Saturday, June 18, 2011

StLJN Saturday Video Showcase:
Gaslight Square Remembered

More often than not, this weekly feature is dedicated to previewing upcoming concerts of jazz and creative music in St. Louis. However, talking this past week with people about the late Mae Wheeler and her long career got me thinking about both the history of jazz in St. Louis and the need to occasionally to remember and celebrate the musicians and singers who made it happen.

With that in mind, this week we're taking a look at St. Louis' Gaslight Square district and some of the people who played and sang there, where Wheeler launched her music career. Lets start at the beginning, as many younger readers and those not from St. Louis may have heard the name Gaslight Square, but may not know much about it.

Briefly, Gaslight Square was a small entertainment district, just a few blocks long really, that flourished in the city of St. Louis during the late 1950s and early 1960s. The area began to decline in the mid-1960s, as crime rose, the city's population dropped, and shady operators tried to cash in on its previous popularity. By the end of the 1960s, it was pretty much all over. Gaslight Square became a collection of mostly vacant buildings, and the area remained in ruins for more than 30 years.

The 2005 documentary Gaslight Square: The Legend Lives On, which you can watch in the embedded video window up above, tells the whole story, at a length of more than 2 hours. The film has lots of archival footage, still photos, and interviews, and remains the most extensive audio/visual presentation of Gaslight Square's history. The producers also created an accompanying website that has still photos and some other material.

At the time The Legend Lives On documentary was made, redevelopment plans for Gaslight Square were stalled for the umpteenth time and the area was still blighted. Since then, some small progress has been made, with a few new homes built and some older buildings rehabbed. That brings us to the video down below, which was produced in 2008 by the staff of KETC's Living St. Louis. Over 25 minutes, producer/host Margie Newman recounts the history of Gaslight Square and looks at the still-ongoing efforts to renew the neighborhood for the 21st century.

Of course, the buildings weren't really what made Gaslight Square memorable - it was the people. One performer from the era who remains active is singer Jeanne Trevor, who no longer gigs every week but still plays out with some regularity. In the second window below, you can see Trevor with pianist Curt Landes singing "God Bless The Child" during a show last year at the alternative performance space Joe's Cafe.

Another Gaslight Square veteran still working is pianist Jeter Thompson, who played back in the day with Quartette Tres Bien and now performs with his brothers Harold, a bassist, and Howard, a drummer, as Trio Tres Bien. They can be seen in the third window below backing Harold's daughter, singer Danita Mumphard, in a version of the Burt Bacharach song "A House Is Not A Home." (Jeter Thompson's piano solo starts about at 3 minutes, 50 seconds into the tune.)

In the window below that, you can hear Hugh "Peanuts" Whalum, yet another mainstay of the Gaslight Square district, playing "I Close My Eyes" at a 2006 gig in Santa Monica, CA. The band includes St. Louisan Jeff Anderson on bass and former St. Louis resident Rob Block on guitar, and that's Peanuts' nephew, the well-known contemporary jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum, sporting the fedora. Now 82 years old, Peanuts Whalum has not been seen playing out in a while, and, sadly, I've heard talk that he's had health problems, but no specific information has been made public.

For today's final video, there a Mae Wheeler clip that went unposted the other day, a feature story about a tribute to her filmed back in 2007 for KETC's Living St. Louis.

If you'd like to learn more about the history of Gaslight Square, there have been two books written on the subject in recent years. The first, Gaslight Square: An Oral History by Thomas Crone, came out in 2004 and chronicles "the rise and fall of Gaslight Square" in the words of people who worked, played and/or lived there.

The second, Gaslight Square Illuminated: The Rise & Fall of St. Louis' Premier 'Hot Spot'" by Richard Fuegner and David Roth, was released earlier this year and purports to offer a more comprehensive historical look at the district. (Note that if you use the links above to buy a copy of either book from, a few pennies in commission will eventually find their way back to StLJN, thereby supporting the continued operation of this website.)

Last but not least, for those who want to wear their nostalgia and/or local pride on their chests, offers for sale a Gaslight Square t-shirt. (No commission for StLJN on this, just thought maybe you'd dig the shirt.)

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