All That Jazz

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

Dave Black, one of our area's best guitar players -- jazz or otherwise -- holds down a regular spot on Thursdays at Candicci's, out on Olive Boulevard in West County. And it's always worth cruising by the Delmar Restaurant and Lounge, because the place features jazz regularly. The owner of the Delmar, Doug Morgan, seems committed to jazz as the venue's primary musical focus, says Block.

"Doug was a former DJ, and in addition to being a jazz fan, he's also not one of those people who want jazz to just be background music," Block says. "I remember one night we were getting pretty far out there on some solos, and Doug was clapping and telling us, 'Yeah, that's what I want to hear!' As a musician, it's really encouraging to hear that. It gives you a feeling that what you're playing is important."

According to Mark O'Shaughnessy, club owners who love the music have always been around -- but sometimes they've been few and far between: "There have always been club owners throughout the years who were dedicated to the music, and even when they were losing money after bringing a top name act to town and then seeing more people playing onstage than sitting in the audience. I can remember the guys who ran the La Casa on Jefferson back in the '60s. They didn't make much money, but they loved the music. It's those type of enlightened operators that have helped keep jazz alive, even when times were tough. And I think that we're seeing more of those enlightened club owners these days -- people who are committed to the music and will stick with it to eventually build a solid audience for it at different venues."

Friday
When the weekend rolls around, the local jazz options increase. Guitarist Todd Mosby and his group have been playing regularly at the Delmar Lounge lately, and Mosby's guitar style moves easily from bop into Pat Metheny-like jazz/rock. Sherry Drake, a longtime favorite on the St. Louis scene, delivers her sophisticated vocal stylings on weekends at Lombardo's Trattoria, just west of Union Station.

On alternating weekends, when the Jazz at the Bistro Series isn't featuring national acts, vocalist Denise Thimes and the Carolbeth Trio have been playing at the Backstage Bistro -- Thimes on Fridays and the trio on Saturdays. The Bistro also supports the scene with an occasional special concert; this Wednesday pianist Reggie Thomas and his wife, vocalist Mardra Thomas, will perform to celebrate the release of their debut CD, Fade to Blue, on the local Max Jazz label.

Max Jazz, a label put together by local businessman and jazz fan Richard McDonnell, is dedicated to putting out CDs that highlight the talent of local musicians such as the Thomases. Previous releases on the label include recordings by brothers Ray and Tom Kennedy, pianist Dave Venn and the Brilliant Corners group, featuring Paul DeMarinis, Dave Black, Kevin Gianino and Dan Eubanks.

"There's so much fine jazz talent here in St. Louis," McDonnell says. "This label gives the musicians the chance to reach a wider audience, and it hopefully will help people realize that all the great jazz isn't played by musicians coming in on tour."

Keyon Harrold and his quartet perform this Friday, Dec. 11, at the Bistro. Harrold, a senior at McCluer High School, has already established a reputation by sitting in with such Bistro performers as Benny Golson, Christian McBride and others. And he made his performing debut with his new quartet last month at the Engineers Club on Lindell in a concert sponsored by the Crusaders for Jazz, a nonprofit organization. In addition to bringing back top local musicians who went on to make names for themselves on the national scene to perform -- artists like John Hicks, Russell Gunn, Eric Person and Greg Tardy -- the Crusaders for Jazz have taken a special interest in Harrold's development as a jazz musician, according to Richard Henderson, one of the group's founders.

"First of all, Keyon is blessed with a real talent as a horn player," he says. "And he also has the love for jazz and the determination necessary to raise his playing to a higher level. But most importantly, we want to showcase Keyon to help attract other young musicians to play jazz. When young people can see and hear someone their own age playing jazz, and doing it well, that's a real motivator for them. And even if they don't decide to play jazz, hopefully they'll be more open to jazz music and what it offers. We've got to make sure there's an audience in the future for the music, as well as musicians who want to play it."

Saturday
Spruill's, located at 1101 N. Jefferson, is the place to start any Saturday evening for dedicated jazz fans, although at first glance the exterior doesn't convey the warm atmosphere inside. The building is a converted Kroger supermarket, and most of it houses Spruill's International Catering Co. But the southwest portion of the building is a cozy lounge with a back bar, table seating for about 150 and a centrally located stage area. And that's where the Willie Akins Quartet has been performing at Spruill's every Saturday, from 5:30-8:30 p.m., since 1994, and the session has become an event -- especially for the African-American community. When I arrived a little before 7 p.m., the place was already packed with several generations of jazz fans -- from elder statesmen in fedoras passing judgment on every solo to young couples starting out their Saturday evening with the fiery sounds of Akins' sax and the smooth vocals of Erika Johnson.

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