As I write this blog I’m in St. Louis enjoying a welcome vacation with family and friends. No matter how often I come back to the city of my birth I’m reminded how this city, and my family, have planted my musical roots, and why coming back to a place of strong emotional ties strengthens my ever-expanding musical sensibilities. It mentally engages me as I relive moments of musical discovery, and it propels me to search for even more.
St. Louis has a proud heritage of providing the world with a host of entertainers –actors, singers, comedians and musicians like Vincent Price, Redd Foxx, Maya Angelou, Dick Gregory, Chuck Berry, Kevin Kline, Michael McDonald, John Goodman and many more – who achieved worldwide acclaim. And, a number of those have left their imprint on the Great American Songbook and jazz (not to mention St. Louis’s contribution to the blues, equally as important as any in America). When you open the door to the Gateway City it’s easy to see why music is and always has been an important piece of its fabric. Let’s look at snapshots of some of its musical greats.
Josephine Baker, sometimes referred to as “The Black Pearl,” would eventually leave the city of her birth for France, where her race proved no barrier. Baker was simply adored. Her influence on stage, in records and on film has been felt for generations. Playful yet powerful, undeniably sensual, she would lend her voice later in life to the American civil rights movement. “Sonny Boy” is a prime example of her dynamic presence, well worthy of a song indelibly associated with Al Jolson (who, in the custom of his day, had performed it in blackface).
Clark Terry, “Mumbles,” is one of jazz’s living legends. His legacy as a musical educator (he provided Mile Davis with a few lessons early on in his career) is as noteworthy as his performances as sideman in the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras, or fronting his own bands. Equally brilliant on trumpet and flugelhorn, with a slew of national and international honors, Terry was the first African-American hired as a musician in NBC’s staff orchestra. If interested you can find a splendid book on Terry entitled “Clark: The Autobiography of Clark Terry.” Yours truly had the great pleasure of narrating the audiobook, available at Amazon and Audible.com. (Now how could I resist mentioning that?)
Grant Green is a jazz guitarist whose name you may not be intimately familiar with, but who was important in the late 50’s through 70’s in the bebop and soul jazz movements. Proving himself a brilliant sideman with saxophonists Hank Mobley and Ike Quebec, the transition to lead man on his recordings was effortless. The Blue Note LP “Standards” is a great place to begin when exploring his discography.
Milt Buckner is one of the few musicians who can claim dominance on two instruments. As a pianist he’s said to have influenced Billy Shearing and Oscar Peterson. Milt was also a standout on the Hammond B-3 organ, providing the same unique technique he demonstrated on piano. Spending considerable time in Cab Calloway’s and Lionel Hampton’s bands, he led his own outfits for a few years as well.
Miles Davis, for the record, was born in Alton, Illinois, a short drive from St. Louis. A year after Davis’s birth the family moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, literally a stone’s throw from the Gateway City. I’m including Miles in this list, because…well, that’s what St. Louisans have done for years, unapologetically so, but with respect to his Illinois roots. After all, he left his imprint all over the St. Louis music scene. It might seem gratuitous to include Miles’s contributions to jazz at this point, but I will say that when I first began to really comprehend jazz and popular standards it was because of Miles Davis and the LP “Someday My Prince Will Come.”
Oliver Nelson, a brilliant saxophonist, arranger and conductor, marries sophistication and mystery into each of his compositions. They’re liable to leave you breathless. His arrangements are a gorgeous array of aural landscapes that leave you eager for each musical measure. His big break came when joining Louis Jordan’s big band (another fave rave of mine) in 1950. Nelson would later go on to release the jazz classic “Blues and the Abstract Truth” featuring the frequently covered “Stolen Moments,” and to compose music for film and television shows like Night Gallery and Columbo. Start with the previously mentioned LP and you can’t go wrong.
Well, it’s pretty easy to see how proud I am of the contributions St. Louis has made to entertainment, particularly in regard to music. The foundation of the career that I’ve spent in radio, in one form or another, was established here in this place. I remember my father taking me every week to one-stop record shops in the 60’s, bringing home the top 45 rpms of the day; my first big radio gig was in this town; even now as I write this blog, my mother is humming along to whatever song I may have coming from my computer, as she used to hum along to the records we played. I still love to comb through the stacks of LPs and CDs in the ever-vibrant independent music stores here, searching for gifts to bring to you on Sunday Morning Sunshine.
Every city has its own musical heritage; some, like St. Louis and New York, bring a treasure trove to the table of popular standards and jazz. No matter where you were born or live there’s a tradition of music to be found and it’s worth exploring. Music connects you to a place. It reminds you of who you were, and can help you create who you are and can be.