Charleston All-Stars

The Jazz Loft Project was down in Charleston last week to take part in the 2010 Piccolo Spoleto Festival JAC Jazz Series. On Thursday June 10, Ron Free made an in store appearance at Blue Bicycle Books alongside copies of The Jazz Loft Project signed by Sam Stephenson and hand delivered by me. It was nice to spend a couple of hours in this amazing bookstore. Owned by Jonathan and Lauren Sanchez, the store has a great staff and book selection (that includes some of Jonathan’s writing and an extensive selection of low country history). They also lead a cool looking young writer’s camp in the summertime.

Blue Bicycle Books also joined us the following night at McCrady’s Upstairs for the JAC Jazz Series closing show, billed as the Charleston All-Stars featuring Ron Free. Ron played 2 sets, with this ensemble and a few guests, and signed books during the intermission. This event was hosted most ably by writer and MC extraordinaire  Jack McCray, who spoke wonderfully about the Jazz Loft Project and the musicians before I said a few words to the sold out house. The thing I concentrated on in my brief talk was the community and spirit of these Charleston musicians, festival staff, and concert goers and how that makes the music so joyful to experience. What does that mean? Please allow me to backtrack.

On Thursday, after a fine afternoon at Blue Bicycle Books, where I got to meet Ron Free’s nephew, Ron took me on a brief tour of Charleston. As a native son and one time tour guide of the city, it was a treat to get a sense of what a Ron Free Charleston tour might have been like back in the day. I even got to hear some of the Charleston brogue and accurate Gullah accent  he used to enrich the historical tours. After dinner, we headed over to Charleston Grill to catch the Quentin Baxter Ensemble. Hear them there Monday-Saturday. Shortly after their first set, Quentin insisted on letting Ron sit in with his band mates, Tommy Gill on piano and Jake Holwegner on bass. Ron sounded great and got a chance to synch up with Tommy, who would join him in the Charleston All-Stars on Friday. The generous way Ron was received was touching. The energy in the music benefitted both from Ron’s addition to the band and Quentin’s subsequent playing, which had sounded really good from the start. As Ron sat down to play, Quentin made a humble remark about how he was about to get a lesson from Ron. I learned a lot by listening to both of them play and talk about jazz.

After rehearsal on Friday, I met up with Ron and fellow all-star Tommy Gill You can read about how he studied with Jaki Byard and played with 821 Sixth Avenue loft veteran Jimmy Knepper, and like Quentin, he was a great guy whose appreciation for the music was clear. It was a pleasure to hang out with him before the show and hear some of his stories and insights. Then it was on to the venue, Upstairs at McCrady’s.

The space above McCrady’s was similar to the loft space with the deep room, wooden floors, and high ceilings. It was a lot more pleasant to be there than the time Ron and I met with a BBC crew at 821 Sixth Avenue several summers ago to film Ron’s interview for the Paul Bernays and Svetlana Palmer Mose Allison documentary Ever Since I Stole the Blues. McCrady’s upstairs was about 40 degrees cooler, with an impressively efficient service staff and some nice tables. We were lucky to have the presence of Ron’s nephew, nieces, their partners, and especially Ron’s sister Joan who told me how much it meant to her to see him play. It was great to meet them and to smile and laugh along with them as they appreciated Ron and the great scene there.

Shortly after arriving, I was also able to spend a few minutes talking with bassist Kevin Hamilton. Jack McCray wrote an article about him and he wrote about Kevin better than I do below. Read it here. In this article, Jack really got at the heart of what I was feeling in the presence of these musicians and throughout the trip.

The band sounded great onstage, too: Ron Free, drums; Tommy Gill, piano; Kevin Hamilton, bass; John Odin, guitar; and Robert Lewis; alto sax.  The first set included a Monk tune,  a couple of Tommy Gill originals and Ron Free recited his poem “The Parade” to his own drum accompaniment. It was fantastic to them taking risks onstage, improvising new material and challenging themselves as Ron did by recalling this poem from memory while accompanying his narration for the first time ever before an audience. And there was a free form improvisation that gave Kevin Hamilton some room to stretch out on the bass, with great technique and style on his solos. Like the other musicians I was fortunate to talk with, he was modest offstage and generous with his playing, but also created impressive and imaginative solos. There were several solos and fours that Ron took that really blew me away, as well. He has an uncanny ability to play the drums harmonically melodic, with masterful simultaneous restraint and power, using the whole kit and a variety of techniques.

Ron signed some books sold by Blue Bicycle during the break. It was fun to hear the stories of people from different times in his life who remember Ron and his music favorably. I got to talk more with Jack McCray about how wonderful the festival had been. Then there was a whole set of music, jam session style. At one point someone requested “On Green Dolphin Street” and Tommy quickly led the musicians into that tune. As a frequently occurring 821 Sixth Avenue standard, it was amazing to hear Ron Free, 50 years later, jamming to that tune and sounding as good as ever, if not better.

We’re hoping to get some photographs from the event. When we do we’ll post them in a subsequent blog entry and identify all of the musicians who played. I can’t say enough about the energy and dedication of the Jazz Artists of Charleston staff and volunteers. Everything ran smoothly and it felt like a family, this community. The sound was incredible in that room, well produced. And after the show, everyone mobilized to break things down with alacrity. It  felt like a celebration and a well deserved one after such a great series and final event.  So if any of y’all are reading this, thanks very much! For everyone else, I highly recommend checking out the music scene down in Charleston and going to the festival next year. The crowd seemed to have a great time and engaged the music with warmth and appreciation for the gift of this music. Hear it live for yourself and seek out recordings from these fine people and great musicians,  and drop in to Blue Bicycle Books if you ever get the chance.

-Dan Partridge


  1. Herbert "Bubba" Osburn Said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 8:11 am

    Great write-up Dan. You made me feel as though I was there all over again, front row. (Nephew)

  2. Sam Stephenson Said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 8:19 am

    What a great post, Dan. I had a couple of thoughts rereading it this morning.

    Back in 2000 when I was working on my Oxford American story, What Happened to Ronnie Free?, I remember being so disappointed to lose a story about Tommy Gill from the eventual published article.

    What happened is Ron Free and his trio including Tommy and Ben Tucker on bass landed some nice gigs in Bogota, Colombia. When they arrived and went to their first rehearsal the venue had some kind of plastic electric keyboard for Tommy to play. It was like a kid’s first keyboard or something. Tommy took one look at it and said, “I’m not playing that @&%*ing thing.”

    So with the first gig scheduled for later that evening the trio set out to find a real piano in downtown Bogota. Miraculously, they found a Baldwin or Steinway baby grand covered in dust and cobwebs nearby. It hadn’t been played in years. Tommy, who is an expert piano repairman, somehow got hold of some tools and supplies and by night fall he had a functional piano and they somehow moved it a few blocks into the venue. The gig went off without a hitch.

    Finally, Tommy Gill has DAT recordings of many sets of Ron’s trio in Charleston from that period. They sound a little like the Corea trio of “Now He Sings Now He Sobs.” Ron told me that many of those gigs were in restaurants with people dining, so the trio mastered the art of taking the music to a complex, fulfilling limit without being too loud and bombastic. Those tapes are worth releasing.