Hot & Cool, Cool & Hot

The Inaugural Charleston International Jazz Festival rocked the weekend. A little vision, a lot of hard work, and a stellar line up paid off. (Plus, it never hurts to have Quentin's dreads and Charlton's suave gravitas in the mix.)

Photographs by Ashley Curtis


"Hot can be cool, and cool can be hot, and each can be both. But hot or cool, man, jazz is jazz."  Louis Armstrong


Leah Suarez and Erin Fornadel 


Satch had it right: jazz is jazz indeed, and as the inaugural Charleston International Jazz Festival proved this past weekend, jazz in Charleston is hot, it's cool, it's cool & hot, hot & cool, and best of all, infused with a rockin' rhythm of respect and steady beats of palpable love. Maybe that sounds sappy, but it was clear from Thursday's kick-off comments by jazz vocalist and event organizer Leah Suarez and board members of Jazz Artists of Charleston (JAC, which produced the festival, pulling it off in a remarkably short three months, no less) that these cats love what they do. They love the music; they love their audience; they love the Lowcountry's musical history and respect its jazz legacy, and—as was stated more than a few times—they really love good folks like the late great Jack McCray, who helped lay a strong foundation for a vibrant jazz scene here today. So it may have been billed as a jazz fest, but it was really a love fest, and that's plenty cool by me, and evidently also by the healthy crowds that came out for the weekend's lineup of a dozen live performances, plus "Reel Time" jazz-related films and a talk or two.


From the big band swing rollicks of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra's Chamber Ensemble's "Hit Parade" to the late-night intimate brilliance (moody, mellow, jammin', sweet) of the silky all-star quartet, Gradual Lean (Charlton Singleton, Lee Barbour, Kevin Hamilty, Quentin Baxter), to the girls's time-to-shine Singers' Showcase (featuring Suarez, Ann Caldwell, and Bobbie Storm), it was a something-for-everyone weekend. Even the kids got in the groove, thanks to the School of the Arts jazz ensemble's outpouring of talent at Sunday's Family Jazz Jamboree. And at most every perfomance, the 91-year-old Pat Green, wearing her bright blue eyeshadow and her bright yellow jersey (signed by all the jazz musicians she's heard this year) was there, pushing her walker, smiling big, jammin'.


Huge kudos to Suarez and team for dreaming big (and fast) and putting together such a well-rounded program. Kudos to sponsors Corbellus Capital and BiblioBoard, among others (including Charleston Magazine), for supporting this vision. But mostly, kudos to the artists. To the trombone and piano players, the drummers, to Charlton on his blazing trumpet, and Robert Lewis on his sexy sax, to Ron Wiltrout on percussion, and the amazing, tireless, and passionate Leah singing her heart out—thank you for demonstrating, on stage and off, that Louis Armstrong was on the money when he said about his fellow jazzers, "What we play is life." Life is good here in Charleston. And it's even better when the trumpet leads off on a soaring riff, then the bass comes in and adds a little deep-toned magic, and the piano sneaks in with a subtle and perfectly nuanced melodic line, and then it all comes back together to remember and honor the original tune again yet reinforce it with personal style and imagination, because that's what jazz does. It unites old and new, black and white, bass and horn, string and drum, rhythm and blues, sacred and profane, and plays the hell out of it. Till it feels like life, looks like beauty, tastes like joy, sounds like amen, and leaves us wondering, wow, how did that happen?


As Louie said, "Man, if you have to ask what it is, you'll never know."