Alexandra Sinclair Is Bringing the Piano Back to St. Louis’ Bar Scene

In recent months, Alexandra Sinclair has manned the keys regularly with solo sets at Yaqui’s and the Dark Room in addition to her work backing up other St. Louis artists.
In recent months, Alexandra Sinclair has manned the keys regularly with solo sets at Yaqui’s and the Dark Room in addition to her work backing up other St. Louis artists. LISA DANKO

Not too long ago, Alexandra Sinclair led a fairly buttoned-down existence. Having studied music education in college, she spent a few years teaching at an elementary school in the Rockwood district. But when her moonlighting gig — singing backing vocals and playing organ with Al Holliday & the East Side Rhythm Band — had the chance to tour overseas, Sinclair decided to take a sabbatical from teaching.

Sinclair says that her rationale was still focused on her young wards: "I thought that I would do it now so I'll be a better teacher for my students later," she explains.

Plus, playing Hamburg, Amsterdam and many of the Netherlands' less-pronounceable cities wasn't a terrible way to spend the fall.

Like many local musicians, Sinclair still gives private lessons, including to many of her former elementary school students. Her mission, she says, is to demystify music as some higher-order concept and help ensure that parents of young children know how to incorporate rhythm and melody in their everyday routines.

"This helps make it more accessible to everyone, not just the people with talent," Sinclair says. "Talent is just an idea; everyone can and should participate in music."

Sinclair's own musical evolution followed a variety-filled path: The daughter of a musical-loving father, she began picking out tunes on the family piano as a toddler and began formal lessons at eight. High school turned her on to vocal jazz through choir class at Kirkwood High; by the time she went to college, she was gigging with a bar band and learning her way around the classic-rock fake book.

All of those experiences filter through Sinclair's current role, in which she occupies different positions as supporting player and solo act. She still plays and sings with the East Side Rhythm Band and sits in with rock-centric acts Grace Basement and Old Souls Revival; she even took the lead on Dr. John's "Qualified," on both keys and vocals, on a recent tribute to the late, great Night Tripper at the Broadway Oyster Bar. But the past few months have seen Sinclair helming solo gigs at Yaqui's on Cherokee and at the Dark Room's Sunday brunch set.

Sinclair's entree into the scene was largely through her work with Holliday: Both of them taught at the School of Rock (where Sinclair's first duty was to prep new singers for a Yes tribute — no small feat when you consider Jon Anderson's pipes). She joined up with Holliday's group as part of a trio of female vocalists, but when the band tackled a Joe Cocker covers set, she filled in on organ as well. From there, Sinclair has pulled double duty and helped fill out the sound of the band's soul-inspired arrangements.

"I love Stax, I love that era of music," she says of playing with Holliday. "That was Al for me — high energy, great music. I just love the catalog."

Playing the organ may seem analogous to playing piano — all those black-and-white keys look the same, after all — but corralling the many tones, harmonics and moods of the Hammond B3 takes a special kind of discipline.

"It's like a woodwind instrument; it's all tone-based," Sinclair says of the organ. "It's completely personal in the way that one person's settings and tones are completely different. I consider myself a piano player mainly, but I love playing organ. It's a completely different animal."

Sinclair sticks to the piano when she performs solo gigs, and though some of the settings where she plays may relegate her to "background music," she views the role of entertainer with intense pride.

"A lot of the people I look up to the most, as far as players and singers — James Booker, Donny Hathaway — a lot of these piano blues musicians start out in restaurants," she says. "That's their main gig. I'm very proud to have participated in that; I kind of pride myself on that 'pianist in the corner' role — I love that role."

Sinclair views these gigs at Yaqui's and the Dark Room as a chance to stretch out as a player and a singer; she mixes in traditional jazz, boogie-woogie, ragtime and soul standards in her sets. She regularly highlights our city's legends, from Scott Joplin to Hathaway, and Sinclair hopes to help make upright pianos a fixture once again in local establishments.

"I want to get the corner piano player back in town. The piano is such a key historical part of St. Louis, and it's kind of a dying art," Sinclair says. "In St. Louis, we're so lucky to be in a city where you can make a living as a musician, but we can push it a little further."

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