A Conversation with Saint Louis Jazz Historian and Radio Personality Dennis Owsley

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In the St. Louis region, Dennis Owsley has been the source of jazz programming on the local NPR station KWMU since 1983. His Jazz Unlimited show began in 1988 and continues to the present on Sunday nights. In 2006, Owsley’s book City of Gabriels was published as an oral history transcription tracing the emergence of jazz in St. Louis and emphasizing the city’s rich heritage of producing trumpet virtuosos.

I recently enjoyed visiting with Dennis by telephone and here are some excerpts from that conversation.

Melton: How would you describe your scope of interest in jazz?

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Owsley: I think the best way to do it is to describe my collection that is all digital now. It has 53,000 titles; all of King Oliver, all of Jelly Roll Morton, most all of Sidney Bechet, most all of Louis Armstrong, most all of Count Basie, all of Charlie Parker, an awful lot of Dizzy Gillespie, nearly all of Miles Davis, all of John Coltrane except one album, etc. In fact, the whole show is built on my collection. It is always scripted and is based on themes to keep from repeating myself.

What informed your interest in jazz before coming here?

I grew up in the Los Angeles area. Sometime around the fourth or fifth grade, someone gave me a crystal radio set. So, one Sunday night when I was supposed to be doing my homework, I was casting around and I came across the most astounding music that I had ever heard in my life. It was a Black Gospel church and it just blew me away.

Eventually, by the time I was in late junior high and early high school I started hearing a little bit of Louis Armstrong. Then, in 1959, a friend of mine took me down to the Shrine auditorium to hear a concert by the Miles Davis Sextet. That group had Miles Davis on trumpet, Cannonball Adderley on alto, John Coltrane on tenor sax, Winton Kelley on Piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums. I heard that and I thought, “I’m not going to listen to anything else!” The art in that music was so high. By the time I went to college, I had seen such people as already mentioned plus Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Gerry Mulligan and Ornette Coleman. There were trumpeters like Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie. So, I’ve basically seen just about everybody who was alive in jazz and working from 1959-60 on. I’ve seen Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, everybody.

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You have been introducing others to jazz for most of your life.

That’s true, but I also had another career. Actually, my first was as a scientist. I have a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and came to St. Louis in 1969 to take a job as a research scientist at Monsanto. I left there in 1993 after a successful career.

Tell me about getting started in St. Louis.

I’ve been doing the shows since 1983. My 35th anniversary will be April 23, 2018. There was a guy on KWMU by the name of Charlie Menees. One of the things he did was offer adult education courses in jazz. When I first started getting interested in jazz I wanted to learn all the history I could. But the music was not available because the re-issue stuff was not out there. Charlie had it all. So, I went to his classes to listen to that music.

Charlie left KWMU to go to KMOX around 1981, and his engineer asked me to come on. On the twenty-third of April 1983, we decided to make it permanent and didn’t even tell the general manager, and it was six months before he figured it out.

After my first read of your book I was amazed and shocked to find out all the famous people who began their careers in St. Louis.

There have been an amazing number of people who have come out of here.

My most recent reading was a scanning and it also reads well that way in summary, considering how much information you packed into it.

I’ll make a comment about that. There is a lot of progress in St. Louis jazz and that’s one of the things we decided to illustrate in the book.

I got a grant to do a radio history of jazz in St. Louis and I got all of the interviews with these older guys that had been back there in the 1920s. So, I got to talk to them and that was so cool. That broadcast was 19 hours in 1987. The 2013 broadcast was 30 hours.

Then I basically stumbled into the Sheldon Concert Hall in 2000 and Paul Reuter (the Director) said to me, “Are you interested in writing a book,” and I said, “Here, I have a 50-page outline.” So, I went and found a whole lot more in the way of interviews and archives. Some on tape; Will Warner did a bunch of them and I got his permission to use his material. SIU-Edwardsville had a bunch of them and Charlie Menees’ family sent all of his stuff after he passed to the Marr Sound Archive at UMKC. I think history is important, and I know you are a historian, but I think it is more important to listen to people who are on the ground than to listen to what people tell you they read in a book.

You had a remarkable opportunity and took such great advantage of it.

I had a great experience. It was a lot of fun doing that and one of the things in my reading over the years; I’m beginning to find out that an awful lot of early jazz history is totally wrong. Here is a quick example. There are a number of well-known New Orleans trumpet players who came out of New Orleans at the same time. A third of them were White Italians, and the Italians were just as despised as Blacks and they lived in the same neighborhoods and they played the same music. Gerald Early, a very famous professor of African-American history at Washington University always starts his lectures showing that whites have been in this from day one. It’s an American music.

