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Big-T & the Bada-Bings

Good Swing Comes to Those Who Wait
By Frankie Hagan

Photo © America's Cuisine
The South Carolina coast means just one thing to those in the swing scene: Shag. And where there is shag there is an absence of Lindy Hop and Jitterbug. It’s a cultural thing, and no one gets more distressed about it than dancers and musicians who appreciate the jumping sounds of big band. One might think that given the history of swing, and the fact that it draws from elements of the Charleston, the music would never be absent from the local landscape. But until recently, the song selection veered toward Motown, Oldies, and Bubble Gum Beach tunes. Happily enough, however, the city of Charleston now has its own place in which to enjoy the big band sound on a regular basis at Bennett’s on the Market.

Market Street has long been known as the commercial center of the city of Charleston. It is a sprawl of gift shops, restaurants and nightclubs. As you stroll from where the old slave market connects with Meeting Street, you will hear the Dixie Land jazz sounds coming from the Mistral, walk under a hanging sign bearing the name Rhett Butler, bop past the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, and shortly find yourself at the entrance to Bennett’s. On a Friday night as the clock strikes ten, this high quality restaurant and bar becomes ground zero for the Charleston swing scene. You can try and get a table in front of the band, but until the kitchen stops serving you had better plan on ordering dinner. The space is a cavern of energy and people all hustling for a clear view of the stage—although that doesn’t stop some from congregating in the back room with the band. In fact, the lack of tables only seems to excite the situation.

Photo © Joe Clarke
The situation in question is the weekly performance of the Joe Clarke Big Band, the Friday night house band and local swing sensation that has built a steady following in Charleston over the years. The Joe Clarke Quartet, a smaller arrangement, has also found a steady audience between some odd Thursday and Saturday nights at Bennett’s. The Big Band is most often an eight-piece arrangement, but on the last Friday of every month, the full 17-piece band will play, bringing the fans out in droves.

The music selection is a clever distribution of standards, from "In the Mood" to "Fly Me to the Moon." The musicianship is strong, and there is plenty of toe-tapping with perennial crowd pleasers like "Jump Jive An’ Wail" or "Take the A Train." Joe Clarke’s great vocal strength lies in the ballads, and it is heavily evidenced in songs like "Summer Wind," "Night And Day," and even Billy Joel’s "New York State of Mind." The playlist drifts effortlessly from big band favorites to lounge classics and occasionally into the friendly waters of contemporary pop ballads.

Photo © Joe Clarke
Joe Clarke is not an overnight sensation. This talented vocalist and piano player is a graduate of the Citadel, who began his journey into the realm of the big band eight years ago when he started teaching at the College of Charleston. Clarke ran a big band at the college between 1993 and 1996, and followed his stint in higher learning with the assembly of his own quartet, eight-piece big band, and full 17-piece arrangement. He has played different venues over the years, but he is one of the first to admit there is something special about his current showcase. "Most restaurants and nightclubs seem to include space for a band and dancing as a last minute decision," says Clarke. "Bennett’s has made the best effort in the city to bring live music to the public. There was considerable forethought in the design of the stage and planning for live entertainment. Sure, we’ve been around for awhile, but this is great exposure."

Clarke’s wife, Chris, often joins his performances, adding zest to any familiar standard. Other stage companions have included musicians who have played with Ray Charles and the Manhattan Transfer, as well as local jazz musicians. There is always something to see, and the crowd is fast growing. Fans of ’30s and ’40s arrangements and old Sinatra tunes have never been happier.

Remarked a retired local businessman during a recent show, "I love seeing the young people dance, and I love the ambiance. It’s a great vibe. It’s a good thing."

Bennett's at the Market is located at 85 South Market Street in Charleston. For information and reservations, please call (843) 534-1234.

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