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For George Sams of the Nu-Art Series, presenting jazz is more about culture than commerce. "The jazz composers series is about the handing down of musical traditions," says Sams, in reference to the current slate of Saturday-afternoon concerts at the Metropolitan Gallery, which continues through April 17.
"The Jazz Composers Series: Re-Arrangements & Nu-Compositions" features St. Louis musicians performing their own original music and that of a famous jazz composer, an idea devised by Sams both to promote the work of local players and to encourage their creativity. "The economy is bad right now, especially for musicians," notes Sams, and when musicians are unable to find sufficient work, innovation is stifled. "You go around, and you hear guys, and they're kind of stuck right now. Nobody has time to rehearse anymore. They show up at the gig with these fake books, and there's not a lot of originality anymore."
Sams selected the musicians for the series, pairing them with specific composers based on his assessments of their abilities and inclinations but without regard to specific instruments. So, for example, while saxophonist Chad Evans played music composed by bebop progenitor and fellow saxophonist Charlie Parker one week, this week finds guitarist Chris Burchett interpreting the music of pianist Thelonious Monk. Sams tapped drummer Jerome "Scrooge" Harris to perform the music of Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter at the end of March because "Scrooge is related to Miles Davis — he came up under Miles' banner, listening to people like Miles firsthand."
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A trumpet player himself, Sams grew up steeped in St. Louis' musical traditions. As a student at Sumner and Beaumont high schools, he played in the American Woodmen Drum and Bugle Corps with drummer Charles "Bobo" Shaw, later a mainstay of the Black Artists' Group, and gigged with local blues bands. Sams was "best friends" with hard-bop trumpeter David Hines and hung out with other creatively inclined musicians such as Oliver Lake and Lester Bowie, who "taught me that music is serious fun," he says. Leaving St. Louis at age nineteen, he wound up in San Francisco, where he taught music and co-founded the quartet United Front, which had some success in both the U.S. and Europe in the late '70s and early '80s.
After a stint in New York City, Sams returned to St. Louis in 1988 and took a job as grants administrator for the Regional Arts Commission. Since then, he's done more teaching and has consulted on jazz programming with organizations ranging from the Missouri Botanical Garden to the National Endowment for the Arts. After presenting jazz concerts in several locations on an ad hoc basis, he incorporated the Nu-Art Series as a not-for-profit organization in 1996 and, with the help of business partner Giuseppe Pirone, set up shop at the Metropolitan Gallery in 2005.
"I have had my hands in production for a long, long time, and I can honestly say I've never lost money, 'cause I don't go into it to make money," he says. "You go into it to provide people with information."