The Ballad of Willie Akins

A jazzman who went looking for his dream in New York and found it in St. Louis

Jan 2, 2002 at 4:00 am
Willie looked at the mellophone for a long minute. A lousy bloated trumpet. He raised it to his lips and blew a high, protesting bleat, and Nathaniel grinned as if somebody had handed him cotton candy.

Willie was an only child, self-contained and polite. But he knew the mellophone was stupid.

On the other hand, Nathaniel was one of the few fourth-grade boys in north Webster Groves who didn't beat him up every day after school. Willie agreed to learn the mellophone with him. And when Nathaniel couldn't get the hang of it, Willie quit, too.

By summer, he missed it. Come fall, he cleared his throat and asked to try something else. "Willie, you just want to waste my time," boomed Walter Latham, a well-known local bass player who taught throughout north Webster's still-segregated black schools. Willie looked up until his eyes landed on Latham's shirt collar, craned back, met his eyes and begged them.

Sighing, Latham produced a tonette. It looked like a plastic toy, but it produced 12 distinct tones. Willie blew it every day, mimicking the Count Basie songs his dad listened to on the radio. He had an ear for tunes, heard them once and could play them by heart, improvise on top of them. Other kids gathered to listen, promising each other, "He's gonna be something."

Willie advanced so fast, Latham let him share another kid's E-flat alto clarinet so he could play in the middle-school band. Then he moved on to Douglas High, where rows and rows of glistening instruments poured out their notes in synchrony, blending into a sound as smooth and sweet as fudge. Willie watched the upperclassmen file into the band room, taller and heavier, relaxed in their new bodies. He looked down at his freshman schedule. Choir practice.

He cut choir every time, sneaking across the hall to read the sheet music for "Pomp and Circumstance." "Man, I don't want to sing," he told the student sent to retrieve him. Finally Latham relented: "You get your dad to buy you a saxophone, I'll put you in."

Willie had heard a hundred times how his dad had always wanted to play a musical instrument, how he'd finally gotten a guitar but his jealous little brother had smashed it against their bed. Counting on that unfulfilled dream, Willie waited until the rent was paid and his father had a fresh carton of Camels, and then he asked.

His father's eyes lit up right away. Next, Willie glanced sidelong at his mother, a devout Pentecostal who dragged him with her to church every Sunday. Her preacher drew a firm line between God's music and the devil's, and jazz was the devil's. But "band music" sounded OK to Betty Odetta Akins. So the next Saturday, Willies Sr. and Jr. went out to the Mel Bay store in Kirkwood and bought a gleaming alto saxophone on payments.

Within a year, Latham had formed a dance band on the strength of his new saxophonist, and they were getting so many gigs they had to turn half of them down. "Willie, if you're gonna play dance music, you need to get you a tenor saxophone," Latham announced one day. "Everybody likes tenor. Tenor sax and trumpet are common denominators here in St. Louis."

Willie knew all about trumpet -- he'd listened for hours to the mellow, straight-ahead playing St. Louis was famous for, and he'd heard Clark Terry and Miles Davis carry the sweet, clear "St. Louis sound" of the '40s to new heights. Dreaming of joining them, he switched immediately to tenor sax, and as soon as he turned 16, the owner of north Webster's Rainbow Club sneaked him in to play.

He ducked through the back door, trembling. North Webster was friendly, all black; nobody there who'd want to hurt him -- but play in front of all those people? He wished he was home in bed, wished he wasn't strapping on his saxophone and raising it to his lips and -- his nerves landed like a flock of geese. He blew every feeling he had through that reed, told stories he'd never dream of speaking out loud, made strangers feel different just by listening.

For Willie, jazz wasn't romance or fame, self-expression or wild escape. Jazz was solemn, exhilarating work, work that connected him to the world.

Could he make it his life?

Soon after that gig, Latham, keeping his voice casual, introduced Willie to local bandleader Eddie Randle, and when Eddie invited Willie to play regularly with his Blue Devils, that sealed it. Miles had played with them, before he left East St. Louis for New York.

Since his freshman year, Willie had ached to go to New York -- the way Miles had, and Clark, and Oliver Nelson, and saxophonist Jimmy Forrest, and just about every St. Louis jazz musician who was any good.

New York was where you proved it.

