Charleston is a musical city if you just listen. Even the everyday sounds of the city speak of times past: horse hooves on cobblestone streets, the zip and ruffle of sweetgrass baskets being woven. Sometimes, when walking at night, I swear I can even hear a plunger mute softening the sound of a brass trumpet being played nearby.
I know it’s just my imagination, or the residue of a song I was previously listening to, but it makes sense given Charleston’s musical history. Whether it’s gospel, folk, jazz, or even a softly hummed hymn, Charleston played a supporting role in its development.
Perhaps the city’s biggest musical contribution was to the world of jazz. In the early 1890s, Reverend Daniel Joseph Jenkins started an orphanage where benefactors donated musical instruments to the children. Reverend Jenkins brought in teachers to give music lessons. From these lessons rose some of jazz’s most sought-after musicians. Before Louis Armstrong was born in 1901, five Jenkins Orphanage bands had formed and were touring Europe. Charleston quickly became a destination for bandleaders like Count Basie and Duke Ellington to handpick their high-note hitting brass sections.
Starting Jan. 26, Charleston Musical Heritage Productions will present an opportunity for you to grab a seat and just listen. It’s the second season of the Sound of Charleston, a series of 19 concerts that will feature music from soulful gospel hymns to the operatic virtuosity of George Gershwin. Local musicians like jazz trumpeter Charlton Singleton and 16-year old piano prodigy Micah McLaurin will headline the shows.
Bill Perry, who co-founded Sound of Charleston with his sister-in-law Yvonne Evans, found inspiration for the series a year ago while he and his wife were on vacation in Vienna. Perry was visiting ornate cathedrals and listening to traditional Austrian music when the thought occurred to him that Charleston needed something similar.
“We wanted to put on something authentic to the feeling of Charleston,” Evans says. “When you are providing something to the visitors of Charleston, it is important that it be authentic.”
William Schlitt and Maida Libkin, best known for founding the Company Company, are co-artistic directors and performers in the series.
At the season premiere, Singleton and Friends will perform the brand of jazz that is deep-rooted in the Charleston tradition as well as go into greater detail about the Jenkins Orphanage and its contribution to the genre. Bart Saylor and Schlitt will perform Civil War campsongs, and McLaurin and Irwin Jiang will present “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Later on in the series, we’ll hear from Carl Bright and Family, who will no doubt have the audience clapping their hands and tapping their feet to old spirituals like “Go Down, Moses,” and “Wade in the Water.” Vocalist Ann Caldwell will present a special Valentine’s Day concert.
“I believe that a great deal of the music we listen to in Charleston, as well as America, had its roots growing in the soil we call the spirituals, but as a young person growing up in the church, gospel music was the regular diet,” Caldwell says. She traces Charleston’s musical roots to spirituals.
“My story is simple,” she says. “Within the boundary of approximately 20 minutes, I will make a feeble attempt to talk about a community of enslaved people who created some of the most inspiring music the world has ever known.”
Throughout the series, the Sound of Charleston String Quartet will perform light classics of the St. Cecilia Society, one of Charleston’s oldest and most elite social institutions. Formed in 1766 and named after the patron saint of music, the Society is renowned for its extravagant and sophisticated annual concerts.
Each concert will be held at the Circular Congregational Church on Meeting Street. Attendees will be sitting in the same room, perhaps even the same pew, where, according to legend, John Newton felt inspired to write the words to what has since become the most popular hymn in America, “Amazing Grace.” The finale of each concert will be a unique collective rendition of the hymn by the evening’s performers. You might leave in tears, but you’ll definitely be humming the tune on your way home.