“What happened in Charleston, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City, Savannah and other cities not only illustrates the fact that jazz was born in America, their stories prove that America is built on the same principles as jazz. It’s a kind of real-world metaphor. Jazz is democratic. Everyone can have something to say. It’s diverse and inclusive. It’s an experiment. There’s never been anything like it before. It will always be a work in progress.”
–Jack McCray, Co-Founder of Charleston Jazz
Charleston Jazz History
Charleston Jazz was born at the dawn of acceptance of jazz music as the classical music of the United States of America. Charleston, South Carolina has contributed mightily to the history of the country, especially with regard to African American culture, the crucible of jazz. The South Atlantic coast cradle of North American slavery is a big part of the genesis, evolution and legacy of jazz, an entertainment art form that married the best of European and African attributes in the New World.
Now about 100 years old, jazz is no longer the secular, profane novelty it was once considered to be. Instead, it is a spiritual, organic life force that embodies all that is good about the American experiment. It is taken seriously in sociological, artistic and educational circles at the same time that it carries enormous, socially redeeming entertainment value.
Charleston Jazz works to preserve and celebrate the rich jazz tradition of the Charleston area. It recognizes South Carolina and the South Atlantic coast, whose artistic epicenter is Charleston, as a major cradle of jazz along with Savannah, Ga., Mobile Ala., Memphis, Tenn. and New Orleans, La., among others.
Vocalists Regina Ruopoli and Leah Suárez began to explore the idea of organizing their colleagues to better represent themselves as professional musicians. Charleston area musicians were contacted and a musician forum was held at Andolini’s – a local favorite pizzeria. In attendance was a small, but significant force of notable and working musicians, with one of Charleston’s most respected jazz advocates, Jack McCray, serving as the forum’s moderator.
Exploratory meetings ensued and a founding board began to take shape, including Leah Suárez, Quentin Baxter, Nathan Koci, Clay Grayson, Steven Sandifer, Regina Ruopoli and Jack McCray. A board of directors comprised of mostly musicians, and under the leadership of Leah Suárez, officially incorporated Jazz Artists of Charleston (JAC).
Shortly after its formation, JAC proposed to the city of Charleston’s Office of Cultural Affairs to produce the Piccolo Spoleto Jazz Series, the highest profile local jazz performance entity in the Lowcountry. Just months later, JAC took on the presentation of the Charlton Singleton Orchestra, a 19-piece big band. The orchestra renamed itself the Charleston Jazz Orchestra and took on the mantle of being the area’s resident big band.
The City of Charleston approached JAC about launching a Charleston Jazz Festival during the typically slower month of January. JAC embraced the idea and started to plan the event.
In January, the First Annual Charleston Jazz festival was held at the American Theatre and featured a talented line-up of local Charleston Jazz Bands. During the summer, Leah Suarez departed the organization to pursue her career as a vocalist. In September, Mary Beth Natarajan accepted the leadership role of Executive Director with a vision of dynamically expanding the organization in the areas of jazz performance, education and community outreach. At the end of the year, Brent Swaney joined the organization as Director of Operations after holding a similar role for the United States Air Force and NATO bands in Europe.
The Second Annual Charleston Jazz festival was held a variety of venues throughout Charleston and featured 10-time Grammy Award Winner, Arturo Sandoval and 2-time Grammy Award Winner, Diane Schuur. While the Charleston Jazz Orchestra finished a successful 8th Season, the organization accomplished a few new firsts including its first “Jazz in the Joint” performance at the Lieber Correctional Institute, which brought professional jazz artists – including Mayor John Tecklenburg – to the Lieber Correctional Institute to bring the transformative power of music to the prison system. The organization also held its first “Jazz Day for Kids” bringing over 800 elementary and middle school children from Charleston’s Title One schools to the Charleston Music Hall for a CJO performance and other learning opportunities. The organization also launched its first Charleston All Star Jazz Youth Orchestra showcasing many of Charleston’s most talented young jazz musicians performing at the jazz festival.
The current year was ushered in with dynamic performances from 20-time Grammy Award Winners The Manhattan Transfer and Take 6 at the 3rd Annual Charleston Jazz Festival. Mathew Pardieck was named Chairman of the Board of Directors. With the help of Mathew’s vision and leadership, the organization brought the Leonard School of Music under its wing to form the new Charleston Jazz Academy. The Founders Circle fundraising campaign was launched to renovate the education center and build a fund for scholarships. Mr. David Carter was selected as the Director of the Charleston Jazz Academy bringing his experience as Director of Bands and “Teacher of the Year” accolades to the new role. The Charleston Jazz Orchestra completed the first half of a record-breaking Season 9 with special guest artists including Ruben Studdard and Freddy Cole.