Willie graduated from Douglas High in May of 1957, and the next week, his father drove him to New York. The streets were louder than a jazz club, crazy with color and risk. Sidewalks glittered with ambition, and the buildings rose straight into the clouds. Willie stood on the sidewalk looking up, craning his neck to see the city that would be his new teacher.

He found a one-room apartment on 84th Street and called home to find out how to cook his mom's spaghetti. Days, he trudged through slush as a messenger boy; evenings, he practiced until a neighbor banged on the radiator. "There's guys here can play rings around the corner," he told his dad long-distance. "I heard this skinny little white guy last night, spittin' out notes like he was a machine."

"If you were here, you'd be working every night," countered Willie Sr., listing the new clubs opening in the DeBaliviere district and Gaslight Square. Jazz was hot in St. Louis, especially among educated white folk. Willie listened with the courtesy of indifference. He was in New York.

When he felt ready, he sought out Miles Davis. Wedging his way through the crowd with "excuse-me"s, he arrived before the sinewy god and announced breathlessly, "I'm from St. Louis." Miles looked at him as if to say, "So what?" and rasped a curt dismissal.

"Broke my little ego," Willie admitted later. Still, he stayed. He re-created John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk tunes from memory, playing around with timing and tone. He scraped together enough money for standing-room admission to the Village Vanguard and to Charlie "Bird" Parker's sanctuary, Birdland. On holidays, he treated himself to a restaurant dinner, then went home and practiced. Years went by, and even Willie, an island unto himself, grew lonely. One night, playing uptown in a Harlem hotel, he noticed a woman watching him with frank interest. He married her, then spent the next six years struggling to get along with this pretty brown-skinned stranger he called his wife.

"Cannonball called you," she remarked one evening. Willie froze. He'd heard Adderley was looking for a tenor saxophonist but felt nowhere near ready. "Cannonball called?" he repeated, stretching the words out so they'd last longer. But Adderley hadn't left his number, and he never called back.

By the time Willie and his wife divorced, he'd moved to the Bronx, and it, too, was crumbling. He kicked syringes away from his apartment entrance and counted the new drug houses. He'd watched other musicians shoot up on their breaks, and he'd seen more than a few die broke and shaky, with no control over their music or their brains. "You don't know what life is until you experience it," one guy had insisted, and Willie had started laughing: "Man, that's crazy. Somebody can tell me about that part."

He kept playing, and he kept to himself, figuring the others didn't want to be around somebody straight and sober. Besides, he was afraid of succumbing. Jazz, for the others, was a way of life, soaked in drugs and sex and a need to escape that Willie didn't understand. For him, music meant concentrating on every sound, not relaxing into chaos.

Back in north Webster, his parents, after years of renting, had bought a house. Willie read and reread their elated letters, remembering oak trees and orderly streets and neighbors you could talk to. But then another call came, from the famous drummer Roy Haynes. Did Willie want to sit in with him for a gig on Long Island? Other musicians flocked to listen to them, treating each performance like a clinic. Willie's name flew, and his phone rang. It was the spring of 1968, 11 years since he'd started at the outside of 100 concentric circles. Now, finally, he was getting close to the core of New York jazz.

The call came a month later. His dad was dying of lung cancer.

Willie packed and drove home, his saxophone case braced and cushioned in the back seat. He moved in with his mom, and after the funeral he started in on her list of home repairs, painting the exterior, building cabinets, fixing the plumbing. As payment, he made her promise to stop calling him Winkie and telling people how, even as a baby, he'd slept with one eye open. Being home chafed a little, and his New York dream already sounded hollow. But he did like the clean quiet, the ordered priorities. He found a job painting other people's houses and played his saxophone at night whenever he had the chance. All those new clubs his dad had talked about were closing. The Barrel, where Miles Davis had done some recording, was long gone. The club at Taylor and Delmar where Jimmy Forrest and Coleman Hawkins used to play was now a pawnshop. Peacock Alley, the black club with the best modern jazz, was closed, and Gaslight Square's cutting-edge entertainment had melted into jazzy white nostalgia. The civil-rights struggle raged everywhere, and St. Louis's white audiences were scared of race hatred, scared of getting mugged.

