Russell Gunn and Other St. Louis Jazz Artists

Russell Gunn and Other St. Louis Jazz Artists

by Michael J. Renner
copyright © 1999 Michael J. Renner

On the recent PBS television special, Mississippi River of Song, St. Louis figures prominently in the development of all types of "roots" music: blues, r&b, soul, bluegrass and rock. While the special didn't much highlight it, St. Louis is well known for its place on the jazz map. It's also a town that has more jazz musicians described as "former St. Louisian" than those who make their home here.

Like the river itself, musicians historically have flowed in and out of St. Louis. We're familiar with the biggies who left to make their mark: Miles Davis, Clark Terry and Shorty Baker. Some people can even name Lester Bowie, Ray Kennedy, Ronnie Barrage, Oliver Lake, John Hicks and Hamiet Bluiett as former area residents. But few are aware that over the last 20 years, scores of young jazz musicians have left the Gateway City for more fertile jazz pastures and are developing respectable careers.

Bassist Christopher Thomas and pianist Peter Martin, both University City High School graduates, first achieved notice while backing saxophonist Joshua Redman on several recordings. Trumpeter/vocalist Jeremy Davenport, and also U. City grad., settled in New Orleans where he studied with Ellis Marsalis, toured with Harry Connick, Jr. and now fronts his own light swing group. Drummer Marcus Baylor now tours with vocalist Cassandra Wilson and bassist Steve Kirby, although not a St. Louis native, is a regular member of Cyrus Chesnut's group. They and many others left to pursue dreams that could not materialize in St. Louis.

"I was lucky when I moved to New York, I was only there a few months before I got signed to my first record label," says 27-year-old trumpeter Russell Gunn. "One of the main reasons you move to New York is to accomplish that." Gunn performed February 11, 1999 at the Sheldon in a tribute concert to Miles Davis that also featured two other young trumpeters: local sensation and high school student Keyon Harrold and "former St. Louisan" Marlin Bonds. Harrold already has plans to move to New York in the fall and Bonds attends William Patterson College in New Jersey and hones his tone with New York gigs.

Born in Chicago and raised in East St. Louis, Gunn started making a name for himself while a student at the now defunct Lincoln High School-Davis's alma mater and famous for its jazz program. His soon-to-be-released debut recording with Atlantic Records, entitled "Ethnomusicology Vol. 1," melds his two favorite idioms: jazz and hip-hop. "I don't want to be labeled a jazz a musician because I'm much more versatile than that," says Gunn from his new Atlanta home. Gunn has released three straight-ahead CDs, his latest on the High Note label is entitled Love Requiem, and features two other former St. Louisians: pianist Shedric Mitchell and saxophonist Greg Tardy.

Alto saxophonist Greg Osby says that while he was at Soldan High School he was a misfit, touring with funk bands on the weekends, wearing new suits and listening to straight-ahead jazz. But even while in high school, and later at Howard University, Osby was New York minded. Living there since 1983, Osby is part of a small cadre of NY musicians pushing jazz in progressive directions. He's been on the prestigious Blue Note jazz record label for nine years and is known for his frank views on jazz, jazz media and the industry, not to mention his stunning technique. The 38-year-old was scheduled to perform on March 24 ('99) at the Delmar Restaurant and Lounge as part of Blue Note's New Directions tour, featuring a sextet of the label's new talent

Osby says St. Louis was an important jazz city because "it's at the crossroads, people had to cross St. Louis and used it as a stop-off point. It had a lot of residual feel from the regional differences, so people came up with the Texas sound, the cool West Coast sound, the Chicago sound or some of the more edgy New York cats would all set up shop and then leave. It was the real melting pot and people tested their wares before moving on."

Osby's own music is difficult, creative and forward thinking, but never far from the soulful flame of that St. Louis pot. "I liked to dip and dabble. New York is like really weird because people say you can't this and that, so they don't know how to peg me. I don't adhere to just one thing," Osby says.

In 1982, saxophonist Eric Person left St. Louis at the age of nineteen. Unlike Osby, Person played jazz exclusively while living here. But similar to Osby's experience, Person was alienated from his peers.

"It was never common because all the kids didn't know what jazz was or even cared," the 34-year-old Person says. From the time he was 11 years old, he was gearing up for his New York move.

"From that time until I was 19, I was doing a lot of studying, playing in all the bands at Normandy High School and some different bands outside school," explains Person. "It wasn't until I took a trip, when I was 18, that I really knew that New York was exactly where I needed to be." Since his arrival, Person has issued three recordings as a leader and has performed on several of drummer Chico Hamilton's discs. From 1993 to 1995, he was one of several altoists to fill the late Julius Hemphill's-another former St. Louisan-spot in the famous World Saxophone Quartet.

For these musicians -- and the ones following in their footsteps -- New York represents the Holy Grail. But, as Gunn says, New York can either "help you or destroy you if you don't have any self control." This year Gunn moved his family to Atlanta because "I didn't want my daughter to grow up in New York and after I got with Atlantic it took the meaning of moving to New York away." And even though he nabbed a recording contract early upon his arrival, Gunn says it's taken this long to get on a major label like Atlantic that allows him some creative freedom. He's had bad experiences with smaller labels and has had his share of frustrations. "You can't be creative a lot of times because the record companies want you to play stuff people already know," he says.

Osby walked the line between the mainstream jazz scene while participating in the experimental M-Base collective. "I was a bit disappointed," Osby says about his first year in New York. "This being the jazz mecca I thought there would be a lot more collaboratives, more open exchanges amongst musicians, more scenes where cats would hang out and talk shop and opportunities to get together with the elders." What he found were cliques and rigid warrens of musical styles.

Person says that when he arrived, "all I wanted to do was perform with the great musicians." He's done that while maintaining his vision of performing his own style of jazz playing. "Until I accomplish what I set out to do, I can't leave here."

Michael J. Renner covers jazz for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Columbia Daily Tribune and Jazziz.

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