Columbia’s La La over All That Jazz

“If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” — Louis Armstrong

Robert Clark

Jazz is freedom, expression, and improvisation. As main character and jazz enthusiast Sebastian says in La La Land, “It’s conflict, it’s compromise, it’s new every time … it’s very very exciting!”

La La Land, the 2016 Hollywood musical movie that shed a 10,000 lumen LED light on the 100-year-old music genre, contributed somewhat to the already growing jazz scene in Columbia. But it was Skipp Pearson whom Columbia thanks for local jazz. Mark Rapp, who exhibits every bit as much enthusiasm as the movie’s Sebastian, says, “I do not like jazz; I love jazz!” He was wholly inspired by Skipp. Known as “Pops,” Skipp passed away this past June at 79, but not before being recognized as South Carolina’s Ambassador of Jazz and receiving The Order of the Palmetto in 2016.

“Skipp inspired everyone, from listener to performer,” says Mark. “He was the driving force behind all things jazz in and around Columbia. Through the music of jazz, Skipp showed people how differences can be celebrated, not hated; how diversity is inspiring. Without him, we would have nothing from which to develop further. He laid an incredible foundation.”

Skipp’s career spanned 65 years. His professional career began at age 14 when he appeared on the D. Jack Moses television show in Charleston, and he shared the stage not only with the greats primarily known to jazz devotees, but pop culture icons as well like Wynton Marsalis and Patti LaBelle. The Orangeburg native was even asked to play at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural ball.

“Skipp was definitely a friend to our state,” says Mark. “He could have lived anywhere and most likely would have had an easier time making a living as a jazz musician and educator elsewhere. He chose to come back, live here, and invest tireless hours developing our cultural scene in our capital city and around the state.”

Skipp’s legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of local jazz musicians, Mark believes. He regularly witnesses jazz musicians practicing, inspiring and challenging one another, and sharing — just what Skipp did.

After moving back to his native South Carolina in 2011, Mark was motivated to create ColaJazz in 2015, which brings attention to the local jazz scene. The goal of ColaJazz is to carry on what Skipp started, to grow the jazz scene through recordings, events, education —  and to provide an organized resource for all things jazz.

“I saw a place, a city, and a state where good work could be done to elevate the arts and grow an important part of living a full, enriched life,” says Mark, who was recently bestowed the honor Ambassador of Jazz by the South Carolina House of Representatives.

Jazz, which emerged within the music scene in New Orleans in the early 1900s, became a pleasurable and celebrated distraction after “The Great War” (World War I), which took the lives of so many. According to Wynton Marsalis, a famous jazz musician who has performed in Columbia, “Opera, military marching bands, folk music, the blues, different types of church music, ragtime, echoes of traditional African drumming, and all of the dance styles that went with this music could be heard and seen throughout the city [New Orleans]. When all of these kinds of music blended into one, jazz was born.” 

Original jazz great Louis Armstrong ultimately journeyed from Louisiana’s port city to the city — New York City. Thus, jazz followed and flourished there and subsequently became known throughout the world. Jazz made a way for big band, swing, bebop, and Latin Afro-Cuban jazz to emerge.

Mark is not just an aficionado of jazz, he is a jazz musician as well, playing the trumpet, flugelhorn, didgeridoo, and piano (for composition purposes) with the Mark Rapp Group. He has performed in festivals throughout New York, Europe, and even Brazil. “We are also featured on the 2011 Disney jazz label release, ‘Everybody Wants to be a Cat,’ alongside greats like Dave Brubeck, Roy Hargrove, and Esperanza Spalding.” He also teaches all brass instruments at Freeway Music.

Mark discovered jazz after high school. A friend introduced him to the sounds of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, and the late Louis Armstrong. “I was blown away,” he says.

As a jazz musician, Mark says he wants to synergize, organize, and highlight jazz in Columbia. He points to talented and accomplished jazz artists and educators who are active currently in the city, including Amos Hoffman, Ben Eidson, Bryson Borgstedt, Bert Ligon, David Levray, Brendan Bull, Dustin Retzlaff, Jim Mings, Nick Brewer, Robert Gardiner, Danny Boozer, Dick Goodwin, and many more.

