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Go Explore: Get Jazzy in Cheraw, S.C.

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Though small, picturesque Cheraw, South Carolina had an oversized impact on the world of jazz. Jazz great John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie was born here in 1917 and the town celebrates his legacy annually by hosting the South Carolina Jazz Festival.  

This year the festival takes place Oct. 20-22 and celebrates what would have been Dizzy’s 100th birthday. Dizzy was known as an innovative trumpet performer and his unpredictable sense of humor earned him his nickname. He is often credited as a founder of modern jazz and performed at the White House for eight presidents. Dizzy also liked to trumpet where he was from when he got on stage: “I’m Dizzy Gillespie from Chee-raw, South Carolina!” 

Honoring Their Legend

As proud as Dizzy was of his hometown, the residents there are still even more proud of his accomplishments and legacy. This annual festival is simply an extension of the town’s year-round devotion, which is easily seen through its many monuments and other Dizzy tributes. If you look closely at the fence around the Dizzy Gillespie Homesite Park you may notice that the musical notes actually make up Dizzy’s original composition “Salt Peanuts,” now a jazz standard.

The festival is hosted at sites throughout the town and weekend events include a birthday celebration, kids’ art activities, a bebop parade, and a Madonnari-southern style chalk art competition. Most events are free, but there will be two ticketed headliner performances at the Theatre on the Green. Friday night’s performance features New Orleans trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis. The Delfeayo Marsalis Quartet will play as part of their The Last Southern Gentlemen Tour, which showcases original compositions as well as jazz standards. 

Saturday night’s performance is “An Evening of Celebrating Dizzy” and falls on what would have been his 100th birthday. The concert highlights regional trumpet players, including Mark Rapp. Rapp has performed with varied artists including Hootie and the Blowfish and Branford Marsalis, and was named one of the Top 25 Emerging Trumpeters by Downbeat Magazine. 

An outdoor jazz mass on Sunday is a uniquely Cheraw way to end the festival. Lindsay Bennett, executive director of the Cheraw Arts Commission, describes the service as an interdenominational affair that’s put on by all the local churches and led by the local ministerial association. “The jazz part comes in through the music,” she explains, “even hymns with a jazz flair! Community choir volunteers work for months preparing jazz songs for the event.”

Beyond the Music

Between musical events, exploring the rest of Cheraw is easy with the Historic Cheraw Cell Phone Tour. Pick up the free brochure (available at the chamber office and town hall) and make your way to more than 25 points on this self-guided tour. At each location, simply call the number provided there to hear about the site’s history. For more active adventures, visit Cheraw State Park where you can rent kayaks, hike and play golf. 

(Go Magazine Sept/Oct 2017)

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