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Black Music Sunday: Looking back to Black musicians who blew their horns in St. Louis

It is only appropriate to open with the sound of Handy’s trumpet, which is the “St. Louis Blues.”

Matt Micucci, online editor for Jazz Iz, wrote: A Brief History of… ‘St. Louis Blues.’”

Handy had arrived in St. Louis, Missouri in the early 1900s and, according to Maureen O’Connor Kavanaugh, “slept on the cobblestones of the embankment until he found work as a musician.” The song was reportedly inspired by his chance encounter with a woman walking the streets of St. Louis, haunted by her husband’s absence, whining, “My husband has a heart like a rock cast into the sea.” Tom Morgan noted that Handy “draws inspiration from African-American words and music for many of his songs, so it’s not surprising that he started composing the theme for this woman’s anguish.”

Since its first appearance in 1914, “St. Louis Blues” has become one of the most well-known, celebrated and recorded jazz standards in history. Handy recorded his best version of the song in 1922 and three years later, in 1926, would Fats Waller playing it on a Victor Studio organ as his first-ever solo recording.In 1925, Bessie Smith, the greatest blues singer of the time, recorded a great version of “St. Louis Blues” alongside a young cornet star named Louis Armstrong, who set the jazz world on fire with his exciting improvisations.

Handy, while living in St. Louis for a while, was born in Alabama, and as such, he is not counted among the rich crop of St. Louis musicians.

The foremost authority on St. Louis musicians was a historian and broadcaster of St. Louis public radio Jazz Unlimited Dennis Owsley. He died in November 2021.

Owsley was the author of two seminal books on St. Louis jazz. The first, from 2006 City of Gabriels: The History of Jazz in St. Louis, 1895-1973, is sold out. Used copies are, of course, for sale, and it’s bound to be in your local library.

Owsley’s second book is 2019 St. Louis Jazz: A History. Jennifer Alexander rated for West End Word.

Owsley identifies several factors that changed the course of jazz in St. Louis. They include segregation, organized crime, riverboats, and changes in the recording industry and radio.

One of the myths Owsley is eager to debunk is the idea that jazz traveled on riverboats from New Orleans to St. Louis. He writes that the influence of riverboats on the development of jazz in St. Louis was mainly because musicians were hired to play on short riverboat excursions. Owsley reports that many musicians referred to the riverboats as “floating greenhouses,” where they honed their skills.

Throughout the book you’ll find anecdotes about jazz legends, including a story about a timid teenager Miles Davis who asks Clark Terry for advice on trumpet playing.

In this one hour podcast Jazz on the tube founder Ken McCarthy interviews Owsley on the jazz history of St. Louis, covering a wide variety of topics. He talks about the role of St. Louis in the development of trumpet playing, from the earliest music to the development of avant-garde free jazz.

Here is the playlistspanning more than a century!

1. Tom Turpin – St. Louis Rag (1903) – (00:00)
2. Charles Creath – Butterfinger Blues (1927) – (2:50)
3. Frank Trumbauer – Trumbology (1927) – (5:50)
4. Jimmy Forest – Night Train (1952) – (8:52)
5. Miles Davis – If I Were a Bell (1956) – (11:51)
6. Clark Terry – Undecided (1959) – (8:00 PM)
7. Grant Green – Idle Moments (1963) – (23:14)
8. Charles “Bobo” Shaw/Joseph Bowie/Luther Thomas – Sequence (1979) – (38:06)
9. Hamiet Bluiett – Oasis (1981) – (40:34)
10. Lester Bowie – I Only Have Eyes For You (1985) – (46:14)
11. John Hicks – After the Morning (1985) – (54:10)
12. Greg Osby – Please Stand By (2008) – (1:04:00)
13. Oliver Lake – Ghost (2010) – (1:12:12)
14. Human Arts Ensemble – Under the Sun (1976) – (1:18:29)

When I heard these men talk about this rich history, I realized that although I had listened to jazz trumpeter and flugelhorn player Clark Terry for years, I was not aware of the role he played in guiding younger musicians.

Here, Terry talks about Miles Davis’ mentorship, in an interview conducted by The National Visionary Leadership Project (NVLP).

And here’s a humorous reminder of Terry mentoring Quincy Joneswhose first arrangement was not well received by the Count Basie band.

Terry’s official biography reads like a “who’s who” of jazz:

Clark Terry’s career in jazz spanned over seventy years. He was a world-class trumpeter, flugelhorn player, educator, composer, writer, trumpet/flugelhorn designer, teacher and NEA Jazz Master. He has performed for eight U.S. presidents and was a jazz ambassador for State Department tours of the Middle East and Africa. More than fifty jazz festivals have played him at sea and on land in all seven continents. Many were named after him.

