What We Talk About When We Talk About The Blues

It was a Friday night in St. Louis. People shuffled through the dark entryway and into the bar, where the warm glow of red and green and orange lights glinted off the microphone’s shiny steel grille. A collage of paint, signs, posters, statues, charms, and other antique odds and ends coated the walls, like a swirling voodoo spell. The singer, wearing a floor-length velvet dress and feathers pinned in her hair, held the microphone stand, and welcomed the stragglers inside with twinkling eyes.

Sarah Jane and the Blue Notes. Photo by Mike Vangel.
Sarah Jane and the Blue Notes. Photo by Mike Vangel.

Behind her, the band struck up its first number, a hep swing tune. A full rhythm section — bass, keys, guitar and drums — backed her, while the sax, trombone and dual trumpets filled out the melody and harmonies.

Finally, she closed her eyes and sang with a sultry voice reminiscent of Billie Holiday herself.

As the band worked its way through ballads and jump blues, one minor detail belied the fact that this singer wasn’t a contemporary of Lady Day: no cigarette smoke. By 2015, a few things had changed.

But you would hardly have known it at the Venice Cafe, where Sarah Jane and the Blue Notes debuted the group’s sophomore album, Sarahnade En Bleu. The CD release party had to be there, according to Sarah Jane, because it “was one of the first bars to really believe in us.”

And the support was tangible, as friends of the band and strangers alike crowded in to take in the spectacle. People young and old bounced to the rhythm of the drums, and skeletons danced in the air from their chains, as the Blue Notes swung through standards like “Hard-Hearted Hannah.”

“This is something I’ve wanted to do since I was sixteen,” Sarah Jane said later on that night, talking about how the group got started four years ago. The band has been entertaining St. Louis and touring the country ever since.

The group’s songbook is filled with music from the interwar period (mid-1920s to roughly 1942), but what separates the Blue Notes from similar groups is the way that era’s aesthetic permeates even its members’ choice of clothes and instruments. For Sarah, the pursuit of this vintage vibe has grown into an entire lifestyle.

“I’m a historian,” she said, adding, “I’ve been collecting since before I could drive.” She has acquired a trove of art-deco artifacts, from clothes to home appliances.

She turned the hobby into a business with a vintage shop on Cherokee Street in the early ‘90s, but the initial reaction was muted at best. “The other antique dealers laughed,” she said. “They thought it was hilarious.”

That seems naive in hindsight; but then, at some point you also have to question what compels a person to convert their home into a functioning Art Deco museum, complete with cabinetry from a drugstore and an old soda counter, as Sarah Jane has. She credits her fascination with the time period to a perceived style and elegance which, in her eyes, have been lost.

“Stuff before that period, like vacuum cleaners, were very ordinary-looking,” she explained. “And then, during that period, the style of everything stepped up.” Equal focus applied to both form and function; beauty built into the everyday.

While Sarah Jane is still out of the ordinary, she’s hardly alone. Several other local bands, such as Miss Jubilee and the Humdingers, have made names for themselves performing swing and jump blues songs so old that they’re more modern relics than “classics.”

With clubs starting to cater to these swingers (no, not that kind), like the Thaxton Speakeasy, where Miss Jubilee holds weekly gig for Prohibition Night, they’ve continued to grow in popularity around town. That old timey influence has spread beyond St. Louis’ boundaries as well, most notably through Pokey LaFarge, one of the city’s more popular exports.

Photo by Steve Truesdell.
Photo by Steve Truesdell.

And this expanding interest in pre-war culture around St. Louis may be about to take off in a big way. Later this year, the National Blues Museum plans to finally open its doors to the public in its rehabbed space on Washington Avenue, and they anticipate a sizeable influx of tourists. On a recent trip to St. Louis, executives from the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, who are advising the Blues Museum, had some simple advice for the River City: Get ready.

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Prior to this effort there were a few regional museums, such as the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi, that were known to attract visitors from all over the world. But there wasn’t a blues museum with a national scope.

According to museum cofounder and STLBlues.net-creator Dave Beardsley, filling that void was the primary motivation for the project — but he also expressed hope that it could restore the city’s reputation. Piano-heavy St. Louis blues and its close cousin, jump blues, he explained, were among the most popular styles in the 1920s and ’30s, before being overshadowed by the electric guitars and harps of Chicago, which have dominated airwaves ever since and left St. Louis’ blues legacy mostly forgotten.

With 100,000 tourists expected in its first year, however, there is palpable hope that St. Louis will reclaim its title as one of America’s blues cities, among the ranks of Chicago and Memphis.

That isn’t to say that the museum will turn St. Louis into another Memphis (God help us), but there is a very good chance that it will shape how people around the world think about both the city and its music.

The museum’s mission is primarily educational, “to tell the complete story of the blues — and the people who created it,” per museum board of directors chairman Rob Endicott’s words. But that ought to make you wonder what sorts of stories they will tell.

While the idea that “the blues speaks to vital aspects of the story of race in America” is basically true, the particulars of their plan are troubling. To say that the blues “soundtracked [African-Americans’] path to empowerment within American society,” as the museum’s official educational goals states, seems to skirt the fact African-Americans still face systemic racial injustice in this country. And while some African-American blues artists certainly improved their respective economic situations, they still tended to get screwed over by label-owners and promoters on things like publishing rights and royalties (case in point: Chess Records).

There’s nothing wrong with celebrating pieces of America’s cultural heritage, but waxing nostalgic about the eras that created them can be dangerous. Many people who lived through the Great Depression, the intense xenophobia of the 1920s and ’30s, and Jim Crow segregation didn’t later yearn for the good ol’ days. There would be a sort of sick irony in ignoring that fact, especially in a year when St. Louis has been forced to grapple with its 20th Century history under such intense national scrutiny. We’ve been forced to consider how tensions over things like city planning, school zoning, and community policing  smoldered and smoked for decades, until Michael Brown became one dead black kid in the street too many, and the city finally caught fire.

And so, as St. Louis prepares to launch a major new venture, one centered around a piece of both the city’s and the country’s histories, it is imperative to ask: When we look at our past, what do we really see?

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Photo by Mike Vangel.
Photo by Mike Vangel.

Back at the Venice Cafe, Sarah Jane and the Blue Notes wound down the set to a fading crowd. Though people had packed into the bar midway through the show, once midnight struck, the audience was just a flicker of what it had been.

The few people remaining sat at their tables, finishing their cocktails and beers as Sarah crooned her way through the last few numbers. The trumpets laughed softly over the sweet melodies of the saxophone, and the audience gazed at the band, floating along in a boozy dream.

The group grooved through “When I Get Low I Get High,” and Sarah Jane thanked everyone for coming. Then, the music stopped. People in the audience awoke from their trance and paid their tabs. Within a few minutes, the musicians had broken down their gear and packed up, and they too disappeared out the front door and into the night.



 

A version of this story originally appeared as “How Will We Tell the Complicated Story of the Blues in St. Louis?” in the Riverfront Times.