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Something old, something new

Matt White's approach for "Lowcountry" has him headed to Spoleto

Matt White conducts an ensemble

It seems fitting that the University of South Carolina’s Jazz Studies Program would get to start using a “new” space on campus — a renovated church more than 100 years old — under Matt White’s watch. It’s reminiscent of the way he approaches some of his own music.

White is an accomplished musician as well as an educator, performing and composing for artists as varied as Rihanna, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, Victor Wooten and the Czech Republic Arts Ministry. But he has also developed a real focus on learning about a region’s culture, peoples and history and how they influence music. 

White’s album Lowcountry, released in summer 2023, for example, “is meant to capture the idea of the musical culture of South Carolina,” he says. Lowcountry puts stories and histories from the Gullah Geechee community in the forefront over nine tracks featuring a 13-piece collective White leads that shares its name with the album.

His approach and the finished product garnered critical acclaim for White and his fellow musicians from the likes of Downbeat Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. Now it’s earned Lowcountry a co-headlining spot for Spoleto 2024. If you’re interested in seeing Lowcountry performed live, do not miss the Spoleto performance.

“This will likely be the only public performance of the project,” White says, “as I'll be staging it with 23 musicians, including Chris Potter, the St. Helena Island Singers, and a full string section.”

White knows this is a big opportunity, but not just for him or his career. For White, it’s still about the music and the history. “I’m trying to show the original versions of these things and also the contemporized versions of them,” White says.

While recently released, the seeds for Lowcountry were planted in 2012 when White accompanied Eric Crawford, who was then at Coastal Carolina University and is now an associate professor and the chair of music at Claflin University, to gather field recordings at a St. Helena Island, S.C., praise house.

“I remember sitting there in the corner covered in goosebumps as they stomped and shouted,” White says. “From that moment, I told Dr. Crawford that whatever he needed help with, I was down to help him.”

From there, White worked with the National Endowment for the Humanities on the free and equal project, examining reconstruction in South Carolina through polyculture in Beaufort and the Sea Islands. He also worked with the National Park Service and the National Archive to help preserve and archive Gullah stories and histories.

Things took a big turn in 2019. White won a Guggenheim Fellowship Award for musical composition. Before long, he was back on St. Helena, recording the voices now heard on Lowcountry.

People don’t realize how deep history is, like in their own backyard. Contextualizing that for everybody is really important.”

Jazz Studies Program Chair Matt White

White uses his experiences in the Lowcountry to teach his students as well. It’s the kind of thing that will help USC’s Jazz Studies Program stand out from other programs: “leaning into things that are to our advantage, like regionalism,” he says. 

“Being able to take students to learn more about the Gullah Geechee community and the roots of what jazz music is” can be appealing, as is his belief that engaging with the community is very important. “We do a lot of outreach,” he says, “which in turn prepares our students for careers by elevating their level of engagement and understanding of music at the state level.”

Students will be heavily involved in a new project of White’s called Songs of Protest. The goal of the project is to learn about Gullah spirituals that were used in the Civil Rights Movement — the old versions still sung in communities — and create contemporized versions of them with a modern band.

“We’ll be taking groups of students down to St. Helena to the Penn Center and to the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park [in Beaufort, S.C.] to learn the context of how important these regions were for the Civil Rights Movement,” White says.

Offering opportunities to dig deep, honor history and find influences on jazz music is an approach that ultimately will help the communities, musicians, students and even the Jazz Studies Program itself. “People don’t realize how deep history is, like in their own backyard,” White says. “Contextualizing that for everybody is really important.” Doing that through music, now, that’s a novel approach.

Find out more about Matt White, or learn more about Spoleto 2024 and the performance of Lowcountry.