Your photographs are so valuable as you use them to compliment the oral history. Did you begin way back taking these wonderful images?

I’ve always been a photographer, too. I started taking photographs of jazz musicians when I first went to the Dick Gibson Jazz Party in 1986. In 2000, I found out I could scan these horribly grainy things digitally and make the grain disappear. In my library I have quite a number of books of jazz photography so, I knew where the good photos for the book were (when I didn’t have my own).

To get back to the earlier discussion, most all of the New Orleans musicians knew how to read. But, in New York and places where there were a lot of Black bands, the Black bands practiced with paper, memorized the music and played with no music on the stands because they were not supposed to be smart enough to read music. That’s the prejudice in this country.

As for St. Louis, I found your description of the St. Louis trumpet sound as a “clear singing tone with many bent notes like a singing voice” very descriptive.

That was actually the description of the St. Louis trumpet sound that came from my friend David Hines, who was a wonderful trumpet player.

Were other regional sounds brassier?

Actually, I think if you look at the stuff in New Orleans it was military brass band type stuff. Then as you move up the river, there is more of a German influence. And then when you get up to Davenport, Iowa, where Bix Beiderbecke heard Louis Armstrong it’s pretty much a German sound.

You emphasize the importance of Eddie Randle and dedicate your book to him. He must have been a most remarkable fellow.

He was one of the wisest men I have ever known. He started playing with various bands during the 1920s and then founded his own band called the St. Louis Blue Devils. Rex Stewart said, “If you come out West and you come to St. Louis, don’t tangle with the St. Louis Blue Devils because they will mop up the floor with you.” Eddie was a person who could read people and figure out just exactly what they needed. He had all of these sayings that just blew me away. When I first interviewed him on the fourth of July 1986, I’ll never forget it. My engineer and I walked out of there and I said, “Wow, did you hear what I just heard?” In many ways he was kind of like a father to me. I’m still in contact with his family, too.

The thing about Eddie was that just about every musician in St. Louis from 1932 up to 1950 went through him or Eddie Johnson who had the Crackerjacks or the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra or George Hudson in the ’40s.

Do the more recent groups harken back to the original influences?

To a certain extent a lot of people who have come out of St. Louis, like the trumpet players heard the players before them and they developed it beyond what the earlier musicians did. That was very important. And, as I said, there are tons of highly trained musicians that came out of here. The reason is because of the musical training that happened in the black community. What you had in St. Louis, especially, were all of these highly trained Black symphony musicians (who could not play in the Symphony) who taught in the Black schools. They had theory classes, as far back as 1930. You know Miles Davis said he knew more theory than the people at Julliard knew when he got there.

You mentioned Sumner High School and given the importance of where a person attended high school to St. Louisans that school must be significant.

When I got here, I thought this town was insane. Why do they care about where a person went to high school? But that has to do with the Catholic schools. The White musicians for the most part played in polite dance bands. You had in the 1920s Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Pee Wee Russell and even Peck Kelly, the legendary pianist from Texas, all were up here in 1925 and 1926 at the Arcadia Ballroom. Russell and Trumbauer were raised partly in St. Louis. They certainly had a lot to do with what the White musicians were trying to do. The White musicians, other than a few dance bands, never recorded so we don’t know, really, what they were doing.

The Black community had these trained people in their high schools, and something else that is interesting. This goes back to the St. Louis trumpet sound. There was a guy by the name of Joseph Gustat who was a trumpet player (he was Italian but he changed his name to German because it was the only way he could play in the symphony) and he had a music store (with his brother) and it didn’t matter who you were. If you were a musician you could come in there. He sold a mouthpiece called a Heyn mouthpiece. During that period, most of the trumpet players, Black and White, used that mouthpiece. And then you’ve got the people at Sumner like Clarence Hayden Wilson for instance who was Clark Terry’s music teacher. Interestingly enough, Vashon and Sumner were the places where most of the people from the Black Artists’ Group came from which was the Avant-Garde group that happened in the late 1960s and 1970s.

In your book, you cover a lot about polarization in St. Louis.

You have no idea how bad it was. St. Louis right now is the second or third most segregated city in the country. Back in the ragtime period there were two unions, a White and a Black union. The unions agreed that the White guys had the theaters and the Black Guys the cabarets. And then “talkies” happened in 1927 and all of a sudden the White guys didn’t have jobs any more. Sometimes bad things happen when new technology appears…it happens all the time. So, the White unions started agitating and then the Depression hit. The White unions deliberately went after and succeeded in disenfranchising the Black unions. There was a lot of animosity over that. The gangsters who ran the clubs in the 1930s and the 1940s liked the Black players, so they really didn’t lose any work.

During Civil Rights time the national music unions said it was time to desegregate. By 1973 or 1974 they finally voted and neither union wanted to integrate. This went on for some time and the Black musician’s union finally integrated. They lost their union hall, which is where a lot of their community bands practiced. So, then there was this whole separation that has been going on for years. But again, the players themselves have always tried to get together. The problem is that the authorities, namely the police, have tried and continue trying to keep Black and White people apart. That’s one of the reasons that Gaslight Square, which was a very important part of St. Louis jazz history, went away because there were a lot of interracial couples there and the police were busting them.

I remember listening to Trebor Tichenor and the group…they had a lot of tales to tell about Gaslight Square. I was also moved by the impact that the East St. Louis race riots had on Miles Davis.

The Black people still haven’t forgotten.

History tends to skim over this.

I think I’m almost the first one to publish that thing about Miles and the East St. Louis riots. He didn’t pull any punches about that.

Speak a bit about contemporary jazz venues in St. Louis.

Here’s an interesting problem that St. Louis has…the people that run the clubs with the exception of Jazz at the Bistro don’t know what the heck they are doing. They don’t use social media to get the word out. They could get grants from the Missouri Arts Council, but they don’t and they don’t advertise.

St. Louis audiences are funny, too. They are very loath to go hear something that they have never heard before. A perfect example is Lester Bowie who is one of the Avant-Garde cats. He worked from 1972 to 1996 with the Art Ensemble of Chicago and they weren’t as far out musically as people thought but their dress was. Then he had this fantastic group called The Brass Fantasy. The brass writing was so difficult he carried five trumpet players and only four played at a time. One trumpet player was always resting. The Art Ensemble did well when it performed here, as did the Brass Fantasy. But then he had a New York Organ ensemble that nobody had heard of around 1994. I went, and only about ten other people were there because Lester Bowie’s Organ Ensemble was unknown to St. Louis.

We have though one of the premier jazz clubs in the world here, Jazz at the Bistro. They offer Wednesday through Saturday gigs for nationally known bands. They have an education component, and they have very good foundational and corporate support. They’ve got everything but Dixieland music there and I keep yelling at them to get the Riverwalk Band and bring them in but they don’t want to do that. But I tell you they’d fill that place up so fast it’s not even funny.

Before we end I would ask if there is anything you would like to insert here…

One of the things I think we should think about is that St. Louis is still having an impact on music nationally. Not only jazz but if you look at some of the rappers that have come out of here. (It’s not the music I want to hear, but that’s important.) We have two trumpet players now from here who are doing very interesting things. Their names are Keyon Harold and Russell Gunn. Peter Martin is a pianist who appears all over the world and has been in movies. He’s Diane Reeves accompanist. Saxophonists Marty Ehrlich, J.D. Parran, Oliver Lake, and Hamiet Bluiett all live and work in New York. So, the beat kind of goes on regarding famous musicians from St. Louis. But if these guys had stayed, nobody would have heard of them because nobody supports the local St. Louis musicians. If you are in St. Louis and there are no national guys in town, go to Webster University on a Monday night. Their faculty concerts are as good as anything you are going to hear from a national group. There’s a jazz series on the Washington University campus so there is a lot of activity. Everyone seems to be working. Carol Beth True is working two or three times a week and still teaching.

How about a favorite of mine, Jeannie Trevor?

Jeannie Trevor is still performing. Jeannie Kittrell is retired from playing and still is quite a character. We had singers Jeannie Trevor, Jeannie Kittrell, and Mardra Thomas for the Sheldon Concert when the book came out. At the end we did the St. Louis Blues as an encore. So, the ladies got up and started making up lyrics and trading choruses and it went on and on and all the musicians were signaling to go back to the beginning and end it. Those women weren’t going.

One of the other things we have to talk about, I think, is where does St. Louis go from here? We need to fully resolve this racial divide that we’ve got here. I am frankly very disheartened right now. I just can’t believe the stuff that goes on. I honestly think the only thing that will cause change will be the music. If you go into Jazz at the Bistro, it is mainly middle to upper class people of all races and ages. Everybody gets along, and everyone has a wonderful time there.

One of the things I try to do on my show is to present the music without hype. The important thing is the music and how it makes me feel and I hope how it makes my listeners feel. I had one young man come up to me and say, “You just changed my life with what you are doing!” It’s not about me it’s about the music.

You have certainly provided some rich material here and I extend my sincere thanks for your time and effort on behalf of this interview. 


Larry Melton is an expert on Jazz and Ragtime in the midwest, he writes the monthly Blowing off the Dust Column


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