St. Louis Has Nourished American Culture

Article excerpt

On Sept. 6, NBC telecast a special, "The Apollo Theater Hall of Fame," honoring three great African-American artists, Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye and Dick Gregory. In introducing Gregory, comedian David Alan Grier referred to Gregory's childhood in St. Louis and quoted his mother's aphorism, "We're not poor, just broke." Then, in an aside, Grier quipped, "Isn't everyone from St. Louis poor?"

The implication that St. Louis is some kind of cultural backwater was especially incongruous in light of the fact that two of the three honorees - Gregory and Berry - are from St. Louis.

Grier to the contrary notwithstanding, St. Louisans are not necessarily culturally deprived. But American culture as a whole would be impoverished were it not for the contributions of St. Louis' artists, especially its African-American artists. Anyone seeking to test the validity of jazz critic Albert Murray's characterization of American culture as "incontestably mulatto" would do well to begin in the Gateway City.

The influences of St. Louis' black community on American culture as a whole have been enormous and varied, but a few broad generalizations can be made.

First, St. Louis artists have repeatedly demonstrated an impatience with the artificial, arbitrary boundaries that serve to confine art and have pioneered in stretching the limits of various cultural forms and genres.

Scott Joplin, for instance, part of a vibrant local artists' community in the early 20th century that was crucial in establishing the international popularity of ragtime, constantly sought to expand the possibilities of the music. In composing such ragtime ballets and operas as "Treemonisha," he challenged the stereotype of ragtime as the music of "happy darkies," though the commercial failure of his more serious works demonstrate the difficulty black artists have had in breaking the molds white society has fixed for them.

Other local artists have worked to create an eclectic syncretism, a fusion of disparate cultural sources into a dynamic blend that has pushed forward the artistic frontier.

Lonnie Johnson, a seminal blues guitarist who worked with Bessie Smith in the '20s and '30s, was one of the first to integrate jazz influences into the blues (he also played with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington). And anyone interested in tracing the origins of rock 'n' roll should check out Johnson's 1948 rhythm and blues record "Tomorrow Night."

Similarly Berry created his distinctive sound by merging the Chicago blues with country and western influences and the jazz phrasings of such musicians as Louis Jordan. And the brilliant jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, who perfected the St. Louis-style - with its emphasis on smooth and sweet playing in the instrument's middle range - to establish his reputation as one of the great musical innovators of the post-World War II era, outraged musical purists in the late '60s by integrating rock rhythms and instrumentation into jazz to create a revolutionary new form. …