Before, when the blue laws folded St. Louis's sidewalks at midnight, anybody interested in "brothel music" had crossed the river. But now even East St. Louis was drying up, economically. Playing for $20 a night, Willie told a friend, "Look, man, we have to define this music to a point where we can make money so we can afford to pay our sidemen what they'd make playing blues." To make money, they had to pack the clubs, and that meant playing better than anyone ever had.

St. Louis players were lazy, Willie realized. They didn't flow into the next tune the way performers did in New York; instead, they stopped cold and dithered among themselves about what to play next, only to choose one of the same old fakebook tunes. He built his reputation on smooth showmanship, tight playing ("not a lot of raggedy in-between sound") and fresh music. He played around with "suss" -- suspension -- chords, learned how to give a vocalist plenty of room, polished the ballads everybody loved. Showed up on time for every gig, always sober, always focused. Learned new music by ear, picking out the chord changes. Found the best sidemen and exacted perfection.

Back in St. Louis, he became good enough for New York. But nobody knew it.

In 1973, Willie was painting houses by day and working midnight-4 a.m. at the Celebrity Room, a dim, smoky after-hours club in Brooklyn, Ill. One night, a radiant young woman walked through the audience, smiling at everybody she saw. Blue satin gown gathered in one hand, she made her way to the microphone to read her poetry. She was 20, Willie 35. When he maneuvered a chance to talk to her, she looked up, a glint of challenge in her wide brown eyes. "Can you play 'Cry Me a River'?"

"Yeah," he said, "I can play it." He walked back to the bandstand and played the old ballad through to the end. She looked up at a seamed, kindly face that reminded her of Bill Cosby's. She closed her eyes and heard John Coltrane. A few nights later, she let Willie see her home and asked him to play for her. "I'll wake your neighbors," he protested, but she didn't care.

The Akinses now have four grown children and a marriage that's a deep friendship. "I used to call Sandy morbid because she'd go to every funeral," chuckles Willie, "but she can sit down and write the sweetest poem you ever heard about the person who passed. She has a way of not just reading it but acting it out. I used to tell her she was too dramatic, and she'd say, 'Well, that's just who I am.'"

He learned to give her freedom; she taught him to have fun.

Willie thought of his wife every time he played "Pretty Eyes," now his theme song, at the Barbary Coast. It was a tiny all-black club on Lindell Boulevard, at the edge of the St. Louis University campus, and thanks to his quartet, the crowd grew thicker every week. Thinking back to the Village, Willie started wondering where all the college students were. Then they, too, started trickling in. One night, a white kid from the South Side, Chris Cheeks, walked up and said, "Willie, can I play with you?" He was only a junior in high school, but he sat down and played everything in Willie's book. "Wow, man, where you been?" asked Willie, thinking that in a few years, Cheeks could join his quartet.

But as soon as he graduated, Cheeks left for New York.

Talent streamed through Willie's quartet for the next decade. Trumpeter Keyon Harrold, now a protégé of Wynton Marsalis'. Drummers Kim Thompson ("a girl from West County -- you'll be hearing more about her") and Tommy Crane ("skinny little white kid, shook the house up"). Pianist Adam Maness ("stayed way down south in the boondocks, Festus or someplace -- how'd he hear jazz down there?"). One by one, they left for New York. "Come back," Willie urged, "so the youngsters coming up can have something to look forward to."

In 1990, Willie started playing regularly at Spruill's, a club on Stoddard Street just west of Jefferson Avenue. He was a headliner anytime St. Louis mustered a jazz festival, and he had a waiting list in Ladue for his neat-as-a-pin house painting. His life was molded and set. He still felt expectant, though; still wondered whether somehow, someday, fame would raise him on its shoulders and run with him. In 1997, he recorded a CD, Alima, using the name a Senegalese drummer had given his wife years before because it meant 'peace and love." Calls poured in from California and New Orleans: "Your record's doing great, Willie -- when you coming down?" But traveling cost money and publicity meant pushing, and the game of self-promotion interested Willie about as much as badminton and high tea. He just kept playing at Spruill's.

Last May, when jazz guitarist Russell Malone flew in from New York to play at Jazz at the Bistro, he brought Willie up on the stage. "I played with him at Spruill's a few weeks ago," Malone told the crowd. "He lives right here in St. Louis, and he's a treasure." The crowd rose obediently and gave Willie an ovation. He shrugged it off with a little smile and started playing.

