By Joseph Hess
By Joseph Hess
By Allison Babka
By Gina Tron
By Kelsey McClure
By Roy Kasten
By RFT Staff
By Oakland L. Childers
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.
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.
"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.)
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."
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."
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.
"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.