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It's Sunday evening in the University City Loop, and, as usual, guitarist Dave Black is getting ready for his solo gig at Brandt's. Black sets up his small amp and microphone, then lays out his backup guitars within easy reach. Before he begins to play, Black carefully arranges a small display on a chair in front of him: a cardboard box featuring his latest CD, Alone & Together, and a price sign, accompanied by an empty beer pitcher. Black christens the pitcher, which serves as a cash register for CD sales and as a tip jar, with a couple of dollar bills of his own before sitting down to play.
Black's regular Sunday-night performances at Brandt's are part of a full weekly schedule that he has worked hard to construct over the past few years. On Tuesday nights, Black again plays at Brandt's, accompanied by saxophonist John Norment. Wednesdays find Black at the Feasting Fox at South Grand Boulevard and Meramec Street, performing another solo gig. On the weekends he's not working with the funk band Dangerous Kitchen or the jazz quartet Brilliant Corners, you can find Black sitting in with trumpeter Randy Holmes and his trio at Bobby's restaurant in Maplewood. And that doesn't count various private parties and freelance gigs that fill the gaps in Black's calendar -- or guest performances with musical friends including Beth Tuttle, Sandy Weltman and Henry Claude, along with a host of others working in a wide array of musical styles.
The Brandt's crowd is larger than usual this Sunday, thanks to a monthly poetry slam scheduled for later in the evening. Black begins to play, and after a couple of tunes he's managed to capture the attention of a good portion of the audience --- not an easy feat for any solo artist, especially one dealing with an audience filled with folks itching to perform their own material. On this night, Black mixes blues, classic Beatles and Stevie Wonder tunes, and standards like "Back Home in Indiana," which Black turns in a jazzy direction with some dazzling chord changes. It's a song that has special meaning for Black, who grew up in Indiana and only began to get into jazz more than 20 years later through that tune and other standards like it. "I was born up in northern Indiana," recalls Black, "up in that area of East Chicago where all the steel mills and factories are. My dad worked in a factory, so playing the guitar for a living wasn't exactly what he had in mind for me."
Black started his musical education on the accordion, but the attractions of the guitar were very strong in the late 1960s. By the time he was in junior high, Black had talked his parents into a Christmas present of an acoustic Sears Silvertone guitar. And he was soon playing in local garage bands, using a J.C. Penney Penncrest guitar.
"Everyone seemed to learn the same songs in those early bands -- 'Gloria,' 'Wipeout,' 'Louie, Louie' and 'In a Gadda Da Vida,' if you had a drummer," says Black. "Eventually I learned a few more chords by playing Chicago tunes. And I just kept playing guitar. That's all I wanted to do."
But jazz didn't capture Black's attention until he was in his early 20s. It happened in Danville, Ill., while he was working in a country band.
"I was in the house band at a Ramada Inn, and it was the height of the Urban Cowboy craze. So we played country, and the place had one of those bucking bulls. I met this piano player who actually lived in Indiana but used to come over to Danville as a featured musician on weekends. He tended to drink, and often he'd show up at my apartment late at night, banging on the door to come in and play my Farfisa keyboard. He'd play something and do some jazz changes on it and have me play it on guitar. And one of the tunes he used to play all the time was "Back Home in Indiana."
By this time, Black had dreams of applying to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston to hone his jazz-guitar skills. But in 1982 he ended up in St. Louis, where his then-wife had been accepted to grad school at St. Louis University. Black soon found himself working with guitarist Tom Hall in groups like the Barbeque Band and, later, the Illusions.
Black's fascination with jazz continued to grow, and he enrolled in Webster University's jazz-studies program, where his first teacher was guitarist Peter Mayer, who now works regularly with Jimmy Buffett in addition to recording and performing as a leader of his own projects.
"I had Peter my first year, and he was really a spark for me," says Black. "My other teachers later included Steve Schenkel and Paul DeMarinis. It was a great education, but I have to admit I probably wasn't the ideal student. I was working on my own so much and just trying to make a living playing music."
That living included a yearlong association with the late Richard "Groove" Holmes, performances with bands such as Polarity and the decision to go freelance in the early 1990s. In addition to working freelance in a variety of group situations, Black was also intrigued with working as a solo performer.
"I used to come into places and hear these solo piano players who could take a melody and twist it around and go wherever they wanted to with it," recalls Black. "I remember hearing Dave Venn play solo and modulate a tune and take it through different keys. I was really jealous. I wanted that absolute freedom."
Black started playing solo several years ago at the South Side Diner, volunteering to play for tips just so he could list the gig on his résumé. That weekly performance soon started drawing customers, and Black used it to seek out other regular jobs. The increased exposure also helped Black in another area -- the RFT Slammie Awards. Black was named Best Acoustic Guitarist in 1996, 1997 and 2000, and Best Solo Artist in 1996 as well.
"I don't look at myself as the best," says Black. "There are really phenomenal players everywhere. Just here in St. Louis, you've got Tom Byrne, Rob Block, Vince Varvel, John McClellan, Kurt Hanser, Peter Clemens and a lot of others. But, hey, I have to admit I use those awards in my bio."
Booking yourself as a solo act and as a freelance musician can be a time-consuming, wearying business. That's why Black is appreciative of his membership in Dangerous Kitchen, a group led by bassist Dan Rubright, who also works with Black in Brilliant Corners.
"It's been great for me," Black says. "I love being a sideman for a change and just showing up and playing. Plus, I know everyone in the band, and they're all great musicians. It's a camaraderie I really need."
Rubright says Black brings more than talent to a band -- he brings a philosophy of musical expression that affects the entire group. "When I first played with Dave in Brilliant Corners, I already knew about his excellent playing," says Rubright. "But what Dave also brought to the table was an approach that went beyond jazz to include folk, country and other styles. He helped me realize that everything in your experience should be used when you play, no matter what's going on around you stylistically."
On a Saturday night at the Broadway Oyster Bar, despite the lingering layer of snow and chilly temperatures, the place is packed with patrons eager to hear Dangerous Kitchen. The band -- jammed between the door and the bar -- lays down a funky groove on Dr. John's "Right Place, Wrong Time," and Black kicks the music higher with a guitar solo that starts out in the Big Easy, then soars through jazzy variations that never lose their soulful groove.
"I don't think of myself as a jazz guitarist," says Black. "I love all kinds of music. I guess it fits my personality, which tends to wander all over the place when I'm playing. Classifications are good for historical reference, but I'm not sure they serve you well when you're playing music."