Afterward, people crowded around Malone. "You stickin' around for a while?" a young fan asked.

"No, man, gotta get back to New York."

Asked to name a place where he likes to hang out, Willie goes blank. He spends his free time at home in his brown recliner, reading newspapers and listening to CNN. Finally he comes up with MoKaBe's Coffee House at Grand Boulevard and Arsenal Street, even though he hasn't drunk coffee since his New York road trips. "I don't miss nothin' that hurts me," he shrugs.

Willie's got no time for attitude or for people who want to take up his time talking nonsense. The dozens who adore him he classifies as acquaintances, insisting that he doesn't have close friends. "This," he says, pointing to the sax at his feet, "is my buddy."

He opens the case and pulls out his mouthpiece, custom-made in South St. Louis by Blaze Buchanan. "I used to love Otto Link's mouthpiece," he remembers, "because everybody in New York who played it was something. But Blaze said, 'Willie, try this.' And the more I got used to it, the more I loved it."

He's made his peace, in other words, with St. Louis. "Some musicians in New York don't think you can play quality," he observes. "But when Russell came to play with me, he enjoyed it so much he was amazed. 'Oh wow,' he said, 'we haven't played like this in a long time, even in New York.' Guys there are getting away from swingin', and swing's the basis of jazz."

Jazz musicians once talked about swing the way explorers hunted the source of the White Nile. "Relaxed intensity," they called it, the magic that happens when the players are together, each doing his own thing in perfect harmony. A way of feeling rhythm -- Lester Young's famous "TINkeTY boom," emphasizing the first and third beats, pushing the tune forward.

Willie brushes all the definitions aside. "The thing is to communicate with your audience the joy that you feel in doing what you're doing," he says. "You build to a climax, and when you get there, just leave it, let someone else go on. Young musicians think jazz is playing all night till you get boresome." Willie finds the extremes self-indulgent. He can't stand blues when it's "sloppy drunk" and maudlin, and he won't even play one of his wife's favorite tunes because he says it's too "showy," relies too heavily on flourishes and posturing.

"You have to be thinking clearly," he warns a minute later. "A guy would have two or three girlfriends in the club that night, he'd be duckin' and dodgin', his mind out there somewhere, and we'd say, 'Don't bring all that stuff on the bandstand. We want peace up here.'"

The title ballad on the Alima CD is one of the soft ones that won Sandy Akins' heart, but the opener is a high-spirited "Theme for Oliver," in honor of Oliver Nelson, the famous St. Louis composer and saxophonist Willie met when he was a teenager. In 1998, the Smithsonian Masterworks Jazz Orchestra honored Nelson with a concert shown on PBS -- yet many St. Louisans still don't know his name. Until this year's Miles Davis Festival, it's mainly been outsiders who've celebrated St. Louis's jazz heritage. The late Barbara Rose, who founded St. Louis's only nonprofit venue, Jazz at the Bistro, was a native Philadelphian. America's oldest independent jazz and blues label, Delmark, started here on Delmar in 1953 -- but now bills itself as "straight outta Chicago." St. Louis was jazz's first stop out of New Orleans, yet St. Louis has about one-tenth the number of listening venues as tiny Kansas City. Chicago and New Orleans have scores of jazz societies; St. Louis has one, the St. Louis Jazz Club, which by and large confines itself to Dixieland. "It's pretty white," Willie concedes politely. "The stuff they bring is mainly for their members. I guess that's what they like."

Willie doesn't get too exercised about St. Louis's strained relationship with jazz, but one of his admirers, KMOX-AM jazz host Don Wolff, can rant for hours. Wolff blames St. Louis' racial/geographic polarization, the way whiteness drained from the city and pooled in the suburbs while blackness clotted in the north and east. Jazz is mixed in Midtown and University City, he concedes, but outside that oasis, color maps the music and dictates its audience. Besides, the only consistent listening venues -- places people come to hear the music, not to eat, drink and gossip over a jazzy background -- are the pricey shows, usually by out-of-towners, at the Bistro and the Sheldon. And Willie's no-cover gig at Spruill's, on the north side of Midtown.

