All That Jazz

There's live jazz in St. Louis -- you just have to know where to look for it

A teenage Miles Davis sitting in with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie when Billy Eckstine's band played the Plantation Club. Davis, Clark Terry, Oliver Nelson and Jimmy Forrest playing St. Louis clubs with Eddie Randle's Blue Devils. Charlie Creath, Fate Marable and Dewey Jackson performing on riverboats based in St. Louis. John Hicks working at local clubs with Sonny Hamp and John Mixon, with Oliver Lake, Lester Bowie, J.D. Parran and other members of the Black Artists Group playing informal concerts in Forest Park and Laclede Town. Teenagers Ray and Tom Kennedy backing up touring musicians at afternoon jam sessions. Todd Williams, Jeremy Davenport, Chris Thomas and Peter Martin playing dances for their University City High School friends. Eric Person going to Jimmy Sherrod's home for jam sessions. Greg Osby playing in local funk bands. Russell Gunn and Greg Tardy hauling their instruments to Just Jazz, hoping for the chance to sit in on late sets with the headlining musicians.

All are St. Louis musicians who have gone on to achieve national recognition for their talents -- and, at one time, all were part of the local St. Louis jazz scene.

"St. Louis has a tremendous reputation for producing great jazz players, and that tradition goes back a long way, to the beginnings of the music," says Mark O'Shaughnessy, the man behind the revival of BB's Jazz, Blues & Soups, a downtown club with a strong commitment to booking local jazz on a weekly basis. "But finding a wide audience for local jazz isn't as easy as getting a crowd of people to pay to hear local rock bands, or even blues musicians. Jazz is different."

Local jazz fans will turn out in force when a nationally known performer comes through our area on tour, or they'll reminisce about the good old days in St. Louis. But talented local jazz musicians can find that attracting a crowd to a regular gig at a St. Louis club can be a hit-and-miss proposition. And though just about everyone's familiar with the Jazz at the Bistro series and spaces such as Washington University's Edison Theatre and the Sheldon Concert Hall -- venues that bring in nationally known jazz artists as part of their annual performing-arts series -- many local jazz fans might have a hard time directing an out-of-town friend to more than a handful of regular performances around town featuring local jazz musicians. Is the local scene withering away for lack of places that feature jazz? Or are local jazz fans just not aware of the amount of live jazz that's actually available on a weekly basis?

Jazz gigs occur every night of the week; whether you know it or not, it's possible to hear good local jazz every night in St. Louis, although on certain evenings the choices might be very limited. But does that mean the St. Louis scene is healthy and, more important, vital? Or is the music simply clinging on for survival, providing jobs for musicians but not stretching any musical boundaries? A recent survey of venues featuring local jazz musicians indicates that the answer lies somewhere in between -- and that the question of whether local jazz is headed up or down often depends on the point of view of the musician, the club owner or the jazz fan.

Monday
Every Monday night you can catch a double bill of jazz at BB's Jazz, Blues & Soups, located just a couple of blocks south of Busch Stadium on the corner of Broadway and Cerre. The old brick building has housed several different music clubs over the years -- including a previous stint as BB's that featured performances by legends such as Betty Carter and Earl "Fatha" Hines. These days BB's features mostly blues, but on Mondays it's the place to be for fans of big-band jazz. The Sessions Jazz Band, led by trombonist Keith Ellis, has been playing regularly at BB's since it reopened in June 1996.

Last Monday, despite the $5 cover (many local jazz fans seem baffled by the cover), every seat was taken by 8 p.m., when the 16-piece band roared into a long opening set featuring a mix of familiar and obscure arrangements. The group included familiar musicians such as pianist Carolbeth True, drummer Kevin Gianino and bassist Dan Eubanks, as well as part-time players such as Steve Schankman, moonlighting from his leadership role at Contemporary Productions to blow in the horn section.

"Things started a little slowly when we first brought in the band, especially with the cover charge," says O'Shaughnessy. "But once the word got out that big-band music was a regular Monday feature, we've had a steady crowd. They come in to enjoy the Sessions Band and have dinner, and some of them stick around to hear Randy Holmes and his group when they come on at midnight. Then we fill up again when the restaurant and bar-service folks get off work, and they're here until Randy and his group stop at 2:30."

A few miles west, in the University City Loop, Webster University jazz-studies faculty member Rob Block plays guitar and leads his quintet through a loose but exciting set at the Delmar Restaurant and Lounge. The rest of the band features young musicians such as trumpeter Keyon Harrold and tenor-sax player Syd Rodway. The crowd is a little light this evening, and a lot of them are young musicians looking for a chance to sit in and perform during one of the later sets. According to Block, who's been playing in local clubs for more than a decade and has seen his share of changes in the local music scene, the number and quality of young musicians is encouraging. And although Block wishes more venues featured jazz, he thinks of it as a matter of cycles.

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