By Jack McCray
Charleston was one of the major port cities of the Old South. It makes intuitive sense that many of the elements that came together in New Orleans to create jazz would be present there as well. Jack McCray makes the beginnings of the case that Charleston ranks with New Orleans as a contemporaneous jazz birthplace in his photo-history Charleston Jazz.
Charleston can claim a role in the development of jazz’s roots, contributing to the development of the eponymous dance, the Charleston, and providing the original source material for the book and opera Porgy and Bess. Probably the greatest challenge for Charleston’s assertion as the cradle of jazz is its lack of a towering figure like a Louis Armstrong or Sidney Bechet.
The city can claim many great musicians to be sure, like Armstrong rival Jabbo Smith, and St. Julian Dash, co-writer of “Tuxedo Junction” while he was with the Erskine Hawkins band. Perhaps most significant to Charleston’s legacy are early composers like Edmund Thornton Jenkins, the son of the founder of the Jenkins Orphanage, an important early incubator of Charleston’s African-American musical talent. McCray writes of Jenkins:
“He graduated with honors from the Royal Academy of Music in London and went on to teach there. He performed all over Europe, produced entertainment events, and was involved in British politics. The themes in Edmund Jenkins’s work are said to be based on black Charleston themes, folk life, and such. Some recordings of his jazz work with English band director Jack Hylton, known as the British Paul Whiteman, have recently been released.” (p. 43)
More than great figures, it is great institutions, like the Jenkins Orphanage and the Avery Normal Institute, that take pride of place in Charleston’s jazz history. In compiling some of that history, McCray shows himself to be a strong writer, who brings to bear some insight on the nature of jazz, writing:
“It’s unfortunate that the best description of improvisation we’ve come up with so far is to define it as ‘making it up as you go along.’ Root words for improvise are ‘provide’ and ‘improve.’ The Latin root word improvisus means unforeseen.” (p. 15)
Ultimately, it will take a far weightier volume to supplant New Orleans as the acknowledged birthplace of jazz. However, McCray’s Charleston Jazz is an interesting first salvo that captures images of an underappreciated regional jazz history.