"Goes in cycles," Willie shrugs. "St. Louisans are starting to come out more. Some used to be scared. Some still are." He's obviously stopped worrying about it. "If you play at one club, you've played them all," he remarks. "The little club around the corner, the Bistro, the Ritz -- they're all the same. People are going there for one purpose: to drink and get drunk." He's resigned himself to whiskey fumes, too, because they pay for the music. When one of his friends played alongside Charlie Mingus at a sober coffeehouse in the Village, he made $7 a night.

Alcohol loosens the vibe, spikes the nightlife. Some jazz historians say it was alcohol that made the difference for jazz-rich Kansas City. "Even during Prohibition, Kansas City was a wide-open town; the alcohol flowed freely," points out Ben Cawthra, curator of the Missouri History Museum's Miles Davis exhibit. "Has St. Louis ever been a wide-open town?"

Others blame St. Louis' prudishness, dwelling on the music's held gaze and wanton freedom, its endless reinventions of gesture, the tension that builds to climax -- even the etymology of the name, traceable to "jism." Against the pressed lips of St. Louis's Jansenist French Catholics, uptight German Catholics and Southern fundamentalists, "jazz" didn't have a chance.

But Willie waves aside this sexual deconstruction, skirting the topic as fast as he can. "People like to say the sax is sexy and use it to sell toothpaste, but they do that with rock & roll, too," he says. "To me, jazz is our classical music. When I was coming up, I used to hear historians, mostly white, say that jazz musicians didn't know what they were doing; they just hit on a note. Well, a lot of things, during early years, black people didn't write down, whereas white people write a whole lot of stuff down. Some musicians, you had to be with them in order to learn what they were doing. I once told a student who kept asking what I was doing, 'Man, bring you a tape recorder.'

"What I do know is, people of all races can play jazz," he finishes. "In New York -- "

"Wink still talks about New York," his mother observes, blithely resurrecting the nickname. "I guess he just got his belly full of it."

Sandy Akins knows better. She says softly, "To me, that was success, for a man to step in and take care of his mom." She's never regretted his decision, but she still thinks he's as good as Coltrane. "Any day now," she tells herself, "he's going to make it."

Some think he's scared to make it, scared of the failure that dances behind success' back. Others say he took plenty of talent to New York but never had the drop-to-your-knees showmanship, the arrogance, charisma, drive and luck that raise talent to the next power.

Wolff sees Willie as a quiet man whose family was his priority yet whose sheer talent made him St. Louis's showcase performer, versatile and beloved, a powerful influence on the local scene: "I've watched youngsters emulate him and praise him and follow him. He could have been bigger, if he'd done the self-promoting. But that wasn't his personality, and New York wasn't his scene. He didn't live the life."

Gene Dobbs Bradford, executive director of Jazz at the Bistro, says he'd "put Willie up against any musician I've ever heard. He's a beautiful player. People all over the world, when they come into town, they want to go hear Willie. But to make it big, you have to really get out there and toot your horn, no pun intended."

Emmanuel Harrold, the young drummer in Willie's quartet, insists that "Willie came back to St. Louis too soon" -- but he's not criticizing. "New York cats, they're gonna play all the baddest stuff they can play, and it's just like, dang, end it! There's only a handful of gigs up there anyway -- why not stay home and have your own sound? My brother Keyon stays up there, he goes to the New School, and he always says, 'There's nobody like Willie up in New York.'"

Five 9- and 10-year-old boys wait outside the classroom at U. City's Nathaniel Hawthorne School, all early, all clutching saxophone cases. This is their second class with Mr. Akins, and Devrin Bradford is fumbling with his sax, trying to figure out what to do with a reed the size of a collar stay. "You put it on the mouthpiece," says Nathaniel Lee, skinny and bright as a light-bulb filament. "You know the ligature? Unscrew that and slide it right in."

Willie arrives, a rumpled brown corduroy jacket canceling out his hepcat black shirt and pants. The boys follow him into the classroom and stare, wordless, at the dark-gold patina of the sax he draws from its case. Theirs shine like gold foil.

"Lotta things we got to learn from the book before you even begin playing," Willie warns, but Devrin's already struggling with his mouthpiece. "Look at it now," says Willie. "Which side's bigger?" Devrin stares down at it, frozen. "You got two ends, this one and this one," says Willie. "Which is bigger? That's the one you put on. So you'll always know." He watches Devrin another minute, making sure, then gives pointers as the boys adjust their straps. Finally his patience breaks, but gently, the half-snap of a wet twig: "Now, we shouldn't take but a few minutes to put these on, OK, 'cause we don't have all day."

