By Jason Vasser-Elong
The past belongs to those who remember. Think about a time when St. Louis was filled with artists, musicians, writers, and others full of ideas and excitement.
Chestnut Valley, near modern-day Union Station, provided a lifeline for countless musicians at the turn of the 20th century, where ragtime flowed freely at the Rosebud Café. A few blocks away, the organization that would become today's St. Louis Symphony Orchestra was performing as the St. Louis Choral Society.
Lurking on the horizon was an influenza epidemic and the Great Depression. People were struggling to make ends meet. Picture St. Louis then, as you walk along its streets, some with names that have changed. The people long gone who knew it well fade into photographs, tucked away on shelves or in old chests.
Imagine what you would hear as you approach a storefront that was once a theater. Beyond the car passing in the distance. Its awning tattered and worn. Listen for the sound of history floating on the wind like the notes from Miles Davis’ or Clark Terry’s trumpets. Back then, it was everywhere. On river boats, in saloons, bars. That old ragtime, the blues, or the buzz that could be heard on street corners, in suburban homes, and in taverns. Even across the sea, you could hear jazz from the radios of Europeans, becoming infatuated with the genre.
The spirit of jazz would inspire St. Louis-born Freda Josephine McDonald, who the world would come to know as Josephine Baker. Jazz, an American creation, could never be confined to the shores of this country and neither would she. She embodied the spirit of the music that could be heard from anywhere and by anyone. Music can be a universal language and the St. Louis Sound, specifically, is celebrated at the Missouri History Museum, now through January 2023.
When you enter the gallery, you’re greeted by sight and sound. A mural honors the faces of local musicians, while a two-minute recording from “The St. Louis Tinfoil” plays. The recording is from June 1878—the heyday of composers like Antonín Dvořák, Johannes Brahms, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky—and is likely the first recorded piece of music. It opens with a man’s voice reciting the nursery rhymes “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Old Mother Hubbard.”
Andrew Wanko, the History Museum’s Public Historian, says the museum “wanted this exhibit to be an introduction, where you could spend an hour or two and get the big picture of just how many genres here in St. Louis have been a crucial part of America’s music.”
The exhibit explains the revolution of how music has been captured and shared. From the phonograph cylinder, which was the first device to successfully play back recorded sound, to the shellac 78 rpm records, through the 1930s, also known as the “Golden Age of Radio” onto the Walkmans of the 1980s and into Mp3 players and the smartphones we use today. It’s clear that music is important to listeners, that it provides something unique, and that the artists were at the center of that experience.
There are many artists featured in the exhibit, which has something for everyone to appreciate. “We decided pretty early on,” says Wanko, “to focus on the city’s popular music.” From early ragtime artists such as Scott Joplin and Tom Turpin, to blues singers Little Milton, Eva Taylor, and Big George Brock, the exhibit not only talks about their music, but explores their lives and the circumstances that led them to St. Louis or to the blues. The exhibit also mentions promoters like Mama Lou, with her diamond-studded teeth, feather boas, and white parasols, along with other characters with larger-than-life personalities.
The exhibit peers into the lives of the people who made the music. Mentioning a young, introverted Miles Davis and his friendship with Clark Terry, a pianist that he admired. Or how a young Anna Mae Bullock first saw Ike Turner perform with his band, the Kings of Rhythm, at the Manhattan Club in East St. Louis, Illinois. And how on one night in 1957, during an intermission, she would seal her destiny with the band by singing a blues song by B.B. King.
Like the spirit of jazz, rock-n-roll also has roots in St. Louis, with Chuck Berry and Johnnie Johnson, as well as The Welders, an all-female punk group who followed their dreams. The spirit of creativity runs through the streets of St. Louis and its surrounding neighborhoods. The DJ Gentleman Jim Gates was the first in the nation to play the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rappers Delight,” igniting the inner city’s hip-hop scene.
Punk and hip-hop inspire youth to raise their voices. They are both genres in which youth took their troubles and talents and create, from the world around them, cultures that allow them to express themselves. Much like the jazz of the 1920s, this new age of music would usher in new ideas of meaning and purpose. From the style of dress to the content of the music, these two genres cement themselves as parallel examples of how fluid music has been over the years and impact it has on its listeners.
History Repeats Itself
Today, the sound of St. Louis is just as diverse as it was in the days of the Rosebud Café. The past belongs to those who remember. The Delmar Loop hosts everything from hip-hop, to blues, to rock-n-roll and smooth jazz at the Pageant, or Blueberry Hill, providing a lifeline for countless musicians at the turn of the 21st century. Further east on Delmar, at Powell Hall, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra plays on, nearly 150 years later. The Great Recession of 2008 and the COVID-19 pandemic looming on the horizon. People struggling to make ends meet. Picture St. Louis then, as you walk along its streets, some with names that have changed. The people long gone that knew it well, how they fade into the photographs in books and family albums that are tucked away on shelves or in old chests. How they find themselves in museums, at least for a time, capturing the essence of how life influences the music we make.
If you listen for the echoes of the past, you can start to understand their stories and hear them in musicians of today—from Honey Tribe and Redding to artists like Tonina and today’s SLSO.
Jason Vasser-Elong, the author of Shrimp (2Leaf Press, 2018) earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Missouri–St. Louis. He has poems in SAPIENS, forthcoming in New Square and others. Jason is currently a doctoral student in the college of education at UMSL and will be the SAPIENS poet-in-residence for 2022.