When my April 29 Jazz Unlimited Show on St. Louis Public Radio aired, I entered my 30th year of broadcasting jazz on the same station. It has been a joy to serve the St. Louis community with this great music. Jazz is music for my soul, and the music has gotten me through both good and troubled times. I hope that the music that I play does the same for my listeners.
I was smitten by the sound, feel and emotion of jazz in 1958, when a group of my high school friends started listening what was not “teenage music.” Seeing the Miles Davis sextet with Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane showed me a level of artistry that I could not imagine, and I decided right then, like Paul on the road to Tarsus, to follow and study this music the rest of my life. I started collecting records in 1959, spending my lunch money to buy them. The ones I couldn’t buy right away were carefully hidden in the country and western bins of the local record shop until I had the money for them.
I became a student of the history of the music. Where did it come from? Why did this style happen? What differentiates a great player from a good one? I found out quickly that it had nothing to do with publicity, and, later on, not with a lot of real history.
The late '50s was the beginning of the Civil Rights Era, and during that time, I participated in freedom rallies and wrote columns on racism for my high school paper. Until the Black Nationalist movements of the mid-to-late '60s, jazz was, for the most part, a meritocracy. In the fraternity of musicians, what mattered was how well you played, not the color of your skin, not your social standing and not what you did when you were off the stand. That meritocracy has returned over the years since the late 1960s. However, color blindness has never existed among the audience, the promoters and recording companies.
This lack of colorblindness in audiences and in politically correct public officials has led to more that a few conversations that I cringe thinking about today. I get a few calls every year to recommend jazz group for public events. Invariably, the conversation turns to, “the group has to be African-American because we need to get the most diverse audience.” This is an assumption on their part that African-Americans like jazz at greater rates that other ethnic groups. Surveys show that about the same percentage of African-Americans like jazz as other ethnic groups. I hate having these conversations.
By the time my late wife and I got to St. Louis in 1969, I had been studying and listening to the music from eras of jazz for 20 years, and when I was not being a scientist (my real job) and husband, I pursued this music as much as I could. Charlie Menees did jazz shows on Saturday night for KWMU and I listened, eventually getting to know him through a series of classes he gave. His choices in music were very conservative, and I asked him if I could present some things about more modern players. When I did a short talk on modern saxophone playing, I started with the wildest part of a Flip Phillips tenor solo from Jazz at the Philharmonic. Most of the class blanched, and would have left, if I didn’t tell them whom the player was. They then thought what I played was pretty good, because Flip was a name they could associate with a style they liked. I learned that if you do it right and train their ears, you can take an audience into almost anything. Some individuals will even cast aside their prejudices.
In 1983, I was helping Jim Wallace with the KWMU jazz show, providing him with records and advice and doing occasional guest spots. These went so well that Jim and I decided to do a “jazz duo” thing every Saturday night. This continued until 1986, when I was moved to Sunday night. Having grown up listening to good and bad jazz shows, I decided to bring real organization to each show. I quickly realized that the same 10 people were asking for the same 10 records, so I stopped taking requests for on the spot gratification, and only promised to make their request parts of the next show where it could be played in the right context.
I also realized that most of the jazz audience was, and still is, fragmented into groups who love Dixieland, swing, bebop and other styles and had a difficult time hearing anything else. In order to keep and serve an audience if I played something out of its comfort zone, I realized that I had to bring it along with music moving from the easiest to the most difficult. You can only do that successfully by bringing in a carefully prepared playlist. That is a principle I adhere to today. I believe that opening the request line gives a sense of fragmentation to the show, and shows a decided amount of laziness on the part of the disc jockey.
Talking to people, I realized that most who are not jazz fans think that all jazz sounds the same. After listening to many other jazz shows, I came to the conclusion that they were right. So, I started trying to get much texture and color into the show. An hour of listening to mostly bebop quintets offers very little texture or color. To me, texture means different size groups and vocals, with no two of the same type being next to one another. Color has to do with the emotional temperature of the music by using bright or somber tempos and happy or somber sounding tunes or meters. Another color is missing from my announcing “Jazz Unlimited:” the color of race.
There are things I resolved not to do when I went on the air in 1983. I didn’t want to copy or emulate anybody else’s style. I wanted the music to speak for itself without the hype of “this, or he, or she, is the greatest.” I wanted the announcing style to remain calm. And I decided not to bring attention to myself by using “catch phrases” or wearing specific articles of clothing.
I believe I have been successful in my mission. Jazz Unlimited has won the “Best Jazz Show Award” in the Riverfront Times six out of the last seven years. The only year missing from that string was 2008, when my wife died and I had a heart attack.
In 1986, I produced a documentary on the jazz history of St. Louis that ran for 19 hours, and included many interviews with St. Louis pioneer jazz musicians. That became the basis of my book, City of Gabriels, The Jazz History of St. Louis 1894-1973. I hope to resurrect that documentary during my 30th year.
I use weekly themes to make certain that I don’t play the same things over and over. If I played only my favorites, I could go on forever. For instance, I have enough John Coltrane in my collection to play for two hours every Sunday night for an entire year. I also play music and musicians that I do not like, but that’s for me to know and for the listeners to find out. If I didn’t do it this way, I could not be serving the widest possible jazz audience in St. Louis. Health willing, I hope to continue presenting this great music as long as I have the imagination to keep coming up with new themes and ways to present the music.
Dennis Owsley holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and is a retired Monsanto Senior Science Fellow and college teacher. Jazz Unlimited is heard every Sunday night from 9 p.m. to midnight. It has the largest jazz audience in St. Louis, and was named “Best Jazz Radio Show” in St. Louis for the years 2005–07 and 2009 by the Riverfront Times. In, 2008, n celebration of his 25 years on the air, January 24 was proclaimed Dennis Owsley Day in the City of St. Louis. Owsley is the 2010 winner of the St. Louis Public Radio Millard S. Cohen Lifetime Achievement Award.