As fans of Ranky Tanky well know, drummer-producer-composer Quentin E. Baxter thrives on having one foot in tradition and the other in the future. The Grammy-winning ensemble, which he co-founded in South Carolina in 2016, takes an exuberant modern approach to Gullah, the music created by descendants of the South Carolina Lowcountry’s storied enslaved African community. “To my knowledge, it’s the very first secular representation of the culture globally speaking,” he says. “The rhythms are authentic to my growing up in church. However, not forsaking the spirituality and messages of transcendence represented in Gullah culture, we didn’t come together to be a gospel band.”
On Art Moves Jazz, Baxter’s long-awaited first recording under his own name, he applies Gullah rhythms to jazz classics, two by Thelonious Monk—including a fresh spin on “Off Minor”—and three by the great Jimmy Heath. And on the four-part title suite, his improvisations, as suggested by the title, were inspired by visual art—specifically the abstract landscapes of local artist John Duckworth, which were installed at FIG, a Charleston restaurant, when one of Baxter’s longstanding bands performed there.
“The more I was exposed to John’s work, the more I began visualizing what I wanted to express with my solos,” Baxter says. “I saw various components of my songs and solos come together in their own abstract way and played what I saw, while providing just enough melody to keep things in the form and enable the band to come back in.”
Baxter’s close-knit quintet, the members of which have been playing together for years, includes trumpeter Charlton Singleton, tenor saxophonist Mark Sterbank, pianist Demetrius Doctor, and bassist Rodney Jordan. Two of Heath’s indelible compositions, “For Minors Only” and “Resonant Emotions,” are accented by Ecuadorian conga player Gino Castillo’s Cuban-style percussion. And on the “Summer” portion of the suite, inspired by the four seasons, alto saxophonist Calvin Baxter, Baxter’s older brother, and organist Timothy Campbell bring the heat.
All the music, and all of the seasons, are lifted by the hand-clapping Gullah rhythms of Baxter’s youth, which everyone in his drum-happy family, under the influence of his mother, played in church. “The music brings back memories of the summer revivals I attended as a kid,” he says. “The stuff we played was swinging!”
Quentin E. Baxter was born on April 28, 1971, in Charleston, South Carolina. Everyone in his family, including all three brothers, played music. He played in public school bands from the third through the tenth grades, abiding by the standards laid down by both his teachers and his parents.
“My mother was adamant about us knowing what we were doing musically,” he says. “Playing by ear was not enough—we had to be able to read music. And my dad made sure we knew where all the different kinds of music and dance came from, what their roots were. “As a kid, breakdancing had become very popular. I remember Dad called us in to watch a TV special on swing dancing, where these couples would be flipping each other in the air, slipping and sliding, their shiny shoes tapping on the floor. It was wild. I realized there was a lot more to the music and dance than I knew about.”
“Later on, when my tastes leaned toward the Count Basie big band, my older brother Calvin turned me onto Charlie Parker and Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie. What they did was amazing. And then came funk—James Brown, Cameo, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. And drummers like Bernard Purdie, Harvey Mason, and Lenny White, who played all styles.” Over time, drummers who led bands including Art Blakey, Max Roach, and Art Taylor(whose recordings he binged on during his college years) had a big impact on him.
Even at a very early age, Quentin’s reputation preceded him. His school’s music director, who knew of his advanced drumming skills from having taught the two older brothers, made Quentin play flute. “He wanted me to start fresh on a new instrument,” says Baxter, who later switched to clarinet. But drums were his passion.
“I grew up into the music,” he says. “Aside from playing in church, there were mostly R&B clubs in town and only a few jazz venues, so I would listen to jazz albums as though I was attending a concert. My room became Blues Alley and the Blue Note.” For a time, he attended pharmacy school, with hopes of going into holistic pediatrics. But his ties to the music and his community proved too strong. He had a full slate of great mentors including Delbert Felix (whose bass playing with drummer Lewis Nash in Branford Marsalis’s band was an early model of rhythm section playing for him), alto saxophonist Oscar Rivers Jr. (“He taught me how to listen to music”), multi-instrumentalist Robert Ephraim (grade school music director), trombonist Teddy Adams (adopted Jazz Dad), andalto saxophonist Lonnie Hamilton III (“hired me for my first steady gig in town”).
