So much has been written and said about the grand (bordering on grandiose) new Gaillard Center that some may overlook that day-to-day centerpiece of the local music scene: the Charleston Music Hall.
Known chiefly as the home of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra (CJO), this acoustically rich auditorium strikes an admirable balance between openness and intimacy. It also showcases a wider variety and number of music performances than the Gaillard or the nearby Sottile Theatre, while expanding its purview into film, comedy and local musical acts.
Unlike the Gaillard, whose performance space is something of an acquired taste, the Hall wears no aesthetic pretensions.
There is something about the comfortable, no-frills ambience of the Hall that is simply more inviting than, say, the cavernous, self-consciously “arty” grandeur of the Gaillard. It tends to be easier on the pocketbook as well.
“The Charleston Music Hall is the most intimate and inviting large performance facility that we have in the Lowcountry,” says CJO maestro Charlton Singleton. “It has the ability to be just about anything for any event that you need. For the last eight and a half years I have called it home. I have also seen it turn into a hall for debates, dance companies, comedy and just about every other form of music. [Director] Charles Carmody Jr. has definitely put the Hall on the map and it has become a destination of many artists from all over the world.”
In the last two years alone, the Hall played host to such acts and musicians as Al Di Meola, Joan Baez, Dr. John, Arlo Guthrie, Melissa Etheridge, Pat Benatar, Gordon Lightfoot, Art Garfunkel, Leon Russell, the Indigo Girls, George Winston, Cindi Lauper, Peter Frampton, George Thorogood, Blues Traveler and the Soggy Bottom Boys, plus filmmaker John Waters, comics Dave Chappelle and Paula Poundstone, the Palmetto Bluegrass Festival, and movie events like the Telluride Film Festival Tour. All this in addition to classic movie screenings and a lecture by celebrated artist Jeff Koons. This is just a sampling.
Now one might say that some of these musical performers are “legends” on the downslope of their careers, representing nostalgia tours, and aren’t exactly on the cutting edge of new music. But that hardly matters. Neither is it always true; most have never stopped creating.
Even the Gothic Revival-style architecture of the Hall appeals. Designed by Edward C. Jones, it is among the older buildings in the area, constructed in 1849 – 50 and known originally as The Tower Depot, briefly a passenger station of the South Carolina Railroad. It was shuttered in 1853, revived as part of the Charleston Bagging Manufacturing Co. in 1878, then transformed into a mini-mall of offices and shops on the first floor, with storage on the second and a card room out back. Most of the original structure was reduced to rubble by the Great Quake of 1886, and during the Depression the surviving portions were closed down.
So it sat for six decades, until its rebirth in 1995 thanks to the Bennett-Hofford Co. (now Bennett Hospitality), which has overseen the Hall’s metamorphosis into its finest incarnation, a showcase for the arts.
Today, it’s my favorite place to hear civilized (non-earsplitting) music. Inside, it just feels genuine, uncluttered by embellishments that distract the eye as much as they add. I don’t mean to berate the Gaillard and its accoutrements, which I largely admire. But where some elements of its design evince a plastic opulence, the Hall simply embraces you and gets down to business. No tux or ball gown required.
Bill Thompson writes about the arts, film and books.