We’ve been traveling around the country here on #BlackMusicSunday, exploring cities famous for their blues and jazz musicians. Today’s stop is St. Louis, Missouri. During a 60ish-year period known as “The Great Migration,” a significant numberof Black folks—roughly 6 million—moved out of the South, leaving the Mississippi Delta and cities like New Orleans behind, and following the Mississippi River north. Many stopped and made homes in St. Louis and East St. Louis, just across the river.
They brought their music with them, and though St. Louis was located in what had once been a slave-holding border state and the home to the infamous Dred Scott decision, Black folks still settled there after the end of the Civil War, and in even greater numbers after World War I.
One of the most famous and most-recorded jazz standards is “St. Louis Blues,” which was written and published by W.C. Handy in 1914, and first recorded in 1916. It was also the title of two films: a short produced in 1929, which is the only known film appearance of Bessie Smith; and a 1958 feature film, based on the life of Handy. It featured a star-studded cast, including Nat King Cole as Handy.
It’s only fitting to open with the sound of Handy’s trumpet, heralding those “St. Louis Blues.”
Matt Micucci, online editor for Jazz Iz, wrote ”a short history of … ‘St. Louis Blues.’”
Handy had arrived in St. Louis, Missouri, in the early part of the 20th century and, according to Maureen O’Connor Kavanaugh, “slept on the cobblestones of the levee until he found work as a musician.” The song was allegedly inspired by his chance meeting with a woman who walked the streets of St. Louis tormented by her husband’s absence, wailing “my man’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea.” Tom Morgan observed that Handy “drew inspiration for many of his songs from African-American words and music, so it is not surprising that he began to compose the theme to this woman’s anguish.”
Since first appearing in 1914, “St. Louis Blues” has become one of the most famous, celebrated, and recorded jazz standards in history. Handy recorded his best version of the song in 1922 and three years later, in 1926, Fats Waller would play 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 stellar version of “St. Louis Blues” alongside a young cornet star named Louis Armstrong, who was setting the jazz world on fire with his exciting improvisations.
Handy, though he lived for a time in St. Louis, was Alabama-born, and as such, he is not counted as one of the rich crop of St. Louis musicians.
The foremost authority on St. Louis musicians was historian and St. Louis public radio host of Jazz Unlimited Dennis Owsley. He passed away in November 2021.
Owsley was the author of two seminal books on St. Louis jazz. The first, 2006’s City of Gabriels: The History of Jazz in St. Louis, 1895-1973, is out of print. Used copies are available for purchase, of course, and it’s sure to be in your local library.
Owsley’s second book is 2019’s St. Louis Jazz: A History. Jennifer Alexander reviewed it 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 notion that jazz journeyed from New Orleans to St. Louis on riverboats. He writes that the influence of riverboats on the development of jazz in St. Louis was primarily because musicians were hired to play on brief riverboat excursions. Owsley reports that many musicians called the riverboats “floating conservatories” where they honed their skills.
Anecdotes about jazz legends are found throughout the book, including a story about a timid teenaged Miles Davis asking Clark Terry for advice on trumpet playing.
In this one-hour podcast, Jazz on the Tube founder Ken McCarthy interviews Owsley about St. Louis jazz history, covering a wide range of topics. He talks about St. Louis’ role in the development of trumpet playing, moving from the earliest music through to the development of avant-garde free jazz.
Here’s the playlist, which spans over a century!
1. Tom Turpin – St. Louis Rag (1903) – (00:00)
2. Charles Creath – Butterfinger Blues (1927) – (02:50)
3. Frank Trumbauer – Trumbology (1927) – (05:50)
4. Jimmy Forest – Night Train (1952) – (08:52)
5. Miles Davis – If I Were a Bell (1956) – (11:51)
6. Clark Terry – Undecided (1959) – (20:00)
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) – (01:04:00)
13. Oliver Lake – Spirit (2010) – (01:12:12)
14. Human Arts Ensemble – Under the Sun (1976) – (01:18:29)
Listening to these men discuss this rich history, I realized that though I’d been listening to jazz trumpeter and flugelhornist Clark Terry for years, I was not aware of the role he played in mentoring younger musicians.
Here’s Terry is talking about mentoring Miles Davis, in an interview conducted by The National Visionary Leadership Project (NVLP).
