Sacred music begins year: Jazz ensemble plans fifth edition of emerging tradition

Special to The Post and Courier

Sometimes beliefs, values and traditions are born of sheer constancy and consistency. Do something well and repeat it and pretty soon you’ve started a pattern of customs.
A good case can be made for that being what’s going on with Mark Sterbank’s Hymns & Spirituals annual concerts. On Jan. 18, the Mark Sterbank Jazz Group featuring Fred Wesley will mount its fifth edition of what has emerged as a sacred music rite of the beginning of the year.
The ensemble plays original arrangements of evergreen, inspirational hymns and spirituals.
The group includes Sterbank, pianist Tommy Gill, trombonist Fred Wesley, drummer Quentin Baxter, trumpeter Charlton Singleton and bassist Herman Burney Jr.
Sterbank is assistant professor of jazz studies and saxophone instructor at Charleston Southern University. He received his Bachelor of Music degree from the Eastman School of Music and a master of music degree from the University of New Orleans, where he also studied with pianist Ellis Marsalis under a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts.
“The origin of this idea of jazz hymns and spirituals for me goes back to when I was playing in the band at Times Square Church in New York City back in the mid-’90s,” Sterbank said. “We had almost a full big band (four saxes, three trumpets, two trombones, tuba, guitar, piano, bass, drums), and I, along with others, wrote jazz arrangements for the group to play during the offering part of the service.
“Then, after coming to Charleston, I also played with Herman Burney on a concert featuring jazz hymns and spirituals that he called Musicful Worship. Then, in 2005, I wanted to begin concertizing at CSU yearly, so we began this current series of concerts.”
Some of the traditional and contemporary songs featured in past concerts are “It is Well With My Soul,” “Oh, Happy Day,” “Since I Laid My Burdens Down,” “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” “Lord I Want to be a Christian,” “In the Garden,” “Wade in the Water” and “Speak to My Heart.”
Before last year’s concert, Sterbank said one of the reasons the band works together so well is the fact that the members all value what they believe in and what they do for a living. The bond is strong and has a sense of purpose.
“It’s about combining faith and vocation,” Sterbank said for a Post and Courier story last year, “and just using the vehicle of jazz for the expression of the music that’s really American traditional music, in a sense.”
The concert will be held at 3 p.m. Jan. 18 in CSU’s Lightsey Chapel Auditorium. Tickets are $5 at the door for adults and free to students with a valid ID.