04/24/06

Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival

Despite being the hometown of an incredible array of musicians—legends Miles Davis and Clark Terry; great players such as Oliver Nelson, Jimmy Forrest, Oliver Lake and Hamiet Bluiett; and contemporary cats like Greg Osby, Marty Ehrlich, Russell Gunn and Marcus Baylor—the St. Louis area didn’t begin hosting an annual jazz fest until the debut of the U.S. Bank Saint Louis Jazz Festival in June of 2001.

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Clark Terry

Now that annual event has some increasingly serious competition from the Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival, which celebrated its third anniversary April 21-22 with performances and day-long student band clinics at the area’s top jazz club, Jazz at the Bistro, as well as at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Missouri St. Louis.

UMSL—specifically the University’s Jazz Studies department—organized and produced the event. Bassist, bandleader and educator Jim Widner, Coordinator of Jazz Studies at UMSL, is working to lengthen the festival, feature more noted performers and clinicians and increase the event’s community outreach.

This was the first year the Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival ventured off the UMSL campus for its clinics and concerts, using Jazz at the Bistro as a site for student combo clinics during the day and performances by both student and visiting musician all-star groups at night. Two student combos, featuring top local high school musicians chosen through an audition process run by Jazz St. Louis, the non-profit organization that books Jazz at the Bistro's lineup, opened the evening. Billed as the THF Realty All-Stars (after the local company that funded the educational outreach project), the young musicians turned in swinging versions of McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance,” “Birdland” and “Oleo.”

The Bistro’s operations manager, Bob Bennett, led both groups and played tenor sax as well. The young all-stars included Pete Schlamb on vibes, pianists Brad McDonald and Holly Mead, sax players Bryan Fritz and Rob Frye, drummers Christopher Sell and Sean Mullins, Josh Williams on trumpet, Jake Popper on guitar and bassist Scott Strathman.

Drummer Jeff Hamilton, sax player Tim Ries, Scott Whitfield on trombone, Clay Jenkins on trumpet, pianist Ken Kehner and Widner on bass joined together as the pro all-star aggregation, closing out the evening with some burning solos on “Time After Time” and “Billie’s Bounce” (which also showcased Whitfield’s scatting vocals). Appropriately, the evening concluded with the young musicians joining the pros on stage for a final jam.

After a full day of big band clinic performances at UMSL’s Touhill Performing Arts Center on Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., the Fest wrapped up with an evening concert headlined by St. Louis “homie” Clark Terry. Before Terry hit the stage for the second set, the program opened with Widner leading UMSL’s Jazz Ensemble, joined on various tunes by special guests Ries, Jenkins, Whitfield, Kehner, bass trombonist Tom Matta and Jay Saunders on trumpet. The student ensemble was impressive and tight throughout the first set, and Ries and Jenkins turned in spectacular solo turns on Thad Jones’ “Groove Merchant” and Bobby Troupe’s “The Meaning of the Blues.”

The highlight of the evening, of course, was Terry’s homecoming appearance in St. Louis. At the age of 85, physical ailments have slowed Terry’s gait and ability to get to his place on the stage. But once he positioned himself on a chair at the front of the stage, the famed horn player proved his lip is still in fine shape.

After warming up by sharing solos with Ries on the Frank Wess composition “Dirty Old Man,” Terry turned in outstanding flugelhorn work on “Stardust,” and then added some droll vocals to his horn playing on “Squeeze Me.” Next was another favorite from the Ellington book during Terry’s years with Duke, “Come Sunday,” featuring more of Terry’s melodic, flowing approach to the flugelhorn.

No Terry performance would be complete without an off-the-wall take on “Mumbles,” his free-form take on bluesy, slightly intelligible scatting. The audience responded with a standing ovation for Terry, the visiting musicians and the UMSL Jazz Ensemble, providing a fitting ending for the greater St. Louis Jazz Festival—and another step in its growth.

In fact, dates for next year’s Fest have already been announced, and the event will double in length to a four-day event scheduled from April 18-21, 2007.

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