Home from college, Charlton Singleton was working in a record store in Charleston, South Carolina in the mid-’90s when a friend of his from high school told him of two local musicians he absolutely had to meet, Quentin E. Baxter and Kevin Hamilton. A trumpeter and pianist, Singleton said okay but didn’t think much of it until the day two men came into the store and one of them excitedly started bringing up armloads of CDs to the counter.
“It dawned on me pretty quickly that these were the guys I needed to meet,” Singleton says with a laugh. “They were coming up to just ‘listen’ to the CDs; Kevin did all the talking at that first meeting. Later that night I saw them at a performance, and that is when Quentin and I spoke and hit it off. The more we talked, the more I was struck by the eerie similarities between us. Ninety percent of our experiences were the same! Within two hours, we determined we were brothers.”
Thus began a personal and professional connection that changed the lives of both Singleton and the charismatic Baxter, who was known as the gospel drummer in Charleston when they first met. All these years later, their kinship is stronger than ever, as reflected in the simultaneous release of their new solo albums, Singleton’s Crossroadsand Baxter’s Art Drives Jazz. Issued on Baxter’s BME label (Baxter Music Enterprises), both recordings are animated by Gullah, the roots sound of South Carolina’s Lowcountry—a sound their Grammy-winning band Ranky Tanky has modernized.
Crossroads features Baxter, tenor saxophonist Mark Sterbank, keyboardist Demetrius Doctor, and, on two tracks, former Branford Marsalis bassist Delbert Felix. The songs are all Singleton originals. The warmly reflective “Nett and Root” is a tribute to his parents, both teachers. “1000 Nights,” a peppery hard bop tune, was originally written for Skwzbxx (pronounced “Squeeze Box”), a ska/pop/funk band Singleton played in. “Gradual Lean,” the most lyrical song on the album, was written for the seminal Charleston jazz band of that name in which Singleton and Baxter played (but was never actually played by that unit).
The most recent compositions are “Man in Motion,” a heartfelt homage to the late Roy Hargrove (whose late-career versatility Singleton greatly admires) and the lovely mid-tempo ballad, “PS (Postscript),” written in 2021. Throughout, Singleton emulates his hero, Harry “Sweets” Edison, with his agile, light-of-hand style. He and Sterbank, he says, strive for the deep chemistry Edison had with Ben Webster—and, in a more modern sense, the chemistry between Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Davis and Wayne Shorter.
“It’s all about the overall sound,” says Singleton, whose other trumpet heroes include Clifford Brown, Clark Terry, and Dizzy Gillespie.
Charlton Singleton was born on January 7, 1971 in Charleston, South Carolina, and grew up in the close-knit town of Awendaw. He is the youngest of three children and 55 grandchildren. In addition to teaching, his father is an AME minister. His grandfather, a spiritual leader and stalwart member of the Greater Zion AME Church who was known to everyone as Big Daddy, would sit little Charlton on his knee and sing the “Jump Baby Jump” song to him. “Ask any one of my relatives that are close to my age or older if they remember that, and they will start singing it,” Singleton says.
He started taking private piano lessons at the age of three after he demonstrated an uncanny ability to pick out songs on the keys based on what he saw his brother and sister do during their piano lessons. Though groomed by his teachers to be a concert pianist, he was a multi-instrumentalist by the time he attended middle school, playing violin starting in fourth grade and trumpet starting in sixth.
“When I was 11, I was told by my music teacher that I was going to play trumpet, but I wanted to play drums,” he says. “Unfortunately, they had enough drummers already. When I asked about saxophone, they said they had enough students on that instrument. I was again told trumpet, which I still didn’t want to play. But my father came home one day with a trumpet case and told me I was going to do what the teacher said.”
As outstanding as he was on piano, Charlton decided during the transition from middle to high school that he wanted to be a band director. “The piano was just for fun,” he says. “I didn’t think of it as a career choice.” After his devoted piano teacher passed away during his junior year, “I settled into the trumpet.”
Singleton says that when he enrolled at the vaunted Berklee College of Music in Boston, “I knew nothing about jazz.” But actually, thanks to his father, whom he credits for “always looking ahead,” he had been amply prepared to play the music. “One night when I was in high school, there was a knock on my bedroom door. It was my father. He handed me this cassette, said ‘Listen to this,’ and walked away. The cassette had all this great music on it—Miles, Dizzy, Louis Armstrong. That music stayed with me, but I didn’t understand or attempt to play it.”
