All That Jazz

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

"When I first started here almost five years ago, it definitely was a struggle to build up an audience," recalls Akins between sets. "But the management stuck with us, and gradually word of mouth built up the crowd. Still, it took almost three years before it got this crowded every week."

Akins, like Block (who's also a regular member of Akins' quartet), welcomes young musicians who want to sit in, but he also makes sure they can hold their own before they jump up onstage.

"This is a very knowledgeable jazz audience," explains Akins, "and while they'll give youngsters a chance and don't expect them to play like professionals, they also expect a certain level of quality for their cover charge. So I never ask young musicians to do more than they're capable of doing -- I let 'em play just enough to give them a taste of performing without feeling like they're in over their head."

After Akins' set ends at Spruill's, the Delmar Lounge is again a prime destination on Saturdays, where you can hear sax player John Norment leading his group on a weekly basis. Norment is one of the more adventurous players on the local scene, as his recent New Music Circle concert featuring instrumentation such as sitar and Third World percussion instruments demonstrated.

You can find jazz brunches on Sunday, featuring the Lee Hyde Sextet at the Adam's Mark and Dave Black at Brandt's in University City. But one of the best ways to enjoy jazz on a Sunday is to head for the Ritz-Carlton at 6 p.m. to catch a rotating menu of some of the best local jazz talent performing in the hotel's elegant Fireside Room. This Sunday, Dec. 13, Brilliant Corners plays, followed by guitarist Tom Byrne and his group on Dec. 20, and a special holiday performance by Tom Kennedy, Dave Weckl and Jay Oliver -- who have all gone on to make names for themselves on the national jazz scene.

In the end, the simple reality is that St. Louis has some key players, all talented, but, like the scene in every other musical genre, to achieve acclaim on a national level, these individuals must eventually move to New York or Chicago to cut their teeth in the big leagues. But that's always been the case: The local players who went on to international acclaim all had to move to those cities first. But that lifestyle's not for every musician, and, ultimately, St. Louis serves as a fantastic proving ground, but not without major hurdles.

Henderson thinks there need to be more venues in which to hear jazz. "We started the Crusaders for Jazz to hopefully get our own club started -- and make it a place where young musicians will feel welcome, and also a place where older musicians or artists from out of town can hold workshops. There used to be a lot of places -- especially on the North Side -- where I really had the chance to go and hear jazz every week and learn about the music, places like the Moose Lounge, Helen's Black Eagle, the MidTown and Ella's Lounge. And those places just aren't there any more. So we're setting up our own concerts, doing one every month at the Engineers Club."

Jazz percussionist Gary Sykes is more positive, citing the number of talented young musicians coming up, but he's realistic about the difficulty of making a living as a jazz musician in St. Louis. "There's definitely a lot of young talent here in St. Louis, but I think that this area has a long tradition of producing quality jazz musicians. But making a living playing jazz is tough. That's why I have a day job and play with the Black Repertory Company and gospel, blues and R&B groups. I have to support my family, and it's almost impossible to do it by playing only jazz. But when you find the right musicians to work with, the right place to play and an audience that appreciates the music, there's nothing else like it."

Morgan, owner of the Delmar Restaurant and Lounge, is working hard to make sure his venue is one that meets all those criteria.

"Jazz goes well with this room," he explains. "And with jazz, you can eat or drink while you're listening, or talk with friends, and it doesn't overpower everything. Besides, from my experience, I don't see people getting up and walking out when good jazz is being played. I enjoy jazz, so I'm committed to making it work for my place. And that's why I'm very picky about the bands I chose to play here. I want good musicians -- ones who are dedicated to what they're doing. And, in turn, I'm dedicated to the bands -- sticking with them until they can build an audience. I've seen it work with the Jon Thomas Quartet, a group that plays here on Sunday nights. Sundays used to be our slowest night, but now it's one of our best."

O'Shaughnessy agrees that presenting local jazz can work -- if all the elements are in place. "The talent's here, there are owners who love the music and there is an audience that wants to hear jazz. But the musicians and owners have to work together to present the music in the right way and spread the word to the audience. And people have to support jazz by coming out to hear it.

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