True Believer

The many lives of local jazz legend Carolbeth True

Aug 1, 2001 at 4:00 am
The small, elevated stage at B.B.'s Jazz, Blues & Soups is buzzing with activity early Sunday evening as performers from the club's afternoon gospel brunch pack away their equipment and members of the Modern Vintage Jazz Quintet begin to set up for their regular 6:30-10:30 p.m. gig. After setting up her Kurzweil keyboard and checking the sound of her amp, Carolbeth True climbs down from the stage, heads for a table up front and sips from a tall glass of ice water. She chats briefly with horn player Randy Holmes, drummer Kevin Gianino and bassist Jim Gera about the upcoming set, then heads back to the stage -- and the 88 keys that never seem to be far from her fingertips. Playing as a quartet this evening because of sax player James Warfield's absence, the band rolls through swinging, satisfying versions of tunes such as "Lush Life" and "Line for Lyons." True turns in one polished, vibrant solo after another. When True's not soloing, her keyboard work nicely augments the supple groove laid down by the rhythm section.

It's an impressive performance, but it's just one aspect of True's musical personality. In addition to this weekly gig, True also plays Monday nights at B.B.'s with the Sessions Big Band, backs vocalist Sherri Drake every Saturday evening at Lombardo's in the Drury Inn at Union Station, sits in with Holmes' trio at Bobby's in Maplewood on Fridays and leads her own trio. She's recorded with Sandy Weltman on the eclectic album New World Harmonica Jazz, released a recording of her own trio and appeared on several other local releases. True is also part of the group that presents the educational program "The Jazz Story," now in its fifth season at the Sheldon Concert Hall. She's a member of the Webster Traditional Jazz Ensemble, a band dedicated to performing note for-note re-creations of classic jazz compositions. She plays solo at several churches in the area. As if all that wasn't enough, she manages to serve as a faculty member in the Webster University jazz-studies department and give private lessons.

"People can't believe I teach as much as I do, especially given my performance schedule," True says, taking a short break after a performance by the traditional Jazz Ensemble for students at the annual Webster jazz camp. "But I love teaching, and I also love performing. As a matter of fact, I wish there were more venues in town where you could play really solid jazz in nice configurations. It seems we're woefully lacking in places to play here -- but stacked with great players on all instruments."

For True, who was born in Baltimore but reared mainly in Milwaukee and Kansas City, the musician's life seemed inevitable. "My dad was in radio, so we moved around quite a bit," True explains. "And my mother was a professional musician who had a master's from the Juilliard School of Music in vocals and who also played the piano. So I was sort of born at the piano. Before I was 3, I was sitting at the piano, playing it. But it was more than just the influence of my mother. I really liked it and took to it immediately."

True was trained as a classical pianist and vocalist but also enjoyed playing the popular tunes of the day. Her love for jazz, however, wasn't automatic. In fact, it was only through the encouragement of her father that she began to explore the genre at all.

"I always knew I wanted to play music. In fact, I was very serious about my singing, and that was my primary focus" she recalls. "But my father thought I should also learn to improvise at the piano, so that's how I first began working at jazz. I played some solo piano at jobs around Kansas City as a teenager, and when I came to college in St. Louis at UMSL, I ended up starting a trio, and we toured around for several years. But even then I literally hadn't done my homework in jazz. I kind of slopped my way through it. It really wasn't until I joined the faculty here at Webster and was assigned to teach jazz improvisation that I really began to learn how to do it the right way."

Through teaching, True acquired a practical framework for the art of jazz improvisation for her students. In the process, she developed her own musical personality. "I had pianist role models like everyone else," True says. "My influences were Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and a musician who's not very well known named Don Shirley. He used to record with cello and bass, and, with my classical background, that was an approach that appealed to me. But part of learning to improvise is to develop your own voice in your instrument, and that eventually happened to me through teaching it. By short-cutting the process for others and making it less agonizing, I found my own improvising approach."

Lean, concise and swinging, based on a strong lyrical foundation, True's approach is versatile enough to work well in a variety of styles -- from jazz and classical to pop and funk. "Carolbeth is one of my heroes," says Steve Schenkel, a member of the Webster jazz-studies faculty and a fine guitarist in his own right. "She's comfortable in any style of jazz, from the earliest ragtime and stride styles to jazz-rock and free jazz. Then she can turn around and play any classical concerto ever written. She is simply one of the most complete musicians I have ever met."

Kevin Gianino, one of the area's top drummers and a member of Webster's jazz-studies faculty, emphasizes the leadership role True brings to any band. "With Carolbeth's playing, there's no question of where the tune is going or where the time is," he marvels. "She's very confident and clear about what she's playing. Sometimes you'll work with a pianist who knows what they're doing, but they're just not getting it across to anyone else in the band. But Carolbeth is always there; she communicates what she's doing, and she's always supportive of the other musicians. You always have faith in where she's going musically."

The concept of faith -- musical and spiritual -- seems to be at the core of True's approach to the piano. Through her steady involvement in musical performances at her own church, Concordia Lutheran in Kirkwood, and other area churches, True has found an outlet that supports her beliefs.

"Music and faith are so tied together for me," True says. "I just don't see any division between the way I express myself musically and my spirituality."