Support Local Journalism. Join Riverfront Times Press Club.

Friday, February 13, 2015

How Will We Tell the Complicated Story of the Blues in St. Louis?

Posted By on Fri, Feb 13, 2015 at 4:40 AM

Sarah Jane & the Blue Notes, performing at the Venice Cafe. - MIKE VANGEL
  • Mike Vangel
  • Sarah Jane & the Blue Notes, performing at the Venice Cafe.

It was a Friday night in St. Louis. People shuffled through the dark entryway and into the bar, where the warm glow of red and green and orange lights glinted off the microphone's shiny steel grille. A collage of paint, signs, posters, statues, charms, and other antique odds and ends coated the walls, like a swirling voodoo spell. The singer, wearing a floor-length velvet dress and feathers pinned in her hair, held the microphone stand, and welcomed the stragglers inside with twinkling eyes.

Behind her, the band struck up its first number, a hep swing tune. A full rhythm section -- bass, keys, guitar and drums -- backed her, while the sax, trombone and dual trumpets filled out the melody and harmonies.

Finally, she closed her eyes and sang with a sultry voice reminiscent of Billie Holiday.

See also: National Blues Museum Meets Fundraising Goal, Begins Construction on World-Class Blues Experience

As the band worked its way through ballads and jump blues, one minor detail belied the fact that this singer wasn't a contemporary of Lady Day: no cigarette smoke. By 2015, a few things had changed.

But you would hardly have known it at the Venice Cafe, where Sarah Jane and the Blue Notes debuted the group's sophomore album, Sarahnade En Bleu. The CD release party had to be there, according to Sarah Jane, because it "was one of the first bars to really believe in us."


And the support was tangible, as friends of the band and strangers alike crowded in to take in the spectacle. People young and old bounced to the rhythm of the drums, and skeletons danced in the air from their chains, as the Blue Notes swung through standards like "Hard-Hearted Hannah."

"This is something I've wanted to do since I was sixteen," Sarah Jane said later on that night, talking about how the group got started four years ago. The band has been entertaining St. Louis and touring the country ever since.

The group's songbook is filled with music from the interwar period (mid-1920s to roughly 1942), but what separates the Blue Notes from similar groups is the way that era's aesthetic permeates even its members' choice of clothes and instruments. For Sarah, the pursuit of this vintage vibe has grown into an entire lifestyle.

"I'm a historian," she said, adding, "I've been collecting since before I could drive." She has acquired a trove of art-deco artifacts, from clothes to home appliances. At some point you also have to wonder what compels a person to convert their home into a functioning Art Deco museum, complete with cabinetry from a drugstore and an old soda counter, as Sarah Jane has. She credits her fascination with the time period to a perceived style and elegance which, in her eyes, have been lost.

"Stuff before that period, like vacuum cleaners, were very ordinary-looking," she explained. "And then, during that period, the style of everything stepped up." Equal focus was applied to both form and function; beauty was built into the everyday.

While Sarah Jane is still out of the ordinary, she's hardly alone. Several other local bands, such as Miss Jubilee and the Humdingers, have made names for themselves performing swing and jump blues songs so old that they're more modern relics than "classics." That old timey influence has spread beyond St. Louis' boundaries, most notably through Pokey LaFarge, one of the city's more popular exports.

LaFarge and his band dress the part as well. - STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Steve Truesdell
  • LaFarge and his band dress the part as well.

The expanding interest in pre-war culture around St. Louis may be about to take off in a big way. Later this year, the National Blues Museum plans to open its doors to the public in its rehabbed space on Washington Avenue. On a recent trip to St. Louis, executives from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, who are advising the Blues Museum, had some simple advice for the River City: Get ready.

Continue to page two for more.

Tags: ,

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.

Read the Digital Print Issue

July 28, 2021

View more issues


Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

Best Things to Do In St. Louis

© 2021 Riverfront Times

Website powered by Foundation