“We’re living amongst stars, and most people don’t even realize it. We are home to some of the best talent in the world in all disciplines,” he says, lauding the Columbia area jazz scene.

“A young saxophone phenomenon Ben Edison, only 18 now, challenged me to learn a difficult jazz standard called Donna Lee in all 12 keys,” Mark continues. “I always viewed this as something out of reach. But, when a then-17-year-old does it, oh yes! I picked up my horn and got to work.”

While movies like La La Land help generate interest in what Mark deems “the instrumental jazz cause,” no magic formula exists. “Everyone comes to the music from different paths, and it seems to be getting both easier and more difficult at the same time to engage young people in a music that requires such focused attention. But there are very entertaining, yet serious, jazzers out there all over Instagram and YouTube reaching and growing audiences.”

ColaJazz is Mark’s labor of love. The organization joined with Paul Bodamer, who operates local recording studio and record label High Fidelity Recordings and Jangly Records, to compile the ColaJazz Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 CD. It includes bandleaders from in and around Columbia; they all received focused studio time to record. “With additional monies and a phenomenal commitment of time and effort by Paul, we recorded 13 groups that comprised 27 different musicians. We also recorded a full-length CD by our jazz ambassador Skipp Pearson.”

The latter was just released at the inaugural ColaJazz Festival, held in February at the Music Farm in Columbia. Internationally known Chris Potter, originally from Columbia, headlined the event that included a bevy of talent, including long-time Wynton Marsalis sideman Wessell “Warmdaddy” Anderson. “We picked Chris because he’s arguably one of the best jazz saxophonists ever,” says Mark. Chris had also not played in his hometown in many years. He lived in Columbia from the time he was 5 years old, when his mother took a teaching position at USC, until he graduated from Dreher High School in 1989. He then moved to New York City to pursue his interest in music.

“I remember a jazz group visiting Rosewood Elementary School when I was in fourth grade,” Chris says. “That band had a few players who I would play with later, including Terry Rosen and Jim Mings on guitar, and my future saxophone teacher Bryson Borgstedt. I started playing piano and guitar a little bit by ear all through elementary school, and I started to learn the saxophone when I was 10 years old. At this point, my main professional instrument is the tenor saxophone, but I also play soprano saxophone, clarinets, flutes, and piano, as well as a little bit of drums, guitar, and bass.”

Chris went on to become involved in the New York jazz scene and has played with Steely Dan, Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, John Scofield, Red Rodney, the Mingus Big Band, McCoy Tyner, and Zakir Hussain, to name a few. “In addition, I’ve released many of my own albums over the years, and the latest one, ‘The Dreamer Is the Dream,’ was nominated for two Grammies this year,” he shares excitedly.

About coming back to Columbia to play for the festival, Chris says, “I was very happy to get the chance to come back to Columbia and play again after all these years, especially since I had such important and fruitful experiences growing up here as a young musician. I was also happy to see that there is some energy in the jazz scene here right now. I had the chance to hear and work with some excellent young players as well as catch up with some of my old musical buddies. It was enjoyable and heartening to see. Also, it was nice that my parents could come out to the gig and hear it since they still live here.”

The Columbia Museum of Art hosts a Jazz on Main series each year. The calendar allows enthusiasts to peruse all of the upcoming events in one place. Plus, education is a focus of ColaJazz primarily because Skipp was a proponent of jazz education. Annually, a USC ColaJazz Camp brings together people of all ages and demographics to make music. This year it takes place July 13 until July 15. Last year, Grammy Award winner Delfeayo Marsalis (brother of Wynton) was the camp’s master clinician. Camp instructors for the three days include acclaimed jazz educators, recording artists, touring musicians, and more. Players and teachers at all levels are encouraged to participate. At last year’s inaugural camp, attendees ranged from 12 to 85 years old.

Activities nationwide and locally abound for April’s Jazz Appreciation Month, including International Jazz Week in South Carolina April 21 through April 30, hosted by the Skipp Pearson Jazz Legacy Foundation. All over South Carolina, multiple live jazz performances are scheduled in at least 20 various venues. With the theme “Let Freedom Swing,” the week-long event honors Skipp Pearson while at the same time acknowledging long-time and burgeoning jazz enthusiasts in cities and towns throughout the state, from the Coast to the Midlands to the Upstate.

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