History Never Repeats

Local scientist/historian Dennis Owsley compiles a history of jazz, while Calexico talk about their new music.

Sep 20, 2006 at 4:00 am
The Science of Jazz

After interviewing dozens of musicians and spending countless hours scouring vintage newspapers, historical archives and other primary sources for his book City of Gabriels: A History of Jazz in St. Louis, 1895 - 1973, Dennis Owsley was still facing some ambiguities. There were anecdotes at odds with one another, dates that didn't match up and different accounts of events that simply couldn't be resolved.

So Owsley, a retired research chemist who hosts the Jazz Unlimited program Sunday nights on KWMU (90.7 FM), followed his scientific training and put all of it into the book.

"Part of the way I work is from a scientific perspective," he says. "If you've got competing pieces of data, you don't throw one out because you favor one over another."

Publisher Reedy Press refers to City of Gabriels as a "coffee table book," and it does feature many interesting photographs of people and places from 80 years of jazz in St. Louis. But it's also extensively footnoted and indexed in the manner of a scholarly text, and, ever the scientist, Owsley hopes his work will serve as a basis for future discussion and research.

As the first book-length treatment of its subject, City of Gabriels does debunk some familiar ideas; for example, the notion that jazz came up the Mississippi River on boats that featured a freewheeling, improvisational brand of music-making turns out to be mostly myth. Owsley found that while the riverboats may have served as transportation for musicians headed north, the bands that worked on them played dance music, pop songs of the day — and just about everything except jazz. ("They were cover bands!" he exclaims with a laugh.)

The book also takes a matter-of-fact look at how racial divisions in St. Louis have been reflected in the jazz community. "There are two parallel histories here — black and white," Owsley says. "They would intersect at times, but they're still separate."

A California native, Owsley began collecting jazz records and reading about the music's history while still a teenager. After college and graduate school, he moved to St. Louis in 1969 to take a job with Monsanto. At first the demands of career and family kept him from hearing much live music in his new hometown, but eventually he tuned in to radio shows hosted by the likes of Charlie Menees, Leo Chears and Spider Burks, and started discovering the St. Louis scene.

Striking up a friendship with Menees, Owsley began appearing as a guest lecturer on modern jazz for the DJ's classes on jazz history. He got into radio in the early 1980s, after Menees' move from KWMU to KMOX opened up a time slot for what would eventually become Jazz Unlimited.

The idea for City of Gabriels originated with a radio documentary series on St. Louis jazz history that Owsley produced in 1987. Funded by a grant from the Missouri Arts Council, he interviewed St. Louisans involved in the jazz scene here as far back as the 1920s and produced eighteen hours of broadcasts. He also realized that the interviews were a rich source of potential material for a book.

"That's what really made things alive to me," Owsley says. "Jazz history really always has been oral history. A lot of the stuff written down in the history books is myth, legend and political and racial agendas."

After retiring from Monsanto in 1996, Owsley taught some college chemistry classes and put together a 45-page, single-spaced outline of the book. He put some of his photos of jazz musicians online in 1999, leading to a connection with the Sheldon's Olivia Lahs-Gonzales and a photo exhibit at the galleries there. When the time came to look for a publisher, Owsley and the Sheldon organization found common cause in the notion of exploring St. Louis jazz history.

Eventually an anonymous donor stepped up to fund not only the research costs and publication of the book, but also an exhibit on St. Louis jazz history at the Sheldon Art Galleries and a concert, curated by Owsley, that will feature music associated with some of the most important jazz performers from the city.

The event on Friday, September 29, at the Sheldon Concert Hall (3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900) will feature members of the Webster University music faculty, plus guest stars including saxophonist Willie Akins, singer/pianist Jean Kittrell and singer Jeanne Trevor. They'll offer a sort of chronological audio tour of St. Louis jazz history, starting with ragtime pianist Tom Turpin and working forward in time to post-bop saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill. For more information, visit www.sheldonconcerthall.org.
— Dean C. Minderman

Garden of Eden

Joey Burns, singer and co-songwriter of Tucson, Arizona's Calexico, has a recording philosophy: "'Hey, what's that? Keep doing that! Don't stop!' — because if you stop, you'll forget what it was you were doing." Since 1996 Burns and drummer John Convertino have been pushing steadily out from the margins of the lo-fi art-rock world of Giant Sand and the Friends of Dean Martin (their former groups, and two that shaped their Southwestern tones and otherworldly eclecticism). Calexico's newest album, Garden Ruin, surges like a flash flood over the pair's mariachi and post-folkloric bridge-building. They haven't abandoned the desert; they've just made it bloom with new colors. With plentiful steel-string acoustics, straight back-beat drumming, recognizable rock structures, hints of political protest, an absence of instrumentals, the illustrations of comic artist James Jean, and an almost Love-esque orchestration of horns and strings, the band has reset its range and reconfigured its audience. "Musically and visually, we wanted to show there were changes happening," Burns says. "Sometimes you have to break away and mix it up. There was a tendency in the States where we were being limited, and so we wanted to do our best to shake things up. Europe was a little put off at first, but when they saw the live shows, they got it. In the States, where people maybe didn't get it, maybe because of the name or the image or the sound, they dismissed it, but on this record we opened up some ears." — Roy Kasten

8 p.m. Saturday, September 23. Mississippi Nights, 914 North First Street. $15. 314-421-3853.