Mary Beth Natarajan
Mary Beth brings over 25 years of management, strategic marketing, and team building experience to Charleston Jazz. Her past experience leading initiatives for Fortune 200 and 500 companies and her ability to propel start-ups into growth have been instrumental in helping Charleston Jazz expand and flourish. Since stepping in as Executive Director in 2015, Mary Beth has worked closely with the Board of Directors to broaden the organization’s vision to encompass performance, education and community outreach – all with an aim of creating a vibrant, creative and sustainable jazz culture in the Holy City.
Inspired by her maternal grandmother who was a piano teacher, and her father who collected big band records, Mary Beth has cultivated a life long love of music. Her husband, Muni, was a jazz drummer in his early years who studied under David Baker and who performed with many jazz greats such as the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Stan Kenton, Larry Coryell, Cannonball Adderly and Quincy Jones. In addition to their shared passion for jazz, Mary Beth and Muni enjoy art, yoga, travel and living in the Lowcountry.
Director of Performances
Raised in Virginia, Brent arrived in Charleston in 2015 by way of Brussels, Belgium, where he was an Entertainment Operations Director for the United States Air Force Band program. In this role, Brent led the Operations for the SHAPE International Band as it toured 26 countries throughout Europe. His past experience also includes working as a stage manager and audio engineer for Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Disney on Ice. In addition to his management skills, Brent is a professional saxophonist who has performed with the NATO Jazz Orchestra and Rhythm in Blue jazz ensemble that performed for over 100,000 people annually. During his work with the Air Force, Brent performed with Arturo Sandoval, Kurt Elling, New York Voices, and ‘Toots’ Thielemans.
David W. Carter Jr.
Director of the Charleston Jazz Academy
A native of Charleston, SC, David holds a Bachelor of Music Education from the University of South Carolina and a Master of Music Education degree with a focus in Jazz Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi. Currently, David is pursuing a Ph.D. in Music Education with a focus in Jazz Studies also from the University of Southern Mississippi.
At the University of Southern Mississippi, David served as a graduate assistant for both the university bands and jazz bands. As a graduate assistant for the jazz bands, he worked with Director of Jazz Studies, Mr. Larry Panella, directing the Jazz Lab Band II, coaching various jazz combos, performing in both the Jazz Lab I and the USM Jazz Sextet, and lecturing for jazz improvisation classes. His duties for the university bands included working with the marching band, the “Pride of Mississippi,” the concert ensembles, and guest lecturing for undergraduate conducting and music education classes.
David most recently served as Director of Bands and Fine Arts Department Chair at Cane Bay High School located in Summerville, South Carolina. As a recipient of the 2015 Teacher of the Year, his duties included serving as the Chair for the Teacher Recruitment, Retention, and Morale Committee for Berkeley County School District. Under his direction, his students and bands have earned numerous Superior ratings at various competitions and festivals. Carter also travels throughout the southeastern United States as an active jazz, contemporary, and classical musician and clinician.
Mr. Carter’s professional affiliations include the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), The South Carolina Band Directors Association (SCBDA), Kappa Kappa Psi National Honorary Band Fraternity, and Phi Beta Mu. In his free time, he enjoys playing with his puppies—Miles, Ella, and Charlie, salsa dancing, and walking around Downtown Charleston!
Board of Directors
MATT PARDIECK, Chairman; Vice President, Harbour Wealth Management
STEVE SIMON, Vice President; Realtor, Marshal Walker Real Estate
CLAY GRAYSON, Treasurer; Attorney, Grayson Thomas
HERB FRAZIER, Secretary; Author, Marketing Manager, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
CRAIG ASCUE, Owner, Ascue’s Paint and Body Shop
KAREN CHANDLER, Ph.D. Director, Arts Management Program, College of Charleston, Co-Founder of the Charleston Jazz Initiative
SUSAN DUNN, Chair Emeritus; Legal Director, ACLU
ROBERT LEWIS, Artistic Director; Director of Jazz Studies, College of Charleston
RONALD D. MCCRAY, Chairman, Career Education Corporation
JON OLSON, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, Blackbaud
DEAN SMITH, Managing Director, Stonehenge Financial Partners
VICTOR WEINSTEIN, MD, Chairman, OB/GYN Department, Roper St. Francis Hospital
RON WILTROUT, Percussionist and Founder of the New Music Collective
SCOTT WATSON, Director, City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs