Upon seeing his name, complete with umlaut, you might assume multi-instrumentalist T.J. Müller is of German heritage. You’d be mistaken. And with the first few words of a conversation, you would know he grew up in England. Since coming to the US ten years ago, he is becoming a more frequent fixture at trad jazz and ragtime festivals. Just in the past year I have seen him at the Templeton festival in Mississippi, the Bix Beiderbecke festival in Iowa, and West Coast Ragtime in California.
Setting down roots in St. Louis, where he established the Arcadia Dance Orchestra and the Gaslight Squares Jazz Band, he frequently plays with Miss Jubilee (Valerie Kirchoff) and often is called to play with ad-hoc small groups at festivals. Such was the case when I saw him at the Bix last August. Having become a father for the first time a few weeks prior, he remarked that he came to the Bix to catch up on sleep. As if he isn’t busy enough, he hosts a weekly jazz and ragtime radio show on KDHX (88.1) and conducts tours at the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site in St. Louis.
BH: I’ll ask the most obvious question first. Your name is Germanic but you were born and raised in England. How did that come about?
TJ: On my Dad’s side, my “Oupa” was a South African immigrant moving to the UK in the 1950s. The name Müller comes from the Afrikaans side of the family, but Oupa has German, East African, and Indian ancestry. The funny thing is that the other side of the family is about as British as can be; I’m talking Boudica, woad wearing stuff!
Translation for my, and maybe others’, benefit: Boudica was the British female warrior who led a revolution against the Roman invasion. Woad is the blue paint.
Where in England are you from, and how did you get interested in trad jazz and ragtime? What musical training did you receive there?
I was born in Canterbury, and as a kid moved around the country a bit. My dad was/is a vicar and during his training we lived in a few different parishes. By the time I was about 11 years old we had settled in the beautiful north-west of England in Cumbria.
My dad was always passionate about music and played several instruments. He introduced me to traditional jazz largely through records by European groups like Kenny Ball and The Dutch Swing College band. He also got us performing as a family band (with my two older siblings) playing Dixieland standards, mostly at church fetes. He called this “The Glen Müller Band” (groan!). But it really ignited a passion in me for the music.
At the age of about six, Dad bought me a beat-up old Rudy Muck (a brass manufacturer) for 1 pound. I took lessons at school for a while, but was a poor student. My mother did find me an excellent local big band trumpet player and teacher named Ian Shorcliffe who was the first to teach me the basic concepts of improvisation.
In middle school my buddies pooled their lunch money together and bought me a ukulele for my birthday one year. They knew I was nuts about George Formby and I was soon playing the thing all the time. I remember trying to learn every tune I could on Dr.Uke.com in the school computer lab on lunch breaks! “Oh You Beautiful Doll,” “Anytime,” “Yes Sir, That’s my Baby.” I was an unusual 13-year-old!
At about the age of 16 I joined a local skiffle band. My Mum took me to go see them in a great old pub called the Lowther Arms where they played weekly. This was back when you could still smoke indoors; the washtub bass player always had a big cigar going! Mrs. Knox, who led the band, was like a musical fairy godmother to me. I played any instrument I could get my hands on in that band and learned their book of tunes—lots of Bessie Smith numbers, and neat old jug band tunes! These were my real paid pub/bar gigs.
And that is really all the musical “training” I ever received. Listening to records and trying my best to learn on the bandstand. I wish I had been a better student, but I try to make up for that these days by working on my playing as much as I can.
Who are your music idols, and why?
As I mentioned earlier, Kenny Ball was one of the first jazz players whom as a small kid I idolized. When my parents took me to see him in concert I was starstruck! I also was introduced to Louis Armstrong at a young age and he was a hero of mine. I was devastated to learn in the school library one day that he had passed away some decades ago and we wouldn’t in fact get to jam!
Today I can say without a shadow of a doubt that my musical idol is Bill Mason of the St. Louis Ragtimers. Bill has been a friend for several years and in fact just turned 94! He practices every day, is constantly learning new and interesting material, calls me on the phone to discuss records and talk shop. On top of that he plays the heck out of his cornet and has been “taking names” since the 1940s! He is an inspiration and I am proud to get to play alongside him regularly here in St. Louis.
What made you decide to settle in St. Louis as opposed to some other US city?
St. Louis is the only US city I have ever lived in, although I have performed in almost every state. It is where the Pokey Lafarge band was based, and I had moved to the US initially to tour and perform with this group.
By the time my contract with the PL band was up I had met my wife, and started to dig into St. Louis’ incredible history of jazz, blues and ragtime. I knew I wanted to learn more and see what I could do to be a part of this unique culture in St. Louis.
I’m very interested by the idea of regional music, and I love to see musicians working to preserve and promote the historic music of their city, state or country. If I had been in Kansas City I would probably have advocated just as strongly for the music of Bennie Moten and Coon-Sanders, or if I was in London The Savoy Orpheans perhaps. I just think it makes our musical world all the more varied and rich. Luckily St. Louis has no shortage of inspiring musical history!
What led you to form the two bands you lead in St. Louis?
After leaving the PL band I was in need of gainful employment, and so I initially put together The Gaslight Squares as a working traditional jazz band. we continue to play lots of private events as well as concerts.
I named the group the Gaslight Squares in honor of the Gaslight Square entertainment district in St. Louis of the 1960s where several of my older musician friends such as Bill Mason worked, and no doubt got into all sorts of trouble. Even though my heart is in the music of the 1920s I also believe that mentorship should always be sought, and there is always an important role to be played in passing the mantle. My hope was by naming the band like this would be an acknowledgment of that… Well, actually at first it was just a stupid pun, and then I thought about it a little more and kept the name!
I started The Arcadia Dance Orchestra in 2017 with the hope of really digging into the re-creation and performance of St. Louis jazz of the 1920s and 1930s. We play once a month at The Focal Point in Maplewood (a St. Louis suburb) to an audience of listeners and dancers and we are always trying to add new and interesting arrangements to our book. We play the music of Chas. Creath, Dewey Jackson, The Arcadia Peacock Orchestra, Herbert Berger, Gene Rodemich, as well as many other tunes from the 1920s/30s that we dig! Creath was a prominent black St. Louis bandleader and recording artist in the 20s. I knew and worked with his grandson.
I’ll chime in and mention that TJ’s Arcadia Dance Orchestra will be playing at the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Festival in Davenport on August 3-5. They may be playing two sets on a three-hour lunchtime cruise on the Celebration Belle on the Mississippi on Friday, the 4th.
For those who may not be aware of it, tell us about the Joplin historic site.
The Scott Joplin House State Historic Site is the home in which Scott Joplin resided for a while in the early 1900s. It was almost destroyed before being rescued and turned into a place where visitors could learn of the life and legacy of the great ragtime composer, as well as the amazing history of the lost neighborhood that once surrounded it. The site is currently closed after damages from a recent break-in, but should be open again very soon. I once gave weekly tours of the site, but now only make it there once or twice a month but try to help out where I can! I highly recommend visiting and supporting this important historic site!
Well, I think that’s a good place to leave off. Thanks much for taking the time to talk.