A native of Webster Groves, Akins (pictured) gained early experience with local bands including Eddie Randle's Blue Devils and a group led by his music teacher, bassist Walter Latham. After graduating from Douglass High School, he moved to New York City in May, 1957 to try to make it in the music business.
He spent eleven years in NYC, but, as detailed in a 2002 Riverfront Times profile, was mostly frustrated in his attempts to break into the city's highly competitive jazz scene. After the breakup of his first marriage and the death of his father, in 1968 Akins returned to St. Louis to look after his mother, and wound up staying for good.
Once back home, Akins worked as steadily as any local jazz musician could - painting houses during the day to help make ends meet - and for more than 40 years was generally regarded as one of the city's top modern jazz performers. While his illness had curtailed his playing schedule in recent months, Akins did make one last brief appearance at a benefit concert on September 4 at the Kranzberg Arts Center.
Before that, though, his weekly Saturday matinees at Spruill's in midtown were for 20 years a staple for St. Louis jazz fans, and often attracted visits and sit-ins from touring musicians as well. Akins also mentored several generations of St. Louis musicians, some of whom, such as saxophonists Greg Osby and Chris Cheek, drummer Kim Thompson, trumpeter Keyon Harrold and his brother, drummer Emmanuel Harrold, have gone on to national and international recognition.
In 2004, when the Riverfront Times' annual music issue named him "Best Jazz Artist," yr. StLJN editor was tasked with summing up his appeal, and this is what I wrote:
An old-school jazzman in the tradition of Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane, tenor saxophonist Willie Akins blows both tough and tender while conjuring entire universes of sound from a few pounds of metal and a few lines on a score. On the bandstand, wielding his sax like a tool and a talisman, Akins can sketch dark fantasies in chiaroscuro, meditate over love lost in infinite shades of blue or paint jubilation in colors as bright as the sun.In 1998, Akins released Alima, his only album as a leader. The quartet date featured a mix of originals, covers and standards performed by Akins, bassist Willem von Hombracht, drummer Montez Coleman, and pianist Simon Rowe.
Dapper in appearance, modest and gentlemanly in manner, off the bandstand Akins is representative of a very particular sort of jazz legend, that of the local guy who could have made the big time but chose a calmer life close to home and family. Those who revere Akins can't help but wish he'd been recorded more often, so as to share his considerable talents with the world. That said, it's a gift to have Willie Akins as part of the St. Louis music scene, and anyone who loves jazz should be thankful for his continued presence.
Akins' survivors include his wife, Sandra and children Hassan Corbin of Las Vegas, NV; Voncia Taylor of Aurora, CO; Yusuf Reynolds of Carbondale, IL; Vanessa Cunningham of Amityville, NY; Kenya Brown of Boston, MA; Alima Dunn of Houston, TX; and Omar R. Akins of East St. Louis, IL; and several grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are being handled by Eddie Randle and Sons Funeral Home, 4600 Natural Bridge Avenue. Visitation will take place from 2:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 7, with services at noon on Thursday, October 8. Burial will be at Sunset Garden of Memory in Millstadt, IL.
In the embedded video below, you can see Willie Akins performing Thelonious Monk's "Ask Me Now" in 2011 at the Artists' Quarter in St Paul, MN, backed by Montez Coleman, Willem Von Hombracht, and Simon Rowe.
Updated 10/3/15 and again on 10/4/15 with information about survivors and funeral arrangements.