South Carolina’s Grass-Roots Jazz Development


Jazz Girls Day, a program spearheaded by Colleen Clark, assistant professor of jazz studies at the University of South Carolina (far right), has held five events over the past two years and is expanding the program to several other states.

(Photo: Courtesy University of South Carolina)

When Bert Ligon retired as director of jazz studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia after 30 years, he’d built a strong foundation for the program. When Ligon started teaching there in 1991, no jazz degrees were offered. By the time he retired in 2021, undergraduate and masters degrees in jazz studies were in place, as well as a doctoral minor degree.

Ligon posted this message on the School of Music’s Facebook page when he retired: “It’s time for me to pass the torch to the new full-time faculty: Matt White, Colleen Clark and Lauren Meccia. I look forward to seeing the program grow and develop.”

Thanks to the energy and initiative of White, Clark and Meccia — and the support of the university’s School of Music — the jazz studies department has moved into a dedicated building renovated to fit its needs, started a free gender equity program, Jazz Girls Day, within South Carolina as well as other states and worked to support middle school and high school jazz programs throughout the state.

In a recent Zoom interview, faculty members White, Clark and Meccia talked about their new facility and innovative programs underway at the university.

“Our new building is across the street from the School of Music and used to be the Green Methodist Church,” said White. “Dean Tayloe Harding at the School of Music obtained funding to buy the building to create more space for jazz studies. Now it’s totally renovated, with offices in the Sunday school building. And the sanctuary is where our ensembles are able to rehearse. It still has stained glass windows, so we call it the jazz church.”

“We have three big bands as well as our jazz combos, and with so many ensembles it was hard to secure rehearsal space,” he added. “Now we have the sanctuary plus other available spaces in the new building where we’ll be able to present concerts and engage with the community.”

Both White and Clark started teaching at U of SC in the fall of 2021. White holds degrees from the University of North Florida and the University of Miami. Clark earned her doctorate in jazz performance at the University of North Texas in 2019, the first woman — and first drummer — to do so. Meccia earned her undergraduate and masters degrees at U of SC, and was also named to the faculty in 2021.

When Clark started, she also began laying the groundwork for the Jazz Girls Day program. She said the concept for the program actually had its beginning during her time at North Texas.

“As we all know, jazz is a male-dominated art form, but it’s changing, which is exciting,” Clark said. “When I was at North Texas, there were about 300 jazz studies students, but only four female instrumentalists. We started a Women in Jazz Day, and I started thinking, ‘How can I make something like this impactful for communities around universities that offer jazz studies?’ When I was offered this job, it became the first big thing I wanted to do. As the flagship university in South Carolina, we should be setting the standard for the new normal — making jazz more inclusive for women.”

With the support of her colleagues and the School of Music, Clark got the Jazz Girls Day program off the ground, and the free one-day event now takes place three times a year in South Carolina. It is also expanding across the country.

“We’ve had five Jazz Days in the state of South Carolina within two years, and we do it by region,” explained Clark. “We have the upstate area that’s more mountainous, and that program is held in Greenville. Here in the midlands, we hold the program in Columbia. In the low country, we partner with the Charleston Jazz organization and Charleston Jazz Academy to host it during the Charleston Jazz Festival.”

The free program is open to all middle school and high school girls and music educators. Although pre-registration is encouraged, walk-ins are accepted.

“We never know who’s going to walk in the door,” Clark said. “So we always encourage same-day, walk-ins. If girls are coming and have friends — bring ’em. We welcome parents as well and always try to be over prepared and flexible.”

Jazz Girls Day begins with Clark and the other instructors — including faculty members White, Meccia and others such as Ligon, who stays involved as a professor emeritus and is a strong supporter of Jazz Girls Day — introducing themselves by playing as a group and teaching about their instruments.

“Then we do instrumental breakout sessions as well as one for vocalists,” Clark said. “We welcome anyone who plays an instrument, whether it’s a French horn, a violin or a tuba. We then come together to sing and play the Girls’ Day theme song written by Lauren, and follow with a session where the faculty improvises, and any girl who raises their hand can ask a question. We break for a free lunch, come back and learn a tune by ear as well as by reading. And Matt leads breakout sessions with music educators, helping them with teaching questions.

“The program concludes with a performance by the girls, and they’re encouraged to improvise and take solos. They then get a T-shirt and a personalized certificate. We want them to go back to their school and say, I did this really cool thing. We’re trying to inspire them musically by participating in this program.”

In addition to South Carolina, Jazz Girls Day events have been held in Ohio, Missouri and Connecticut — with upcoming sessions scheduled for Arizona and Oklahoma in 2024.

“The long vision is to present Jazz Girls Day in every state by 2030,” Clark said. “We want to inspire the organizations we work with in other states to gain funding to continue presenting Jazz Girls Day events themselves. For example, after we presented Jazz Girls Day in Columbus, Ohio, in partnership with a local arts organization, we heard back from them later that they were able to get funding to present it on their own.”

In addition to that program, the jazz studies department revived the annual University of South Carolina Jazz Festival. “The festival stopped in the 1990s, and we brought it back last spring semester, said Meccia. “We’ve got the second festival coming up March 8th and 9th with guest artist Mimi Jones, who will perform with our jazz faculty on Friday night and our Left Bank Big Band Saturday. We also have adjudication and clinics with high school bands. It’s just a really fun event and builds our relationships with jazz band directors.”

“We’re also trying to address the state of jazz education in South Carolina,” added White. “Only about 10 percent of South Carolina high schools have jazz bands. Some teachers don’t have the experience to feel comfortable teaching jazz, so I do open forum sessions with band directors to help them get started and offer resources. And we take our big bands out to schools for concerts. Our mission is to raise the level of jazz education and engagement in our state, and outreach is a big part of that.”

Also, the department recently partnered with the Marian McPartland Jazz Archive in Columbia, where the pianist’s Piano Jazz shows were produced.

“All the shows are completely digitized, and there are over 5,000 documents — show notes, sheet music and photographs,” said White. “We’ve partnered with them and digitizing all the documents to create mega data for a public archive. We also have equal use of all the materials and have graduate assistantship opportunities paired with the archive.”

“When we came in, there were two grad students and six undergraduates,” said White. “Now we have about 25 undergrads and seven grad students in our own building. You can really feel the energy.” DB

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