Baxter transferred to the College of Charleston, where he acquired a Bachelor of Arts in Music Theory and Composition. During his time there, he played extensively with pianist Tommy Gill and bassist Kevin Hamilton. Later, Baxter joined horn player Charlton Singleton, guitarist Clay Ross, and [Kevin] Hamilton to form the Gradual Lean, a jazz quartet that achieved a high level of local popularity.
Baxter and Singleton, who served as conductor and artistic director of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra until 2018, have been friends since the day they first met in the record store where Singleton was working. “He asked me if I was Quentin Baxter,” says Baxter. “I was surprised he recognized me. He knew Kevin’s mom from playing organ at St. Patrick Catholic Church, one thing led to another, and we immediately started making music together. When we were roommates, we listened to music together day in and day out.”
Baxter plays on Singleton’s own excellent album, Crossroads, released simultaneously with Baxter’s debut on the drummer’s BME label. “Musically, Charlton is just so dependable,” Baxter says. “His tone, his musicality, his compositions—there’s always something special going on with him.”
After years apart, during which time Baxter toured extensively with award-winning vocalist/composer René Marie, the original members of the Gradual Lean teamed in 2016 with the powerful, wide-ranging Charleston singer Quiana Parler, who had made a splash on American Idol, to form Ranky Tanky. The push to start the Gullah-derived band, the name of which loosely translates as “Get funky,” came from the widely traveled Ross, who was surprised and disappointed that such historic roots music was largely unknown in other parts of the world.
Not that ethnomusicology ruled. “The music was so much fun to play,” says Baxter. “No one out there was doing what we were doing, and we really enjoyed that.”
Their 2017 debut album, Ranky Tanky, made it to number one on the Billboard jazz charts. 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 award 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.”
Baxter has had a busy and rewarding career outside of his bands as a sideman, producer, engineer, manager, presenter, and entrepreneur. Traveling up and down the East Coast and beyond, with Charleston as his base, he played with an expanding roster of great artists, in and out of jazz, including Ernest Ranglin, Marcus Roberts, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Meshell Ndegeocello, India.Arie, and Bobby Watson (whose tune, “Time Will Tell,” is featured on Art Moves Jazz). He collaborated with Marcus Amaker, Charleston’s first poet laureate and an electronic artist, on three recordings, The New Foundation (2015), Empath(2018), and Muscle Memory, the latter also released simultaneously on the BME label.
He has also enjoyed extended stints as percussionist for pianist Monty Alexander and legendary crooner Freddy Cole. “I played with Freddy for five years and knew him for 20,” says Baxter. “He was already in his eighties when I toured with him, but his ability to keep the energy level up while keeping the decibel level low was as amazing as ever.
“I learned so much from him. He never had a set list and never played the same set twice. He would play stuff you never heard of as well as standards you knew. It was a great challenge for me because I didn’t know a lot of the songs. But every night was an education. I was always taught that nothing should ever get in the way of the lyrics. Well, no one delivered them like Freddy.”
Baxter has done his full share of teaching himself. Until his resignation in 2019, he was Professor of Jazz Percussion at the College of Charleston for over 20 years. In 2012, he formed Baxter Music Enterprises (BME, LLC), which co-founded The Mezz, a since-closed jazz bar where he was artistic director and frequently performed with members of his quintet. He has produced concerts by such artists as Houston Person, Regina Carter, Christian Tamburr, John Chin, Monty Alexander, Joe Gransden, Chantale Gagne, Cecile McLorin Salvant & Sullivan Fortner, Chico Pinheiro, Kate McGarry, Carmen Bradford, Annie Sellick, Harry Allen, Ulysses Owens Jr., Rodney Jordan, Nicki Parrott, Louis Heriveaux, and Shana Tucker on the South Carolina beach resort of Kiawah Island, as well as virtual concerts. He received the 2017 South Carolina Governor’s Award for the Arts, the highest honor the state presents in the arts, and in 2017 was inducted into the Savannah Coastal Jazz Hall of Fame.
Currently, Baxter is involved in the creation of a complex in Charleston that will serve as a hub for music education, performance, and production. “In spite of everything we’ve all had to deal with the past few years, these are exciting times,” he says. “I’m honored to be in a position to be able to perform and present this music with such distinguished artists and to create learning opportunities for young people.” •
Quentin E. Baxter: Art Moves Jazz
Street Date: August 12, 2022