BY JACK MCCRAY
Special to The Post and Courier
I was interviewing Charleston jazz trumpeter Joey Morant once and he brought up something we both believe in very strongly.
It was in a ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel on Sixth Avenue in New York City. He had just sat in with the Franklin Street Five, a Jenkins Orphanage tribute band I created the year before for a Charleston Jazz Initiative event.
The Charleston Jazz Initiative, a research project of which I’m a principal, had been invited to present Charleston’s jazz history and legacy to the 2006 annual conference of the International Association of Jazz Education.
So we took a band to show them how we do it in Charleston.
Joey, a highly acclaimed player now based in the Big Apple, sat in with the band, knocking everybody’s socks off.
After the dust settled, CJI videographer Tony Bell set up an interview space and we sat down to talk.
The point Joey made was that jazz has a spiritual side that cannot be forgotten. The rhythm section’s Gullah beats and Joey’s searing, heart-felt horn lines were indeed transcendental, in tune with spiritual energy.
His hometown is steeped in the Judeo-Christian ethic so he’s no stranger to church.
There was some “church” in that ballroom that January day.
And there’s going to be plenty of it at 3 p.m. Jan. 17 at the Lightsey Chapel on the campus of Charleston Southern University. That’s when tenor saxophonist Mark Sterbank, CSU assistant professor of jazz studies and instrumental area coordinator, will bring to the stage the sixth annual edition of his Hymns and Spirituals. The concert is a special project of the Mark Sterbank Jazz Group.
Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for students and seniors, CSU students free with valid ID.
In 2004, Mark took the Lowcountry by storm with the inaugural H&S, performing modern jazz interpretations of sacred music. The band is still the same: Fred Wesley on trombone, Charlton Singleton trumpet, Tommy Gill piano, Herman Burney Jr. bass , Quentin Baxter on drums and Mark.
Mark said this year’s program will be a best-of from the first five years of concerts.
The repertoire is: “Wade in the Water,” “Joshua Fit the Battle,” “Let Us Break Bread,” “Ain’t That Good News,” “Deep River,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Ride On, King Jesus,” “‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Victory in Jesus,” “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus,” “Marching to Zion,” “Amazing Grace” and “Kumbaya.”
H&S has become so popular, Mark has occasionally taken it outside Lightsey for special performances.
In the 1990’s, this band played with each other in all kinds of secular settings, emerging as one of the best straight ahead groups around.
The individual skill sets of each player bring much to the table, but their feel for each other is the real key to their swinging success.
Mark describes it as the band being united by the elements of inspiration and improvisation.
I’ve listened to them for about 15 years now and he’s right.
They inspire each other and they can all improvise.
The key here, though, is that they all believe in a higher power.
They’re in touch with each other, alright, but they’re also plugged into who they believe is the source of all things.
Add to this connection the individual freedom that comes from their trust in each other and you have fireworks.
Knowing them like I do, it’s a great joy to express themselves in this special way, giving thanks and praise and letting us, the audience, in on their ecstasy.
You’re going to dig this. These guys really make a joyful noise unto the Lord.
Mark was telling me the other day he’s trying to schedule things in such a way that the band can record this year. Good for us if they do.
There’s a growing body of recorded jazz work here and H&S would be a marvelous addition to that canon.
The band members look forward to this gig. Mark is a great band leader. There’s no personal or professional stress. Money’s not a big deal. There’s mutual respect, no prima donnas.
They must enjoy doing this. They’re all busy with their own bands and projects. Fred, of the James Brown Band fame, lives in Manning and works around the world. Herman, Charleston’s best bass player from Wilmington, N.C., lives in Washington, D.C., also traveling and playing the world.
But they all make H&S each year. It’s an institution now.
Just like Mark.
He’s quiet, but strong. Smart, but laid back. Efficient, but thorough.
And he can play the saxophone, all of them.
Like all the great players, Mark plays the next note, works the next gig and leads the next band as if it would be his last time doing such.
He’s an optimist. He has a deep and abiding faith that has him climbing the mountains of his profession and his life with the confidence that only a relationship with a higher power can bring.
Mark’s spirit is generous. And, like his band, his greatest joy is sharing his craft.