After one “fantastic” semester at Berklee, Singleton went back home to attend South Carolina State, still hoping to become a band director. The school’s music program exceeded his expectations. “It was the best musical training I ever had,” says Singleton, who acquired a Bachelor of Arts in Music Performance.
The “intangibles” South Carolina State offered were equally rewarding. Among them: the opportunity to accompany visiting artists Roscoe Lee Browne and Ruby Dee, both famed actors, on piano, meet members of the Count Basie Orchestra, and sit in the front row at a friend’s audition for Wynton Marsalis’s band. He was thrilled to meet Marsalis trombonist Wycliffe Gordon.
After striking up an instant friendship with Baxter, the two started playing duets together. “His playing reminded me of church,” says Singleton, longtime organist and choir director at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Charleston. With Hamilton and guitarist Clay Ross, they formed the Gradual Lean, a jazz band that was so popular in Charleston, the 2010 reunion of the original lineup—their first performance in a decade—was a major local event.
Singleton’s ascension as a jazz artist was preceded for four years by his stint with Skwzbxx, which plugged into a revival movement fueled by such groups as the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Reel Big Fish and also marked by the neo-swing of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Their albums included the memorably titled 1999 effort, Freak in My Candy.
In 2000, following the dissolution of Skwzbxx, the newly married Singleton was working at the post office when a teacher in the local school system helped get Singleton a job as an elementary school teacher. He quickly climbed the scholastic ladder. In 2002 he became the band director at the Charleston School of the Arts middle school, a post he held for five years. He founded the Charlton Singleton Orchestra, which in 2008 morphed into the 18-piece Charleston Jazz Orchestra, the resident big band of the city. He was its conductor and artistic director for 20 years. In 2015, he became artist in residence at the downtown Gaillard Center, stepping down in 2019, after which he headed up the Summer Youth Jazz Orchestra Camp as Artist in Residence Emeritus.
In 2011 and 2013, respectively, Singleton recorded his first albums under his own name, The New Dealand Soul Cavern. (The latter featured Baxter.) Those recordings were followed by a couple of contemporary jazz efforts, Delicate and Date Night.
Ranky Tanky, the name of which loosely translates as “Get funky,” was formed in 2016 at the instigation of Clay Ross. Growing up in Appalachia, the guitarist had been drawn to rhythms similar to the Gullah rhythms Baxter played. After he moved to New York and started attending music festivals in the U.S. and abroad, Ross was struck by the fact that while audiences were being exposed to other forms of roots music, no bands were performing contemporary Gullah.
Ranky Tanky started off with Ross as its singer, but his folk-rock voice fell short of what they were going after. The band found its sound with the addition of the powerful, wide-ranging Harleyville, SC singer Quiana Parler, who had made a splash on American Idol. Their 2017 debut album, Ranky Tanky, made it to number one on the Billboard jazz chart. Boosted by appearances on the Today Show and NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, the band became buzzworthy. Their sophomore effort, Good Time, won a Grammy for Best Regional Roots Album. It was, raved Pop Matters, “a beautiful piece of work that honors the Gullah culture while successfully updating it for the 21st century.”
“We updated Gullah, but in a respectful way,” says Singleton. “Our mission has always been to enlighten and educate folks about this music, about how important it is. Sometimes, people will say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that was Gullah.’ One of the rewards of playing this music is getting that kind of response.”
Singleton has enjoyed a rich and rewarding career outside of Ranky Tanky. An in-demand sideman, he has played with such greats as Fred Wesley, Cyrus Chestnut, Bobby McFerrin, and country star Darius Rucker. He led a big band that featured dream guest soloists Houston Person, Jimmy Heath, and Slide Hampton.
Throughout, informing people about and advocating for South Carolina’s rich music history—as a speaker and clinician as well as musician—has been one of his top priorities. “There are things about it that you don’t read in books,” says the trumpeter, who for his efforts was the recipient of a Governor’s Award, presented by the South Carolina Arts Commission. “I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface.” •
Charlton Singleton: Crossroads
Street Date: August 12, 2022