Versatile jazz heavies will play spirituals

Of The Post and Courier Staff
Jazz has always been connected to spirituality. It sometimes has an otherworldly feel. Some players — listeners, as well — seem at times entranced, its beauty taking them someplace else.
Some of jazz’s great players are closely associated with organized religions, too. The late South Carolina pioneer Dizzy Gillespie was a devout Bahai believer, while the legendary Art Blakey and many of his Jazz Messengers were followers of the Muslim faith. Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock are practicing Buddhists.
Trombone great Wycliffe Gordon, a testifying Christian, opened his concert at last year’s Spoleto Festival USA Wachovia Jazz Series with “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Here and now in the Lowcountry, in fact on Sunday, a sextet of some of the finest players in the area will offer a program of hymns and spirituals prepared just for this performance. Lightsey Chapel Auditorium on the campus of Charleston Southern University will host the Mark Sterbank Jazz Group with special guest Fred Wesley.
The occasion is the Horton School of Music Sunday Concert Series. The concert will feature original arrangements by members of the group: Wesley on trombone, trumpeter Charlton Singleton, Tommy Gill on piano, Herman Burney Jr. on bass, drummer Quentin Baxter, and Sterbank on saxophone.
Wesley, an ardent jazz player from Mobile, Ala., who now lives in South Carolina, attained fame from his longtime work with James Brown and leading his own funk groups.
Sterbank, instrumental artist-in-residence at Horton, said in a recent telephone interview, “I invited everybody to do some arrangements, but I will do the bulk of them.” Songs planned for Sunday include “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Amazing Grace,” “Wade in the Water” and “This Little Light of Mine.”
These musicians have played together in various configurations many times over the years, so there’s plenty of chemistry to apply to Sunday’s challenge. Wesley said following last year’s concert how much he enjoyed playing with this group. He’s also done student camps with Sterbank. He said the technical proficiency and sense of swing his colleagues have motivate him.
“These guys in Charleston not only play changes, they play changes on the changes,” Wesley remarked last March, describing the intricacy of the improvisation he encounters when he comes here. Sterbank came to Charleston in 1997 following a four-year stint working in the music ministry of the Times Square Church in New York City as an arranger, composer and saxophonist. Sterbank, who occasionally performs with the Charleston Symphony, holds a master’s degree in music from the University of New Orleans, where he studied with saxophonist Victor Goines, current head of the Juilliard School jazz program. “I had the opportunity last year, or year before last, to play (religious music) with Herman,” Sterbank said. “He had me come up and play with him in his church in Salisbury (N.C.). We played jazz arrangements. When I was in the music ministry at Times Square Church, we had jazz arrangements of hymns. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing. When I talked to Herman about being involved and talked to the others, everybody was interested and excited.”
When this band gets excited, there’s usually good music.

Recent events prove Charleston jazz landscape alive and well

Of The Post and Courier Staff

Much has happened on the jazz scene the last several weeks, and it’s all good.
Saxophonist Mark Sterbank’s concert at CSU on March 31 was a hit. The rhythm section composed of pianist Tommy Gill, drummer Quentin Baxter and bassist Herman Burney Jr. promised in advance a nice show led by Sterbank, but it was extra special in that Fred Wesley of James Brown band fame added his trombone to the front line.
Later that week he said of working with area musicians, “Those guys can really play. I thoroughly enjoyed it. You know, most of the time I go to a gig, probably play some funk, and go home. But there, I had to read music, play (chord) changes, change keys, all of that. Man, it was something.”
— The jazz fraternity is close-knit. When the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra came to town for an April 12 concert, right after the band arrived for the sound check that afternoon at Gaillard Auditorium, Ron Westray, a Columbia native and leader of the LCJO trombone section, was asking around about Baxter, with whom he has played before and remembers as an excellent musician.
Sterbank showed up at the sound check, hoping to hook up with a former teacher of his, reed player Victor Goines, who is also director of the Juilliard Institute for Jazz Studies. Sterbank attended Juilliard.
After entering the back door, shortly after Westray, Goines immediately recognized Sterbank. The two embraced and began to get caught up as Goines started assembling his tenor, getting ready to go to work. They were a little late arriving and had to keep it all going since the show started at 8. Everyone was exhausted, but in good spirits. Charleston was the 48th stop on a 50-city tour, and everybody could smell home.
The concert was a huge success. Jason Nichols, executive director of the sponsoring Charleston Concert Association, said the following Monday, “What a way to spend my 101st show!”. The show had sold out almost a week early, and it was a risk that paid off. He had said earlier it was only the second jazz show in 20 years put on by CCA.
“I have never seen the Gaillard that packed. We had to turn away hundreds. … You know, about 2,000 of those people there are classical music fans, but did you hear that foot stomping and hand clapping?”
Nichols is thinking about inviting Wynton Marsalis, LCJO director, back to do some education.
— Jazz education was furthered at a symposium March 25 at the Avery Research Center, where names such as Freddie Green, Cat Anderson, Jabbo Smith, and St. Julian Dash were intoned by panelists Raymond Rhett, Lonnie Hamilton, George Kenny, Bob Ephiram and Oscar Rivers, all musicians and educators with Jenkins Orphanage and Avery Institute connections. The third-floor exhibition hall was standing-room-only as stories, comments and questions on Charleston’s jazz history were discussed.
The audience included scholars, jazz fans, friends and relatives of former Jenkins players, students and history buffs.
Dr. Karen Chandler, director of Avery, has worked hard to make music programming a part of the center’s outreach. The center is now home, for instance, to Harold Singletary’s Poetic Jazz Society, a monthly jazz set that fuses jazz music and poetry by area writers. It’s been going since last fall and still seems to be gaining momentum.
— On April 4, one of the jazz acts at the nascent 3 Rivers Festival in Columbia was an all-star South Carolina band organized by saxophonist and band leader Skipp Pearson. The band, which opened for headliner Joe Sample, included, from the Lowcountry, Baxter on drums, Kenny on saxophone, Wesley on trombone and bassist Lee Burrows.
“The band was fantastic and we were very well received,” Pearson said. “About two-thirds of the people who saw Joe Sample were there to see us.” Pearson, one of this year’s Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award winners, has been on the scene for more than 40 years and hopes to institutionalize the statewide band concept.