He was one of the most recorded musicians in jazz history, with more than nine hundred recordings. Clark’s discography reads like a “Who’s Who In Jazz”, with staff including such greats as Quincy Jones, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, Dinah Washington, Ben Webster, Aretha Franklin, Charlie Barnet, Doc Severinsen, Ray Charles, Billy Strayhorn, Dexter Gordon, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Gerry Mulligan, Sarah Vaughan, Coleman Hawkins, Zoot Sims, Milt Jackson, Bob Brookmeyer and Dianne Reeves.

Among his numerous recordings, he has appeared with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Count Basie Orchestra, Dutch Metropole Orchestra, Chicago Jazz Orchestra, Woody Herman Orchestra, Herbie Mann Orchestra, Jimmy Heath Orchestra, Donald Byrd Orchestra and many other large ensembles – high school and college ensembles, his own duos, trios, quartets, quintets, sextets, octets and two big bands – Clark Terry’s Big Bad Band and Clark Terry’s Young Titans of Jazz.

Terry made history in 1960 as the first full-time black staff musician hired by NBC Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. In the clip below—another one from Jazz on the tube – Terry explains how the Urban League played a role in his hiring; later they had two black musicians after renting Snooky Young. Terry explains how he prevented NBC from firing Young.

And here he is The Tonight Show, in an undated clip:

All that jazz vlogger Don Kaart put together this 12 minute recap of some of Terry’s best flugelhorn solos.

The UK’s National Jazz Archive offers an interview Terry did with Les Tomkins in 1975, where he describes the origins of “Mumbles” – a tune with the scatting that would become a trademark of Terry.

It came about this way: In my hometown, St. Louis, there were many places – dens of iniquity, you might call them, but really they were just places of refreshment, with sawdust on the floor, where a man would go and have a beer. There was an upright piano there, triple-laminated on top to withstand the weight of a few steins, and if you bought the pianist a beer, you could sing – no matter how good or how bad you sang, you would he play for you. And many times people would come forward, and they decided they were going to create some blues; they started singing about how they felt when they got up in the morning and so on. By the time they got halfway through the second or third measure, the lyrics were highly unintelligible; but no one cared – the feeling was there, the sawdust bounced about two feet from the floor from the foot tapping, and the earlobes tipped, the fingers popped, and so on. It was just a feeling of cheerfulness and happiness, you know. And this was my imitation of these scenes, which happened so often in my hometown.

So we did this record date in Toronto with Oscar – “The Oscar Peterson Trio Plus One”. We were done with the music and I just wanted to do this for a party record, to have a band to play at my house when I had guests – just for a laugh, you know, so people would say, ” What the hell is it he says?” I asked Oscar, Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen to give me an introduction. They said “Sure”; the date was one take each, because he’s from the Norman Granz clan, and he also believes in first-takers – so we had plenty of time to spare. We got about two bars in the thing — kind of unintelligible, but at least let it swing, thinking about those joints, the glee and all — and I looked at the little cubicle I was in, isolated from the rhythm section, and Oscar became so carried away that he was practically on the floor and bursting with laughter. He said, ‘Wait a minute – let’s start over. I’m going to put this in the album.” And in addition to that uptempo version, I also did a slow version, “Incoherent Blues”; he put them both on this album. That was ten or twelve years ago when we did that; I think they were recently re-released.

Listen up.

For those of you who want some great music to chill out to today, here’s a full Terry album for you: 1961’s everything is soft, with Terry on trumpet and flugelhorn, Junior Mance on piano, Joe Benjamin on bass and Charlie Persip on drums.

Terry was also a great music educator; those of you who are musically inclined will enjoy this Masterclass he conducted in 2004.

Towards the end of his life, Terry was the subject of a moving documentary, Keep going.

The film depicts the friendship of music legend and teacher Clark Terry, 89, and Justin Kauflin, a 23-year-old blind piano prodigy. Kauflin, who suffers from debilitating stage fright, is invited to join an elite jazz competition just as Terry’s health deteriorates. As the clock ticks, we see two friends face the toughest challenges of their lives.

Terry was also Quincy Jones’ first teacher and Miles Davis’ mentor. He is one of the few artists to have ever played in both Count Basie’s and Duke Ellington’s bands. In the 1960s, Terry broke the color barrier as the first African-American staff musician on NBC – on “The Tonight Show.”

Shot over the course of five years, KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON was lovingly created by filmmaker Al Hicks, a drummer and former student of Terry.

Here’s the trailer, featuring Jones and many others.

As usual, dear readers, I must end this. But as usual I’ll be playing more music from St. Louis in the comments, especially trumpet players. Please, join me, and let’s blow some more horns!

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