St. Louis-area jazz fans probably know Dennis Owsley. For more than 36 years, he has hosted a three-hour jazz program on KWMU-FM on Sunday nights. Most of the music he plays comes from his private collection.
So when Owsley writes an encyclopedic book about St. Louis’ legendary jazz scene over the last century, from ragtime and riverboat excursions through Gaslight Square and into the less auspicious present, fans might want to add it to their collection.
Some of the greats are here: Scott Joplin, Cab Calloway, Clark Terry, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Hamiet Bluiett, David Sanborn, Nancy Wilson, Cannonball Adderley, Horace Silver, Dizzy Gillespie, the Modern Jazz Quartet and so many more. Some, like Terry, Davis, Sanborn, Bluiett and others, hailed from St. Louis and went on to international fame.
Owsley mentions them all. His style is matter of fact. Consider Jeter Thompson, who was a member the Quarter Tres Bien, an African American instrumental group.
“Born into a musical family, St. Louisan Jeter Thompson (1930-2017) started playing the piano at age five and had formal training. He went to Sumner High School and was a professional at sixteen. He was thrown out of school several times for playing boogie-woogie in the choir room. Jeter was the president of the 100th class at Sumner. After the army, he returned to St. Louis in 1954 and began working in the city. The quartet was formed in 1959.”
Without embellishing their reputations or building some musicians up over others, Owsley, a retired chemist, puts these musicians into context. Many of us have heard of Miles Davis, the late legendary trumpeter from East St. Louis whose various groups from the late 1940s through his death in 1991 were precedent setting, even revolutionary. But how many know much about the late Bluiett, of the World Saxophone Quartet, who, after traveling the world, taught music to University City elementary music students?
Owsley takes on the segregation and racism that the city’s black jazz musicians faced every day and every night: “Racial segregation of musicians and audiences led to the formation of two racially segregated unions at nearly the same time in 1896. … In St. Louis, Local 2 represented white musicians who played in concert bands, the symphony and theater pit bands. Their black counterparts, represented by Local 44, played in small groups, working in cabarets and at private parties and dances. The majority of customers on the riverboats, bawdy houses and circuses were white — both white and black segregated bands played for them. White musicians, however, did not play for black audiences.”
Sometimes we like to think that jazz specifically and music generally has broken down America’s racial barriers. Owsley makes it clear that decades had to pass before that became true in St. Louis. His book is based on interviews and uses stories and advertisements from the Post-Dispatch.
Owsley has written a useful local history for jazz fans. His style is not flashy. He’s more interested in stating the facts than in dressing them up.
Repps Hudson is a freelance journalist and adjunct college instructor who lives in University City.