Jack McCray is finding a sound, and a legacy, that belongs to us.
The process of discovery is by no means complete, but "Charleston Jazz" (Arcadia Publishing) is a notable start.
McCray, co-founder of the Charleston Jazz Initiative, has compiled what is believed to be the first comprehensive illustrated history of jazz in the Holy City. Employing rare archival materials, oral histories, recordings and extensive interviews, he documents in words and 200 vintage images Charleston's previously obscured place in the pantheon of "jazz cradles."
"It's a largely unknown, but rich and important, story," says McCray, 59, a writer, critic and copy editor with The Post and Courier. "And it's just never been chronicled. I know of nothing long or short on the entire run of the history of jazz here, which extends from the last decade of the 19th century to the present day."
McCray, a Charleston native, has invested his energies and expertise in the local arts scene for more than 30 years. Co-founder of the Piccolo Spoleto Festival Jazz After Hours Series, he also serves as a jazz and arts advocate, was a founding president of the MOJA Arts Festival, consults on film projects and is a music events and series producer.
He had several goals in bringing "Charleston Jazz" to fruition, among them a desire to "untangle some of the complicated history of Charleston, to add some branches and leaves on the tree of Charleston's (musical) history and, by extension, its overall social history."
The resulting book spans various social, historical and racial barriers to illuminate a compelling story.
"A good starting date is the founding of the Jenkins Orphanage in 1891," says McCray. "The orphanage very quickly got into music and eventually became one of the pillars of jazz around here. They had bands out working to make money as early as 1895, and perhaps earlier.
"Some of this history can be iffy because, like a lot of other things, jazz and its history are subject to semantics, how things have been named. Ever since jazz emerged, people have been debating what it is, when it began. There are differences of opinion about what is jazz and what are its antecedents, but as we know and define jazz today, it's pretty much agreed that it got started — and the word first came into play — in the late 1910s and early 1920s."
Is is unlikely, however, that its practitioners or listeners considered it a separate art form in the early years. Most of the music fell under the umbrella of what McCray calls "hot music," loosely, any improvised music chiefly played at a faster-than-normal tempo.
Unlike New Orleans, which was trumpeted from the beginning, or Kansas City, Charleston's jazz history had remained fragmentary, parts of it known to older citizens who interacted with some of the talents of the past but no one person or group owning a definitive sense of the tradition. Which meant a great deal of digging and collating of research on the part of McCray, his Charleston Jazz Initiative colleague, Dr. Karen A. Chandler, and numerous others.
What distinguishes the jazz of Charleston and makes it worthy of historical attention?
"We're still working on finding that out," says McCray, who is quick to note the initiative's association with the College of Charleston School of the Arts. "That's a part of my mission in the research project in which I'm involved with the Charleston Jazz Initiative. We're trying to identify that sound. And working on that is our musical director, Quentin Baxter, who's a jazz musician, as well as an educator.
"One of the things we've learned is that Charleston jazz had a heavier emphasis on the back beat, that it was highly percussive, I would imagine because of the really extensive, intense African residuals here. And a lot came up from the Caribbean. There were Jenkins Orphanage players from Grenada, Cuba, all over the region. We just didn't have as many of those influences as New Orleans did.
"We also continued with the brass tradition around here longer than in other areas, which was a carry-over from the 19th-century military regimental bands up through the Jenkins bands, which until the 1940s and '50s were heavily dominated by brass." McCray says. "That's what we see as far back as Cladys 'Jabbo' Smith on up through a player still working today in the New York City area, Joey Morant, a fine trumpet player. And there were many in between, like William 'Cat' Anderson in Duke Ellington's band."
Another distinguishing feature of Charleston jazz has less to do with style and more with proficiency. McCray says research is confirming what the anecdotal evidence always suggested, that jazz musicians from here were exceptionally versatile.
"They were trained to be, which also explains their prevalence in big bands, as ensemble players or so-called 'sidemen.' The Dukes, the Counts (Basie), the Harry Jameses and the Lionel Hamptons were bandleaders who realized these guys could read music and play any style. As sidemen, they helped in an integral way to define the sound of these big bands, to set the pace and the tone, as rhythm guitarist Freddie Green did with Count Basie's band for 50 years."
Read they could. There's a joke McCray attributes to local jazz musician Lonnie Hamilton that in class at Jenkins when they were rehearsing, flies would land on the sheets of music, and Jenkins players would play the flies.
"New Orleans may own the creation myth as the cradle of jazz, but our guys, no disrespect intended, could read rings around theirs. There are other cradles that need to come to light," McCray said.