ST. LOUIS • Does the heart of an organic chemist beat inside the music scholar who has fashioned himself a definitive figure in St. Louis jazz, past and present?
Or is the opposite true? Actually, it’s a little of both.
“The relationship between science and art, to me, is the same thing,” says Dennis Owsley, 69, approaching his 30th anniversary as the Sunday night host of jazz programming on KWMU, St. Louis Public Radio. “Both are intuitive. Most discoveries in the 20th century, for instance, came about through chance observations. Music is the same way. Most of what’s accomplished in the lab is intuitive. And it’s the same with art.”
The bond between music and the retired Monsanto research chemist that Gene Dobbs Bradford, executive director of Jazz at the Bistro, calls “a walking encyclopedia of jazz” is not quite as easily explained.
Particularly when Owsley’s upbringing in a Los Angeles-area home where the evangelical fervor of devout parents blotted out music is entered into the equation.
Owsley’s epiphany arrived via a radio broadcast of a gospel choir to a fifth-grader who’d never heard anything like it before.
A few years would pass before the 14-year-old Owsley happened on an event that would shape the rest of his life: The 1957 CBS “Sound of Jazz” broadcast.
An evening in the televised company of Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk and other greats was all it took to hook Owsley.
“Once I heard those guys, I didn’t want to hear anyone else,” he recalls.
The seed planted, Owsley began collecting the albums and stealing away, whenever possible, to hear live L.A. club performances by Davis, Ornette Coleman, Benny Carter, John Coltrane and other greats of the era.
From high school, Owsley moved his expanding jazz collection to the University of California-Riverside, where he met and married his wife, Rosa, while earning undergraduate and doctorate degrees in organic chemistry.
Compared to what transpired before and after, the years after college were fallow — jazz-wise — as the young husband and father launched a career as a Monsanto research scientist, a position that would stretch to 36 years before retirement as a senior fellow in 1996.
As the ’60s drew to a close, Rosa and Dennis Owsley relocated from California to St. Louis: she as a teacher; he as a researcher of photo and solid state chemistry applications at Monsanto headquarters.
In 1975, the soundtrack in the background began its edge to the forefront when Owsley enrolled in a University of Missouri-St. Louis jazz studies course taught by “Cactus Charlie” Menees.
Then a jazz host with KWMU-FM, Menees later moved to KMOX. From 1944-62, Menees served as a Post-Dispatch reporter, columnist and the paper’s first jazz critic.
In Owsley, Menees found a kindred spirit whose collection of jazz recordings may not have approached his own (30,000) but — for a chemist dabbling in the genre — was still pretty impressive (numbering 6,000 at one point).
Tapping into the scientist’s reservoir of jazz knowledge, Menees invited Owsley to join him on the other side of the UMSL lectern in a friendship that eventually migrated from the classroom to the KWMU studio.
With Menees ensconced at KMOX on the commercial radio dial, KWMU in 1983 invited Owsley — until then a co-host — to solo.
Owsley has been at KWMU ever since. (The show, now called “Jazz Unlimited,” moved from Saturday night to its current 6-9 p.m. Sunday slot in 1985.)
“It’s one of best crafted radio shows anywhere,” says Bradford. Owsley “picks great subjects and explores them in depth, richness and insight.”
Paul DeMarinis, a saxophonist who is also an associate professor and chair of the jazz studies program at Webster University, says Owsley’s eclecticism separates him from other jazz programmers on the radio dial.
DeMarinis notes many jazz deejays lean toward a favored niche such as swing, West Coast or bebop.
Owsley, on the other hand, is not afraid to traverse boundaries across the jazz map, including bold ventures into the edgy avant-garde.
“He gives you everything in terms of the broadest and highest quality presentation of the entire breadth of the jazz legacy,” said DeMarinis. “Nothing is excluded. He always comes up with stuff I never heard before.”
The push for a show equal parts instructive and entertaining is by design.
“One thing I learned a long time ago in radio is that you can’t just show up with LPs and CDs and talk about them because everything starts sounding the same very quickly,” said Owsley.
Technological advances now spare Owsley the onus of lugging boxes filled with physical recordings to the studio each week. The three hours of programming that listeners hear each Sunday are instead culled from the 50,000 digitally recorded songs on Owsley’s iMac.
In 2006, the cumulative research compiled for Jazz Unlimited broadcasts was published in “City of Gabriels: The Jazz History of St. Louis, 1895-1973). The author is now expanding his repertoire to include jazz photographs he’s shot through the years.
But for a relative handful of CDs and albums, the thousands of recordings collected by Owsley since the evening the “Sound of Jazz” changed his life are now enshrined in the Webster University jazz library.
Not a day passes that DeMarinis doesn’t listen to at least one song or album.
“Huge ... broad ... in its taste,” DeMarinis said of the collection that embodies a man, his music and the legacy that will drift through the St. Louis night again this Sunday.
As it has for so many Sunday nights before.