PEOPLE
Volume 19 Number 3
History and All That Jazz
01 June 2006

CHARLESTON, on the coast of South Carolina, USA, abounds with Southern charm. Pillared buildings sit in magnolia-filled gardens, visible from streets which date back to the 18th century. Two centuries of plantation economics have left behind shaded porches, steepled churches and cobbled streets.

CHARLESTON, on the coast of South Carolina, USA, abounds with Southern charm. Pillared buildings sit in magnolia-filled gardens, visible from streets which date back to the 18th century. Two centuries of plantation economics have left behind shaded porches, steepled churches and cobbled streets.

History abounds in the city. As in every Southern town, there are numerous memorials to the Civil War (which started when the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter, which guards Charleston harbour). But although the city was once a major slave port and has a majority black population, the black contribution is seldom mentioned other than to note that Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess was set here.

Two individuals, academic Karen Chandler and journalist Jack McCray, have recently sought to bring the city’s black heritage to the attention of a wider audience and to document it through oral history, the commissioning of artistic creations, and archival work. Black Charleston can claim to be an essential part of the creation and development of an American art form that is truly global: jazz. Chandler and McCray have called their project the Charleston Jazz Initiative.

The hero of their story is a late 19th century Baptist minister named Daniel Joseph Jenkins, whose Jenkins Orphanage provided musical tuition. He took in youngsters (mainly male), often in dire circumstances, in the decades when racist segregation severely restricted opportunities and the white-controlled city and state spent an absolute minimum on black people. Between 1890 and 1950 5,000 young people received their education at the orphan home.


They were trained in such skills as shoe repairing, printing, bread-making and music to enable them to survive what was a difficult life. Bands from the orphanage performed in the streets to publicise the enterprise, passing a hat to raise funds; bands toured the Northern states and, in 1895, Jenkins took a band to England.

Treading carefully in the minefield of local politics, where a false step could be fatal to both the orphanage and its personnel, Jenkins obtained some funds from patrician Southerners, as well as support from black churches. Black citizens bought from the orphanage’s Poor Boy Bread Company or subscribed to the weekly Charleston Messenger, another inmate production.

The Charleston Messenger was printed for more than 40 years, but only a handful of copies have survived: an absence of documentation which assists the hiding of a people’s history. A lone copy from 1898 has revealed that Jenkins negotiated sole import rights of musical instruments from a leading British manufacturer: a feat which few of his white neighbours could have achieved.


The orphanage set professional standards in music tuition, and its pupils went on to work in bands all over the United States. The jazz age of the 1920s and 1930s saw them play and record with leading black-led jazz bands—including those of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong (who had taken up the trumpet in a New Orleans orphanage).

In May-June 2005, members of the Jenkins family, historians and musicians gathered for the Charleston Jazz Initiative’s first celebration.

There were meetings and discussions, live music by local performers and a children’s party in the shadow of the old orphanage building. The tales of veterans, family memories, historical evidence, and a film clip from the late 1920s supported the underlying message of the Charleston Jazz Initiative.

Fortified by all this, the Initiative is on course to spread the word that Charleston’s contribution to the jazz era was more than the title of a snappy dance-song. The black population of Charleston and of South Carolina’s low country have a rich tradition, and their contribution to the history of the United States has been both sustained and substantial.
Sue Bolton and Jeff Green

www.charlestonjazz.net




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