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. …