Best Horn Player: Willie Akins

St. Louis has produced a bevy of fine sax players over the years, and you can hear plenty of good ones around town. Oliver Sain remains the dean of R&B saxophone. Freddie Washington and Paul DeMarinis are acknowledged masters on the local jazz scene, and John Norment keeps the avant-garde sax approach that stretches back to the days of the Black Artists Group alive and well. Young jazz players like James Warfield and Syd Rodway show plenty of promise as well.

But another fine jazz sax player in St. Louis is finally achieving long overdue recognition for his many years of work on the local music scene -- Willie Akins. Born in Webster Groves, Akins briefly moved away in his late teens to try his hand in New York City's highly competitive jazz scene. He ended up working with the likes of Roy Haynes, Jack McDuff and McCoy Tyner. But for the past three decades, Akins has called St. Louis home.

Akins is best known for the big, bold, straight-ahead tone he creates on tenor sax, but he's capable of layering plenty of subtle touches into his music as well. And although he doesn't play soprano sax nearly as often as he does his tenor, Akins is a master of that difficult instrument as well.

Over the years, Akins has kept his various groups going through times when many others would have thought seriously about giving up on jazz as a profession. As his longtime musical cohort, guitarist Rob Block, states, "There were plenty of nights when we played at places like the Barbary Coast when we outnumbered the audience on most sets."

But Akins kept playing, and over the years he's become one of the most respected jazz musicians in the city. For several years he headed up Sunday-night jam sessions -- first at Just Jazz at the Hotel Majestic and then at the Backstage Bistro.These days, he's found success with his regular Saturday-evening gig at Spruill's and recently settled into a weekly Wednesday performance routine at BB's Jazz, Blues & Soups. And even though he's working with his regular quartet, Akins always seems to find the right spots in his sets for young musicians to sit in and gain invaluable experience.

Recently Akins recorded his long-overdue debut recording as a leader, Alima. It's a fine showcase for Akins, but the best way to hear Akins perform is still live in a local club. In fact, Akins has stated that when he gets the chance to record again, he'd like to cut a live album -- preferably at Spruill's. So don't wait for the live CD -- catch Willie Akins live at Spruill's or BB's.

-- Terry Perkins

 
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