By Allison Babka
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Greg Osby says he may have first heard Willie Akins play the saxophone at the original incarnation of BB's Jazz, Blues & Soups, or it may have been another St. Louis jazz club of the '70s, such as the Moose Lounge, Regal Sports or the Upstream Lounge. One thing is certain, though — at first, Osby was too shy to approach the man who would become one of his musical mentors. "I would just go sit quietly. I didn't even dare announce that I played saxophone," Osby says. "I just wanted to absorb as much as I could."
Osby took what he learned from Akins and others when he left St. Louis to study at Howard University and Berklee College of Music, and over the last three decades, he has established a successful career in jazz as a saxophonist, bandleader, composer and, most recently, entrepreneur, with his own Inner Circle label. Now, Osby is returning to his hometown for a weeklong educational residency for Jazz St. Louis, culminating in shows on Friday, April 10, and Saturday, April 11, at Jazz at the Bistro.
Those performances, dubbed "St. Louis Shoes" after Osby's 2003 CD of the same name, will feature Osby, Akins and several student saxophonists recruited from local music programs, creating a multi-generational celebration of St. Louis' jazz tradition. Shoes features Osby's interpretations of historically significant songs such as "St. Louis Blues" and "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo," and the live shows will draw on some of the same material as well as Osby's own compositions for a mix of solo features, duets and ensemble pieces.
The idea of preserving the jazz tradition of knowledge passed from player to player is clearly important to Osby. "I'm a direct beneficiary of the relay system in terms of my education," he explains. "Willie definitely bestowed upon me some pedagogal gems, either directly or indirectly, when I was younger, and I feel obligated to do the same." The shows are also a way for Osby to pay tribute to Akins, whom he calls "unheralded in his own environment. It's time that he's acknowledged for his contributions and what he represents."
For Osby, Akins was "a sterling first example" who impressed with both his musicianship and his dignified, purposeful bearing. But Akins and others of his generation could also be tough on younger players who wanted to sit in. You had to be "prepared and respectful," Osby recalls, or "you could get your head chopped off."
Osby's residency will include a number of school performances with his quartet as well as workshops with bands at local schools and the students involved in the Jazz St. Louis All-Stars and JazzU programs. While he acknowledges that advances in jazz education have benefited today's young musicians, Osby believes that a little tough love from the teacher still has a place, too. "You're not helping somebody by telling a lie," he says. "I'm not a bully, but I'm not going to sugarcoat anything."