Jazz

South Carolina has been home to an impressive number of nationally prominent jazz figures as well as the site of many high-caliber jazz activities, including major festivals, comprehensive jazz education programs, and even an award-winning radio show.

South Carolina has been home to an impressive number of nationally prominent jazz figures as well as the site of many high-caliber jazz activities, including major festivals, comprehensive jazz education programs, and even an award-winning radio show.

Although Cheraw native and bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie, a major influence on modern jazz trumpeters, is the best-known and most historically significant jazz musician to have come from the state, many other important performers were either born or spent their formative years in South Carolina, some being alumni of the world-famous youth bands of Charleston’s Jenkins Orphanage. Among the earliest South Carolinians to make names for themselves outside the state were tuba player Pete Briggs, who recorded with Louis Armstrong in 1927; trumpeter Jabbo Smith, regarded by many in the 1920s as a serious rival to Armstrong himself; preeminent alto saxophonist Willie Smith; and popular trumpeters Peanuts Holland and Gus Aitken. The Duke Ellington Orchestra included South Carolinians such as trumpeters Bubber Miley, Cat Anderson, and Taft Jordan; clarinetist and saxophonist Jimmy Hamilton; and drummer Rufus Jones. South Carolinians who performed with Count Basie include his longtime guitarist Freddie Green, trumpeter Pete Minger, and saxophonist John C. Williams. Charleston’s Fud Livingston became an important arranger for many swing bands. Players who rose to prominence in modern times include saxophonists Lucky Thompson, Odean Pope, Houston Person, Bob Belden, and Chris Potter; guitarist James Blood Ulmer; drummer Alphonse Mouton; and trombonist Ron Westray.

Two major jazz festivals have brought scores of famous musicians to the state. Since 1980 the annual Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston has presented dozens of top stars, including such luminaries as the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Sarah Vaughan, Chick Corea, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, George Shearing, Dianne Reeves, and many more. And for ten years, starting in 1987, Columbia’s Main Street Jazz annually imported performers of a similar quality.

Educational institutions, arts presenters, and other organizations bring leading performers to the state on a regular basis. The Hilton Head Jazz Society, founded in 1986, imports name musicians to raise funds for its jazz scholarship program and present master classes at the local schools. The group also holds monthly concerts featuring regional artists.

In the late 1950s, one of the first collegiate jazz bands on the east coast was organized at Newberry College. Shortly afterwards the Newberry College High School Jazz Festival was founded to allow student jazz bands to perform for ratings and comments by nationally known clinicians. Later, after the formation of the South Carolina unit of the National Association of Jazz Educators (now the International Association for Jazz Education) to promote jazz education in the state, the Newberry festival, in conjunction with that organization, introduced the South Carolina All-State High School Jazz Ensemble, whose members are selected by audition from throughout the state.

At the start of the twenty-first century, many of the state’s secondary and postsecondary educational institutions provided some form of jazz in their curricula. Offerings included ensembles, classroom courses, clinics conducted by professional artists, and even full majors in jazz. The University of South Carolina at Columbia offered curricula leading to both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in jazz studies. The South Carolina Jazz Hall of Fame, founded at South Carolina State College in the late 1970s, honors outstanding students, professionals, and support personnel. In 1985 Dizzy Gillespie became its first professional inductee.

Chilton, John. A Jazz Nursery: The Story of the Jenkins’ Orphanage Bands of Charleston, South Carolina. London: Bloomsbury Book Shop, 1980.

Feather, Leonard, and Ira Gitler. The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Kernfeld, Barry, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. 2d ed. 3 vols. New York: Grove’s, 2001.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Jazz
  • Author
  • Keywords Dizzy Gillespie, Charleston’s Jenkins Orphanage, tuba player Pete Briggs, Willie Smith, Spoleto Festival USA, Hilton Head Jazz Society, National Association of Jazz Educators (now the International Association for Jazz Education), South Carolina Educational Radio Network (SCERN)
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date October 18, 2021
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update November 3, 2016
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