S.C. jazz great Skipp Pearson ‘created magic’

SC Jazz greats Skipp Pearson, Drink Small perform

Drink Small (a.k.a. The Blues Doctor) and Skipp Pearson (South Carolina's Ambassador of Jazz) perform for blues and jazz fans at the Crosspollination event at Le Cafe Jazz in Columbia on Sept. 7, 2014.
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Drink Small (a.k.a. The Blues Doctor) and Skipp Pearson (South Carolina's Ambassador of Jazz) perform for blues and jazz fans at the Crosspollination event at Le Cafe Jazz in Columbia on Sept. 7, 2014.

Richard Durlach found a special way to enjoy Skipp Pearson’s jazz – dancing to it.

Durlach and his longtime dance partner Breedlove spent 20 years enjoying the music of Pearson, South Carolina’s Ambassador of Jazz, who was fondly known as “Pops.”

Pearson, 79, died Monday after complications stemming from a longtime cancer battle. Funeral arrangements were not immediately available.

“I think he lived jazz music,” Durlach said.

Pearson, whose career spanned more than 50 years, shared the stage with many famous names of the music world, among them Otis Redding, Wynton Marsalis, Patti LaBelle, Miles Davis and Sam Cooke.

He also played for the famous – including President Barack Obama at a 2009 inaugural ball. That night “speaks to the fact that he was not only a Columbia icon but a South Carolina icon, and his influence reached much further than that,” said Durlach, one of many South Carolinians who heard Pearson play that night.

Thales Thomas “Skipp” Pearson was born Nov. 21, 1937, in Orangeburg. His musical journey began on the drums, but fearing getting “kicked out of my mama’s house,” he once said, he switched to the sax.

Pearson took private, 50-cent saxophone lessons as a sixth-grader. He was leading The Rhythm Artists, a five-piece orchestra, at 15. Enlisting in the Air Force at 19 didn’t cramp Pearson’s style, because he played everywhere he served.

He left the Air Force “four years and one day exactly” after enlisting, then spent time in New York and Washington before returning to South Carolina. He earned a music degree from Claflin College and was a music teacher and school band director in Bamberg and Clarendon counties for more than 20 years. He married and had a daughter.

Through it all, he played – and chose to do it in his home state, though he easily could have moved on to bigger stages elsewhere.

“His mission was so important, not just for South Carolina, but for the entire jazz community across the country,” said Shirley Martin, his longtime manager, who met him when he launched the Skipp Pearson Jazz Foundation. “It was never about him. It was about the music and those who wanted to play it and hear it.

“He would always say people needed a little jazz in their life.”

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin was among those mourning Pearson’s death Tuesday.

“Skipp Pearson was truly our Ambassador of Jazz,” Benjamin said. “He was an incredible artist and a gift to this community. His music and influence will be deeply missed. Sending our prayers and love to his family.”

Over the years, Pearson created education programs and other initiatives to encourage young musicians, and talked up jazz as good business for downtown Columbia-area establishments. Pearson himself played in many of those spots, among them Hunter-Gatherer on Main Street.

“He created magic there,” said Luther Battiste, a fan and friend who hosts a weekly jazz radio show and watched Pearson play nearly every Thursday for 17 years at Hunter-Gatherer. Battiste, who grew up in Pearson’s Orangeburg hometown, remembers his parents coming home from hearing Pearson and gushing about “how great he was.”

As part of his weekly Hunter-Gatherer performances – which Battiste said packed the restaurant with a crowd ranging from wedding parties to skateboarders – Pearson would host a “workshop” to mentor up-and-coming musicians.

“I think he’s done more to preserve jazz in South Carolina than any single person,” Battiste said.

Fellow jazz musician Mark Rapp met Pearson years ago, when Rapp was just learning about jazz. When Rapp returned to Columbia about five years ago, “Skipp WAS the jazz scene.”

Though the two bandleaders didn’t play much together, when they did, Rapp said Pearson always won the solo battles.

“I would start to play something complex and Skipp would come on right after me. He’d play one or two notes and ... I was immediately bowing down to him,” Rapp said.

“Skipp was always on the scene, supporting the music,” Rapp said.

Pearson received many honors. He was named Ambassador of Jazz Music by the South Carolina Senate and House and was awarded the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian honor.

Each week, Battiste signs off his jazz radio show by saying, “Jazz lives.”

“And because of Skipp Pearson,” he said, “jazz will continue to live in Columbia and South Carolina, because he’s South Carolina’s jazz treasure.”

Staff writers Susan Ardis and Dwaun Sellers contributed.