lessons, classes and summer camp sessions, but scholarships are offered to students who need financial assistance.

During the 2022–’23 school year, the academy had an enrollment of 100 students who participated in private lessons and combo classes after their regular middle school or high school classes. In addition, the academy also has a home school band, with the students coming in the mornings for class.

“We also recently started an adult combo,” added Tatjana, “and there’s been a lot of interest. It’s really neat to see them coming back to music, and it also helps develop an adult audience for this art form of jazz.”

The academy also hosts workshops designed to prepare high school music students for regional and All State jazz auditions, provides passes to students to enable them to attend Charleston Jazz Orchestra concerts for free and brings in an annual artist-in-residence to work in local schools and with academy students — as well as performing in concert with the Charleston Jazz Orchestra. Jon Faddis and Sean Jones were artists-in-residence the last two years, and Stefon Harris will be at the academy this year.

“Through jazz, we’re trying to instill in them the opportunity to improvise and express themselves,” concluded Smith. “We try to provide them with the skills necessary to express yourself and communicate in other areas as well, and help them address social anxiety and depression — real issues for young students.” DB



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