Of The Post and Courier Staff
Saxophonist Mark Sterbank is in a lot of ways the quintessential jazz musician. He approaches the American art form as just that, art that entertains. Prominent players in the Lowcountry — he’s one of them — typically are very good at crafting this art, and they know how to please an audience. Because they’ve played around the world with some of the best, they’re musically on top of the their technical game, also.
Another characteristic the members of this coterie have in common is connections with colleges. Sterbank, from Ohio, is an instrumental artist-in-residence at Charleston Southern University, where he also directs the school’s jazz ensembles and its summer jazz camp.
Monday at 8 p.m., the university’s Horton School of Music will present Sterbank leading a sextet of friends in a concert at Lightsey Chapel Auditorium. The performance is free and open to the public.
“This is an independent project of my own doing,” Sterbank said last week. “The last time I did a concert was 1999. I’m using it as a vehicle to get some of my own compositions performed.” Playing standards is one thing, but original music can be challenging. Sterbank, who also until recently played tenor in the popular band Brazil, has assembled an ensemble that will be up to the task.
Tommy Gill will play piano, Herman Burney Jr. will be the bassist, while trumpeter Charlton Singleton and drummer Quentin Baxter round out the lineup.
“We have a connection. We seem to connect personally and musically,” Sterbank said of his mates. “When we’re playing together, there’s a confidence. There’s chemistry. We all get along really well. We seem to be musically compatible. Everyone’s ideas are supported.”
They’re all artistic subversives, too, and sometimes surprise each other, but they never lose the groove.
Sterbank has invited the other players to offer their compositions for the show Monday.
“The last time we played together was Indigo Jazz,” Sterbank said of a September concert at the Sottile Theatre that, by all accounts, was a candidate for the best jazz event of the year.
Sterbank invited a special guest, trombonist Fred Wesley, the famed leader of some of James Brown’s best bands, to add a voice Friday that will only further texturize an already nuanced group. The brass could give a big band feel.
Sterbank has used Wesleyin his camps. He said of impromptu performances after camp last summer, “We had a session everyday, and he seemed to fit that chemistry. He’s such a great player. I feel really inspired by his meekness. The first time we played together was for a wedding down at Hilton Head. He didn’t introduce himself as the great Fred Wesley, or anything like that.
“It didn’t occur to me who he was, other than he sounded like J.J. Johnson. He had no pretense about playing a wedding gig with a somewhat unknown like me.”
Wesley took to Sterbank also. In a telephone interview last week while on the road in New Orleans, Wesley said of his jazz leanings, “I grew up wanting to be a great jazz trombone player, like J.J. Johnson or Curtis Fuller. In my early days I grew up studying jazz. But in order to get out of Mobile, Ala., I felt it necessary to take a gig with Ike and Tina (Turner), James Brown, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, people like that, and one thing led to another. I’ve had a great career and a good time. James Brown made me famous.”
Why, then, a concert at a church school in a relatively small market with a casual friend he met working a wedding? “Mark loves what he’s doing. He does a great job,” Wesley said. “I really admire teachers, especially someone like Mark, who takes the time to really work with their students.”
Sterbank said just getting the band together is enough reason to have a concert, but his desire to compose drives his need to hear his work. He links performance with writing and arranging. “I guess I can better express myself in my own compositions.”
Jazz musicians are always trying to get better, but Sterbank is fundamentally sound. He studied under Ellis Marsalis in Virginia and in New Orleans, and has played with his sons, Branford and Delfeayo Marsalis. He can be seen and heard with the Harry Connick, Jr. Orchestra on the video “Swingin’ Out Live.” He has performed with Eartha Kitt and the Temptations. In 1990, he led a band that included drummer Brian Blade at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
He came to Charleston in 1997 following a four-year stint working in the music ministry of the Times Square Church in New York City as an arranger, composer, and saxophonist.
Sterbank, who occasionally performs with the Charleston Symphony, holds a master’s degree in music from the University of New Orleans where he studied with saxophonist Victor Goines, current head of the Julliard School jazz program.