In October 2017, Dr. Robert Gardiner was playing at the South Carolina Jazz Festival when a nagging thought re-appeared: Why not create a professional, statewide jazz ensemble?
The idea had first occurred to him in the late 1980s - but over the next 30 years, through marriage, children, and both public school and college teaching, it always seemed too ambitious to attempt.
But the 2017 SC Jazz festival changed his mind because "it was just so much fun." So he told a musician friend, then a musician he didn't know, and then another …
And now, after a year of planning, assembling, and handling tons of details, Gardiner and 17 musicians from across South Carolina have just launched the SC Jazz Masterworks Ensemble - an 18-piece big band geared toward the study and play of Duke Ellington and other mid-20th century jazz greats.
"This ensemble is made up of some of the most outstanding jazz musicians, soloists and band leaders across the Carolinas," said Gardiner, now in his 16th year as Professor of Music at Lander. "Our goal is to present jazz concerts at the highest artistic level."
Gardiner chose 18 musicians for the ensemble because it is the standard instrumentation for a big band as it has evolved over the last 120 years. The jazz group features one vocalist, five saxophones, four trombones and trumpets, and a rhythm section consisting of guitar, piano, bass and drums.
"All the musicians enjoy performing in a large ensemble like this," said Bert Ligon, the group's pianist and composer, and professor of Jazz Studies at USC in Columbia. "There are moments when the band can have the intimacy of a trio and moments later the enormous sound of 18 people playing together."
That enormous sound had its first public launching with Art of the Big Band, held Oct. 20, 2018, at the South Carolina Jazz Festival in Cheraw.
Through next April, during its inaugural season, the Masterworks Ensemble is performing across South Carolina at several venues, including a November 17 concert with legendary jazz trombonist Wycliffe Gordon at the Newberry Opera House.
Patrons can then join the performers afterward at the After-Party and Jam Session with the Brendan Bull Jazz Trio hosted by Bar Figaro at 944 Main St. in Newberry.
When asked what inspired the ensemble's creation, Gardiner credits the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis as a heavy influence.
"I heard them last December at the Newberry Opera House and was blown away," he said. "The acoustics at that venue are ideal for an 18-piece big band, and the first thing I did was reach out to their executive director and book our two November concerts there."
If you're too pressed for time to see them this month, the new year will find the group back again at the Newberry Opera House on January 25, with jazz saxophonist Chris Potter for "Chris Potter Plays the Great American Songbook."
And their last seasonal date will be April 25, 2018, in "Carolina Shout!" at the Harbison Theater in Irmo. It's a lot to look forward to, but Gardiner hopes it's just the beginning.
"This is a labor of love - with a great deal of work but all enjoyable," he said. "And I want it to be something that will last for generations."
For a list of performances, go to www.scjazz.org.