The Ballad of Willie Akins

A jazzman who went looking for his dream in New York and found it in St. Louis

Willie looked at the mellophone for a long minute. A lousy bloated trumpet. He raised it to his lips and blew a high, protesting bleat, and Nathaniel grinned as if somebody had handed him cotton candy.

Willie was an only child, self-contained and polite. But he knew the mellophone was stupid.

On the other hand, Nathaniel was one of the few fourth-grade boys in north Webster Groves who didn't beat him up every day after school. Willie agreed to learn the mellophone with him. And when Nathaniel couldn't get the hang of it, Willie quit, too.

Jennifer Silverberg
Willie resists a showman's flourishes, but the regulars at Spruill's adore him.
Jennifer Silverberg
Willie resists a showman's flourishes, but the regulars at Spruill's adore him.

By summer, he missed it. Come fall, he cleared his throat and asked to try something else. "Willie, you just want to waste my time," boomed Walter Latham, a well-known local bass player who taught throughout north Webster's still-segregated black schools. Willie looked up until his eyes landed on Latham's shirt collar, craned back, met his eyes and begged them.

Sighing, Latham produced a tonette. It looked like a plastic toy, but it produced 12 distinct tones. Willie blew it every day, mimicking the Count Basie songs his dad listened to on the radio. He had an ear for tunes, heard them once and could play them by heart, improvise on top of them. Other kids gathered to listen, promising each other, "He's gonna be something."

Willie advanced so fast, Latham let him share another kid's E-flat alto clarinet so he could play in the middle-school band. Then he moved on to Douglas High, where rows and rows of glistening instruments poured out their notes in synchrony, blending into a sound as smooth and sweet as fudge. Willie watched the upperclassmen file into the band room, taller and heavier, relaxed in their new bodies. He looked down at his freshman schedule. Choir practice.

He cut choir every time, sneaking across the hall to read the sheet music for "Pomp and Circumstance." "Man, I don't want to sing," he told the student sent to retrieve him. Finally Latham relented: "You get your dad to buy you a saxophone, I'll put you in."

Willie had heard a hundred times how his dad had always wanted to play a musical instrument, how he'd finally gotten a guitar but his jealous little brother had smashed it against their bed. Counting on that unfulfilled dream, Willie waited until the rent was paid and his father had a fresh carton of Camels, and then he asked.

His father's eyes lit up right away. Next, Willie glanced sidelong at his mother, a devout Pentecostal who dragged him with her to church every Sunday. Her preacher drew a firm line between God's music and the devil's, and jazz was the devil's. But "band music" sounded OK to Betty Odetta Akins. So the next Saturday, Willies Sr. and Jr. went out to the Mel Bay store in Kirkwood and bought a gleaming alto saxophone on payments.

Within a year, Latham had formed a dance band on the strength of his new saxophonist, and they were getting so many gigs they had to turn half of them down. "Willie, if you're gonna play dance music, you need to get you a tenor saxophone," Latham announced one day. "Everybody likes tenor. Tenor sax and trumpet are common denominators here in St. Louis."

Willie knew all about trumpet -- he'd listened for hours to the mellow, straight-ahead playing St. Louis was famous for, and he'd heard Clark Terry and Miles Davis carry the sweet, clear "St. Louis sound" of the '40s to new heights. Dreaming of joining them, he switched immediately to tenor sax, and as soon as he turned 16, the owner of north Webster's Rainbow Club sneaked him in to play.

He ducked through the back door, trembling. North Webster was friendly, all black; nobody there who'd want to hurt him -- but play in front of all those people? He wished he was home in bed, wished he wasn't strapping on his saxophone and raising it to his lips and -- his nerves landed like a flock of geese. He blew every feeling he had through that reed, told stories he'd never dream of speaking out loud, made strangers feel different just by listening.

For Willie, jazz wasn't romance or fame, self-expression or wild escape. Jazz was solemn, exhilarating work, work that connected him to the world.

Could he make it his life?

Soon after that gig, Latham, keeping his voice casual, introduced Willie to local bandleader Eddie Randle, and when Eddie invited Willie to play regularly with his Blue Devils, that sealed it. Miles had played with them, before he left East St. Louis for New York.

Since his freshman year, Willie had ached to go to New York -- the way Miles had, and Clark, and Oliver Nelson, and saxophonist Jimmy Forrest, and just about every St. Louis jazz musician who was any good.

New York was where you proved it.

Willie graduated from Douglas High in May of 1957, and the next week, his father drove him to New York. The streets were louder than a jazz club, crazy with color and risk. Sidewalks glittered with ambition, and the buildings rose straight into the clouds. Willie stood on the sidewalk looking up, craning his neck to see the city that would be his new teacher.

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