Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Is jazz coming back to downtown St. Louis?

Though many jazz clubs have come and gone in downtown St. Louis over the decades, in recent years it's been tough to find live jazz in the figurative shadow of the Gateway Arch.

In the nearly four years I've been writing StLJN, jazz bookings at the Adams Mark Hotel's lounges and restaurants, once a staple there, first dwindled, and then were eliminated when the riverfront property was sold and re-flagged as a Hyatt Regency. Elsewhere downtown, BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups has continued to book the Sessions Big Band on Mondays, as well as occasional gigs on Sundays featuring locals such as Good 4 the Soul, Todd Mosby and Anita Rosamond, but it remains primarily a blues club. Also, a bit farther to the west, George Sams' Nu-Art Series has presented occasional jazz and creative music performances at the Metropolitan Gallery. Beyond that, though, live jazz in downtown St. Louis proper has been relatively scarce here in the 21st century.

(UPDATE: A reader emails to point out that the concerts put on by the now-defunct Black Artists Group revival in 2007 and 2008 at the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site ought to be included in any accounting of recent jazz activity downtown, and he's right. Although BAG II didn't succeed in building a large audience, the efforts of the group, and particularly those of bassist and event producer Zimbabwe Nkenya, should not be forgotten.)

The deficit has not gone completely unnoticed. A couple of years ago, Jazz St. Louis made an attempt to establish a downtown beachhead of sorts, co-presenting a handful of free, cocktail-hour shows in conjunction with the Hilton at the Ballpark. Having played one of those gigs myself, backing singer Kim Massie, I can say based on first-hand observation that the hotel - how do I put this nicely? - did not seem strongly committed to making the series a success. As it turned out, the idea was abandoned after a few weeks.

More recently, though, there have been a few signs that jazz may be making something of a comeback in downtown St. Louis. Consider the following data points:

1) The St. Louis Jazz Cafe, located at 1500 St. Charles, and previously written about in this space here, here and here, appears to be on track for its grand opening celebration featuring music from Erin Bode this Saturday, March 21.

Someone associated with the cafe apparently has been reaching out to local food writers, as evidenced by these blog posts from the Riverfront Times and Sauce magazine, and Post-Dispatch pop music critic Kevin Johnson also mentioned the grand opening in a blog post here. (Curiously, any press releases intended for St. Louis Jazz Notes, and/or grand opening invitations for yr. humble editor, seem to have been mysteriously lost in the electronic ether and/or mail.)

The St. Louis Jazz Cafe also has updated parts of its Web site, particularly the music calendar, which now reveals who's booked for the first couple of weeks after the grand opening. 3 Central, a smooth jazz band seen in semi-regular rotation at the now-closed Cookie's Jazz and More, will play for the cafe's soft-opening "Friends and Family" night on Thursday, with the Usual Suspects taking over on subsequent Thursdays. (I'm reasonably certain that would be these Usual Suspects, fronted by keyboardist Charlie Brown and singer/saxophonist Jessica Butler, and not these Usual Suspects, who, save for a few videos on YouTube, seem to have evaporated without a trace in the two years since winning the RFT's "Best Cover Band" award.)

Other musical offerings now on the St. Louis Jazz Cafe calendar include the Neal Connors Trio, for the cafe's first Sunday brunch on March 22; Trio Tres Bien (pictured), who are set to appear on Saturday, March 28 and Friday, April 10; and Lamar Harris, who's booked on Saturday, April 4 and Friday, April 17. That's about as far as the calendar goes right now, though there is an RSS feed for those who'd like direct access to any updates.

2) St. Louis City Jazz, the fledgling not-for-profit organization whose mission statement, as their name suggests, involves "bringing live jazz back to the city of St. Louis," is presenting smooth jazz saxophonist Tim Cunningham at the Schlafly Brewery and Tap Room this Sunday, March 22. Cunningham plays from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., and tickets are $20 at the door.

3) Then there's the Jazz Spot, housed in the space at 400 N. Washington Ave. that once contained the Mandarin Bay restaurant, back when the surrounding hotel first opened a few years ago. The Jazz Spot came into being in 2008, when local real estate and media moguls the Roberts Brothers took over the hotel. However, to date, I haven't written anything about the place here on StLJN, because they haven't featured much in the way of actual jazz music.

Instead, the half-dozen groups listed on the club's Web site's "live music" page would seem to fall mostly into what might loosely be termed the "variety band" category, mixing jazz, R&B, pop, blues and other genres. Only one group listed there has its own Web site, the On Call Band, led by drummer Marty Spikener and saxophonist David Spruill. They're an entertaining band, featuring some good musicians, but not a jazz group per se; indeed, their own Web site emphasizes not their jazz chops, but their versatility, pitching them as able to play everything from blues to reggae.

That said, the Jazz Spot did present a show last October featuring singer and East St. Louis native Phil Perry, who works the boundary of smooth jazz and R&B, and the club will serve as the site for the upcoming CD release event for drummer Stan Hale, so perhaps they will yet begin booking live music on a regular basis that lives up to the implications of their name. For now, I'll be adding a link to the Jazz Spot's site, and to the site of the St. Louis Jazz Cafe, over on the StLJN sidebar, and keeping on eye on developments at both places.

Granted, these are but a handful of semi-random data points, there's a major recession happening, and a handful of shows do not a full-fledged resurgence make. But one would think jazz fans in St. Louis will be hoping for these new downtown presenters to meet with some success. It certainly would be good for local listeners, as well as tourists, left for for some time without adequate musical options in the heart of a city supposedly famous for its jazz heritage. And it would, of course, be good for St. Louis' jazz musicians, who can always use more work. For now, all we can do is wait and see what happens next.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dean,
Please accept our apologies, for our remiss in not getting you your invitation before now. We would like to extend to you an VIP invite, for a complimentary lunch or dinner. You are of course privvy to our limited entertainment calender through our website, and we invite you to come out maybe on one of those nights when we are featuring live music. Please feel free to call the St Louis Jazz Cafe, (ask for Tim) RSVP if you like, otherwise we'd just have to seat you at the owners table!

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