And here’s a humorous reminiscence of Terry mentoring Quincy Jones, whose first arrangement didn’t go over well with the Count Basie band.
Terry’s official biography reads like a “who’s who” of jazz:
Clark Terry’s career in jazz spanned more than seventy years. He was a world-class trumpeter, flugelhornist, educator, composer, writer, trumpet/flugelhorn designer, teacher and NEA Jazz Master. He performed for eight U.S. Presidents, and was a Jazz Ambassador for State Department tours in the Middle East and Africa. More than fifty jazz festivals featured him at sea and on land in all seven continents. Many were named in his honor.
He was one of the most recorded musicians in the history of jazz, with more than nine-hundred recordings. Clark’s discography reads like a “Who’s Who In Jazz,” with personnel that included greats such 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 was featured 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, for Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show. In the clip below—yet another from Jazz on the Tube—Terry talks about how the Urban League played a role in his hiring; later, they had two Black musicians after the hire of Snooky Young. Terry explains how he prevented NBC from firing Young.
And here he is on The Tonight Show, in an undated clip:
All That Jazz vlogger Don Kaart put together this 12-minute roundup of some of Terry’s best flugelhorn solos.
The United Kingdom’s National Jazz Archive offers an interview Terry did with Les Tomkins in 1975, where he describes the origins of “Mumbles”—a tune featuring the scatting that would become a Terry trademark.
It came about this way: in my home town, St. Louis, there were many places—dens of iniquity, you might call ‘em, but actually they were just places of refreshment, with sawdust on the floor, where a guy would go and have a beer. There was an upright piano there, which was triply laminated across the top, to withstand the weight of several steins of beer, and if you bought the piano player a beer, you could sing—it didn’t matter how good or how bad you sang, he would play for you. And many times, people would come up, and they’d decide they were gonna create some blues; they’d start singing about how they felt when they got up in the morning, and so on. By the time they got halfway into the second or third measure, the lyrics were highly unintelligible; but nobody cared—the feeling was there, the sawdust was bouncing about two feet off the floor from the footpatting, and the earlobes were tilting, there was finger-popping and so forth. It was just a feeling of gaiety and happiness, you know. And this was my imitation of these scenes, that happened so frequently in my home town.
So we were doing this record date in Toronto with Oscar—“The Oscar Peterson Trio Plus One”. We had finished the music, and I just wanted to do this for a party record, to have a tape to play at my home when I had guests—just for laughs, you know, so the people would say: “What the heck is he saying?” I asked Oscar, Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen to give me an introduction. They said “Sure”; the date had been one take each, because he’s from the Norman Granz clan, and he believes in first-takers, also—so we had lots of time left. We got about two measures into the thing —quite unintelligible, but at least making it swing, thinking of those joints, the gaiety and all that—and I looked over from the little booth I was in, isolated from the rhythm section, and Oscar was so carried away with it, he was practically on the floor, cracking up with laughter. He said: “Wait at minute—let’s start it over again. I’m gonna put this in the album.” And as well as that up-tempo version, I did a slow version, “Incoherent Blues”; he put both of ‘em in this album. That was ten or twelve years ago when we did that; I think they’ve been reissued recently.
Have a listen.
For those of you who want some amazing music to chill out with today, here’s a full Terry album for you: 1961’s Everything’s Mellow, with Terry on trumpet and flugelhorn, Junior Mance on piano, Joe Benjamin on bass and Charlie Persip on drums.
Terry was also an amazing music educator; those of you who are musically inclined will enjoy this Master Class he conducted in 2004.
Toward the end of his life Terry was the subject of a moving documentary, Keep on Keepin’ On.
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 compete in an elite Jazz competition, just as Terry’s health takes a turn for the worse. As the clock ticks, we see two friends confront the toughest challenges of their lives.
Terry was also Quincy Jones’ first teacher, and mentor to Miles Davis. He is among the few performers ever to have played in both Count Basie’s and Duke Ellington’s bands. In the ‘60s Terry broke the color barrier as the first African-American staff musician at NBC – on "The Tonight Show."
Shot over the course of five years, KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON is crafted with great affection by first time filmmaker Al Hicks, who is a drummer and former student of Terry’s.
Here’s the trailer, featuring Jones and many others.
As usual, dear readers, I have to end things here. However, also as usual, I’ll be playing more music out of St. Louis, especially trumpet players, in the comments. Please join me, and let’s blow some more horns!