Back in the corner, Jonathan White asks to borrow some grease for his mouthpiece. Willie squints at him. "You just need that about once a month, you know." Jonathan nods and holds out his hand for the grease anyway, determined to get every advantage. While Willie lectures, Jonathan practices blowing, curling his bottom lip over his teeth and biting down on his index finger. He tries it on the sax and makes a blurt of sound, then covers his mouth with his hand. "I don't want you to play, I just want you to listen," Willie says, not even turning toward him. "You have to round your finger, give yourself room in here so you don't touch these notes. If you touch them, it changes the air."

Jonathan blows again, and Nathaniel exclaims, "He almost got it! He's trying to do what you did!" Willie nods and keeps going, but a minute later, he lets Jonathan try again. Then Devrin. "Don't get no sloppy habit of sittin' all down like this, son," says Willie. "It blocks your breathing."

Willie talks so urgently about air, the spirit and force of this music, that Nathaniel starts his turn with a big gasp, and then a blast. "Play softer," advises Willie. "Everybody always wants to play the saxophone as loud as they can."

"Yup," says Nathaniel. "That's the point. To annoy 'em."

Willie looks down fast at his saxophone, hiding a smile. "You gotta practice now," he reminds them, "'cause I'll know if you don't. I recommend that you practice an hour a day if you can."

"I practice more than that!" says Jonathan.

"That's good. But at least an hour. Thirty minutes is not good enough."

"Not for this class," agrees Jonathan solemnly. As they leave, he tosses back, "I'm gonna be a famous jazz player. I'm gonna tell everybody, 'This is my professor who taught me to play,' and once I get famous, I'm gonna mail you a million-dollar check."

Four days after Sept. 11, Willie Akins Jr. shows up at Spruill's for his regular Saturday-night gig. The room's half full, and people's faces look drained, eager. They're waiting for jazz's sweet catharsis.

Willie starts with his back to the crowd, blowing a few notes at guitarist Rob Block. In his herringbone jacket and khakis, Block looks like a young college history professor. He leans forward politely, as though straining to hear a friend's story through the noise of the crowd. Then Willie, his polyester slacks rising slightly over his Winnie-the-Pooh tummy, walks to the mike and starts playing.

Emmanuel Harrold, a young African-American in a silky red-orange shirt, joins in first, his movements graceful and loose. Willie repeats the brief melody, faster. Harrold's sticks fly, making the air itself visible. Block eases his way into the mix, and Willie embellishes one more layer, painting it on with his breath. Then he steps into the shadows and wipes his mouthpiece. Block leans the guitar's neck down almost to the floor and, bangs flapping, plays the hell out of her. When he stops for breath, Willem von Hombracht, a lanky bass player trained in the Netherlands, takes over, ponytail swinging, elbows jutting like grasshopper legs.

Without warning, Willie's back at the microphone. He bends toward the saxophone, ardent. His body turns with the drawn-out wails, holds still while his fingers weave cats' cradles above the keys. Then the old call-and-response pattern kicks in as the others answer him. Block's totally into it, feet pumping invisible pedals, torso rocking in the opposite of autism, every sense crackling into life. The pace builds, faster and faster, and an old man in the audience yells, "Yeah!"

They modulate, bring the tune down like a hot-air balloon. Without breaking, Willie faces the drummer and claps out a soft, intricate new rhythm. Long notes now, with all life's sadness in them, and -- just when hope is gone -- he brings it back with a quick ascent. Gives his slight smile at the applause, steps out of the amber pool of light coming off the varnished bass. A skinny brown-skinned man, sixtysomething in a black beret and goatee, strolls in front of the bandstand, calling to mind the Beat Generation, the Harlem Renaissance, the decades when jazz was the only language that mattered.

Willie starts the next piece dreamily, exhaling memories. People fall into private, bearable sadnesses, staying until he brings them around. By the end, everybody's smiling, wanting to clap but loath to interrupt the last reverberation.

Afterward, Willie can't even remember which tunes he called. "I was just playin'," he says, "like Bird."

Bird's land was New York, and then the world. Willie's is St. Louis. But playing shrinks the distance.