Charlton Singleton began piano lessons at 3 years old, picked up violin in 4th grade, trumpet in 6th grade but he has been preparing to be a Band Leader all his life. A Band Leader is the bridge between the stage and the seats, between the instrument and the ear, between the soul of the musicians and the hearts of the audience. And yes, for Singleton, even the TV show Hee-Haw might have had a little to do with it too. Read below to learn more about this local jazz legend and homegrown superstar.
SCMG: As the Band Leader you make connections for the audience between the song and some significant moment in life or in relation to the history of jazz in SC. What makes storytelling an important part of the concert too?
CS: If you know the backstory to the song or if you know any information about the crafting of the song or about the artist, maybe it will give you a little more understanding about what you’re listening to. Like when we did “Please, Please, Please” by James Brown, I asked “Where were you when you first heard this song? Or when we played “In the Mood,” I asked who were you dancing with when you heard this?” It gives the audience an emotional connection. I learned this from my mom and my uncle. They’re great storytellers!
And I always find some connection to South Carolina too. I work at that. Once we did a Nina Simone Show and I talked about the song “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” she sang that was written by Horace Ott, who just happened to also arrange songs for Aretha Franklin and the song YMCA. He is from St. Matthews, SC.
SCMG: It seems like bands have a style too, a sound they pattern after someone they admire. What band or album do you see guides the CJO sound?
CS: That’s a difficult question. I don’t know if I have just one. For Big Bands…the albums “Atomic Basie,” “Basie Plays Hefti.” That Basie sound, the tightness of it, the arrangements, just everything about that album is perfect. Then Duke Ellington. One of my favorites, we used to play in CJO is “The Three Suites” –like the Nutcracker Suite, the arrangement between Duke and Billy Strayhorn is so totally different and so totally yes!
SCMG: I know CJO band members and you re-arrange standards but do you ever provide original music too?
CS: We actually did that a few years back. Season Four featured a show titled, “Localopus” (opus from he musical term and local being the composers). Many of the musicians in the band, and around town for that matter, have their own recordings. We had some of them arrange their songs for the CJO and presented it. Honestly, we were a bit nervous going into the show because most of the audience had never heard these songs before. However, we had a packed house and they loved it. I believe that it was at that moment that I knew that we had something special with the CJO. Our audience still trusted us enough to come even though they knew that they would be hearing brand new music. It was special that night.
SCMG: You wear lots of hats: Band Leader, Trumpet player, Educator. How do you juggle them?
CS: Well, that just what you do. Whatever is necessary. Being the leader on the bandstand is what I’ve seen people do. I never thought I’d be doing this. (He thought he’d a baseball player for the Yankees.) But watching Hee-Haw, The Muppet Show, shows of the theme songs we played for our Jazz on the Screen show, and video-taping award shows and specials where you had comedians and entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Frank Sinatra. All of these people knew how to work the crowd and that was part of it. They had their talent but their delivery was just masterful. As I kid I watched those shows over and over and maybe that was God’s plan, my education on what I do now.
SCMG: What does the future hold for the CJO and for Charlton Singleton?
CS: Keep building!! We’ve brought in world-renowned artists to play with and we want to do more. We need to and are in the process of bringing in more youngsters to this music through the Jazz Artists of Charleston Education arm launching now. And I always encourage everybody to dance at the concerts because Big Bands were dance bands. This is what you should be doing!
As for me, I am getting ready to go on the road with the band Ranky Tanky, a band that plays Gullah music, http://rankytanky.com/index.php/the-band/ with Quentin Baxter, Kevin Hamilton, Clay Ross, and Quiana Parler, to stages all over the world. But I’ll be back. My family is here. There’s no leaving the relaxed and easy pace of Charleston. This is home.
SCMG: Last thoughts?
CS: I wish the audience and more people in Charleston and SC would embrace the rich history of people and jazz music here. I wish people here would know as much about jazz and SC’s contributions as people in New Orleans know about theirs. And for all of what we have now, the people who are icons of this music are quickly passing on or are nearing that time in life and I don’t want us to lose those stories or their music, our music. We need to keep finding it and preserving it. And we need to have the stories right, teach it right, and start teaching it now.
Writer’s Note: Jack and Karen McCray through The Jazz Initiative (charlestonjazz.net) as well as The Avery Center, and Benjamin Franklin V’s book “An Encyclopedia of South Carolina Jazz and Blues Musicians” from USC Press have worked to preserve some of this information.