By Christian Schaeffer
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By Joseph Hess
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"It's better these days, in a sense," he says, "just because of the number of good young musicians that are coming out of jazz-education programs. At Webster, we have a regular Monday-night series of concerts that features local musicians, and that also gives our students a chance to play in front of an audience. But there really need to be more venues around town that feature jazz and that provide opportunities for these young musicians to gain some practical experience. That's why you see so many musicians here tonight, looking for a chance to play."
Tuesdays are an off night for jazz in St. Louis. Your best bets are the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Clayton and the Adam's Mark Hotel downtown. Over in Illinois, a weekly jam session is held at the Stagger Inn in Edwardsville. Check the schedule of the Sheldon's Notes from Home Series, which presents a wide variety of local musicians every Tuesday. If it's the first or third Tuesday of the month, head to Michon's, near the University of Missouri-St. Louis on Florissant Road, to hear Black Shirt, a local trio (with an occasional vocalist) playing a mix of contemporary jazz and bop. And the Omni Majestic Hotel downtown (former site of the Just Jazz concert series) hosts the CBM Trio.
The Ritz-Carlton features pianist Dave Venn from 5:30-8 p.m., followed by two of St. Louis' elder statesmen of jazz, pianist Herb Drury and bassist Jerry Cherry; Venn also plays at the Ritz on Monday, and Drury and Cherry play Wednesday evenings as well. The elegance of the Ritz-Carlton's main lobby, as well as adjoining areas like the Fireside Room, presents an attractive setting for the jazz musicians who perform there. But when it comes down to it, this is a hotel, and for most guests and visitors the music isn't the main attraction; it's just a bonus in the background. Miles Davis could be playing and most wouldn't know the difference. Regardless, the musicians performing here are some of the best in the city, and the happy-hour and evening sessions can get very lively. Just don't expect everyone in the room to be into the music -- or to put a lid on their conversations so you can hear the sounds.
The Adam's Mark Hotel features the Hugh "Peanuts" Whalum Trio at Pierre's, an intimate, upscale lounge off the hotel's atrium. Whalum's trio also includes Rob Block. It's been a regular gig for him and Whalum for several years, and Block understands that the trio is there to entertain hotel guests rather than lead them into a deeper appreciation of the wonders of jazz. "Peanuts is a great sax player," says Block, "and that's where he really made his name as a jazz musician, but at the Adam's Mark he plays piano," says Block. "Playing the piano is how he got the job, but even though the owner of the hotel encourages him to play the sax, he sticks to the piano, because he feels that's the best way to entertain the guests, and that's what they want to hear.
"I think about all the older blues musicians in St. Louis and the blues fans who have worked hard to make sure their musical contributions have been honored. And I don't see the same degree of commitment for some of the older jazz players here. For example, Charles Fox is one of the best pianists around, and he's sitting in his apartment on Olive, not really playing anywhere." (Note: Fox accompanied famed St. Louis trumpet player Clark Terry for many years and is generally acknowledged as one of St. Louis' finest jazz pianists.)
Pianist Ptah Williams' regular slot at Riddle's Penultimate Wine Bar, in the U. City Loop, holds plenty of interest every Wednesday night. He and his piano take up most of the small stage area in Riddle's front window -- but then again, the diminutive musician doesn't need much room to display his powerhouse technique at the keyboard. But his opening set doesn't start out at full throttle. Instead, Williams eases into things with some Latin-flavored rhythms, slowly building the insistent beat and gradually gaining the attention of the people at the bar and those seated in the booths closest to the stage.
Then, when he's managed to win over part of the crowd, Williams kicks the music into another gear, pounding out a percussive solo run that features quicksilver chordal runs up and down the keyboard alternated with stabbing, punctuated beats hammered out in the style of a two-fingered typist in overdrive. It's a mesmerizing show -- musically and visually -- and Williams earns some nice applause for his efforts. In addition to his regular Wednesday appearances at Riddle's, you can catch Williams' dynamic piano work at Turvey's on the Green on Saturdays beginning at 6:30 p.m.
If Tuesdays are the slowest jazz night of the week, Thursdays aren't far behind. Again, the Ritz-Carlton is a good destination. On alternate Thursdays the Eddie Fritz Trio and Scott Alberici Trio perform; Fritz also performs solo piano at the hotel on Wednesdays, and Fritz and Alberici each lead quartets on Fridays. (Alberici's features Reggie Thomas on Hammond B-3 organ, a real treat.)