Leah Suárez in Hutson Alley near Charleston Music Hall, which hosts Charleston Jazz Orchestra concerts; photograph by Katie Fiedler
January 14, 2015
Written by Elizabeth Pandolfi
It’s nearly impossible to talk Holy City jazz without the name “Leah Suárez” bubbling up. After all, it was the Mexican-American jazz singer who spearheaded the January 2008 creation of Jazz Artists of Charleston (JAC). She has since served as executive director of the nonprofit, which houses the outstanding Charleston Jazz Orchestra. This month, Suárez and JAC are again breaking new ground with the first Charleston International Jazz Festival, which next Thursday through Sunday, January 22 to 25, will bring musicians together to celebrate the area’s rich musical history. Combine this with Suárez’s reenergized focus on her personal singing, and it’s easy to see why 2015 is shaping up to be a banner year. We caught up with her to get the scoop.
Holy City jazz: Charleston is a significant cradle of jazz. New Orleans is celebrated as the birthplace, but in the words of Jack McCray [the late JAC founding board member], “we’ve just been doing it longer.”
The Jazz Festival: We’ve invited our “jazz family” of locals and special guest artists to come together to celebrate Charleston’s unique contributions to jazz, America’s greatest export. The festival will kick off January 22 with free events followed by our second annual The Downbeat, which includes a ticketed concert and party.
Jazz Artists’ success: We are moving from a grassroots, passion-driven model of scarcity to a mature, progressive model of sustainability. We have built a listening audience. We have a committed and energized board of directors, staff, and volunteers. Musicians are working. Jazz is alive and well in Charleston. Our future is bright.
Exploring her heritage: My father was born in Mexico and my mother in South Carolina. I was raised in Charleston, and it is home. However, I have always felt a deep connection to a country, culture, and language I barely knew. This summer, I returned to Mexico for the first time in 28 years. Through my travels and seeking, I have just begun uncovering key parts of my identity.
On singing: It is like breathing for me. It’s a necessity. It is my freedom. It is also a gift and comes with a responsibility to share. It has been a way for me to grow, evolve, and find my own voice, in every sense of the word. Personal growth: I am in a season of rejuvenation and rebirth. This is one of the most intuitive, creative, joyful, and meaningful times in my life.
New recordings: I plan to record and release two full-length albums this year—one being my debut solo album and the other a duo album with pianist Gerald Gregory. They will be independent releases under my own company, De La Luz, LLC. The name is a part of my middle name and honors my grandmother, María de la Luz. It translates to “of the light” and is symbolic of this phase of rebirth in my journey.
The Charleston International Jazz Festival takes place January 22-25 at Charleston Music Hall, American Theater, and The Mezz. To learn more and purchase tickets, click here.
To read more interviews with local artists, click here.