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All That Jazz

Karen Chandler, arts management professor

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Arts management professor Karen Chandler might call Nashville, Tenn., home, but the Music City native keeps busy celebrating her adopted city's musical heritage.

In 2003, Chandler and a colleague started the Charleston Jazz Initiative, an attempt to document the history of Charleston's early-20th-century jazz musicians.

A majority of these musicians learned to play in the humble surroundings of the Jenkins Orphanage. Others were taught across town at the Avery Normal Institute – a private school for children from wealthier black families.

No matter how refined their training, musicians from both schools eventually moved north to play with jazz greats that included Duke Ellington, William "Count" Basie and John Coltrane. Bands from the Jenkins Orphanage even played for the presidential inaugurations of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

"How interesting is it that these two very different institutes trained such good musicians," says Chandler.

The Charleston Jazz Initiative has compiled more than 50 oral histories concerning the city's jazz heritage, and archived photos and manuscripts relating to the city's most important musicians.

During a recent sabbatical, Chandler conducted research at Rutgers University's Institute of Jazz and visited private collectors, acquiring more documents for the initiative's archives.

Some scholars believe that the beginnings of jazz can be found in the musical improvisations made by Charleston musicians at the turn of the 20th century.

"Our point is it wasn't just New Orleans," she says. "It wasn't just Louis Armstrong. Which is so cool, you know?"

Though the focus is on research, the Charleston Jazz Initiative holds frequent public events to showcase its collection. College students regularly intern for the initiative, and Chandler plans for the initiative to publish a book encapsulating its findings.

"I was surprised no one had done any research on this," she says of Charleston's jazz legacy. "It's not forgotten, it's just no one documented it."