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We've got a right to tout the blues
  By Kevin C. Johnson   Post-Dispatch Pop Music Critic   11/15/2003

St. Louis Blues means only one thing to hockey fans: the 36-season hockey franchise that boasts current and future Hall of Famers Glenn Hall, Bernie Federko and Brett Hull as former players.

There's also "St. Louis Blues," an 89-year-old tune written by W.C. Handy and performed by hundreds of musicians, from Louis Armstrong to Glenn Miller.

And then there's the St. Louis blues, a geographically specific form of the musical genre.

Those St. Louis blues are the musical legacy of dozens of artists. Whether area natives, transients or transplants, they all spent significant time here making music. The list of major names includes Albert King, Ike Turner, Chuck Berry, Henry Townsend, Little Milton, Big Joe Williams, Roosevelt Sykes, Walter Davis, Tommy Bankhead, Peetie Wheatstraw, Oliver Sain, Johnnie Johnson, Billy Gayles, Lonnie Johnson, Victoria Spivey and Jackie Brenston.

"St. Louis has had such an impact on the blues, and different associated genres," says John May, a founder of the St. Louis Blues Society. "St. Louis was in the center of it all. We've been blessed. We've been able to absorb a lot of different directions of music and incorporate that into the St. Louis sound. That isn't Delta blues or Chicago blues or jazz, but it has those elements, all in the large melting pot of St. Louis blues music."

Now, imagine an institution comprehensive enough to contain all of that St. Louis blues music - its deep-rooted history, its effect on the city and its culture, and its influence on artists elsewhere. A consortium of St. Louis blues experts and supporters is proposing just that: a national blues museum located on Laclede's Landing near the riverfront.

The old Switzer Building, a once-endangered building that was home to the licorice manufacturer, is at the top of the list of possible locales for the proposed museum. A new facility would be cheaper, but the feeling is that the earthy history of the blues plays better in an old, rehabbed building.

Supporters are wishfully eyeing a $10 million budget and an opening in late 2005.

The museum would look at blues music as a whole, with a significant amount of exhibition space dedicated to St. Louis artists. Two theaters would accommodate lecture and performance space, and both education and entertainment would be major components of the museum.

A temporary museum would open in a space near the permanent location to house some exhibits and keep the momentum going until the real deal opens.

At this point, however, the ambitious undertaking is at its absolutely earliest stage of development. No money is invested in the project, and sources for the necessary money aren't yet identified. No location has been finalized. No staff is close to being hired, though a committee calling itself the St. Louis Blues Museum Foundation is working to acquire nonprofit status.

An initial meeting was held this summer to discuss the viability of a blues museum in St. Louis. Among those in attendance were May, Mike Kociela of Entertainment St. Louis, Tom "Papa" Ray of Vintage Vinyl, Kevin Farrell of Downtown Partnership, Jim Orso of St. Louis Archdiocese, Steve Owings of Morgan St. Brewery, Craig Heller of Loft Works and John Clark of Jake's Steaks.

Although the consensus in the room was that plans for a museum should proceed, what exists now is essentially an oversized dream.

St. Louis stakes its claim

If that dream is realized, the museum would join such other music institutions as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland; the Experience Music Project in Seattle; the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City; the Rock 'N' Soul Museum in Memphis; the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Miss.; the Folk Music Museum in Greenwich Village; and the Motown Museum in Detroit.

But before the project can move forward, enough people will have to believe St. Louis is the rightful home for an institution honoring the blues. Some folks complained, for example, when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum was sited in Cleveland. Cities such as Chicago, New Orleans and Memphis could all claim bragging rights to such a museum, and all boast equally strong - or stronger - blues heritages.

Dawne Massey, director of the foundation, argues strongly for the city's claim. "St. Louis is just as ripe to call itself a primary blues city as Cleveland does a rock 'n' roll city," she says. Massey, who is also executive director of the Laclede's Landing Merchants Association and organizer of the Big Muddy Blues Festival, says a St. Louis museum makes perfect sense.

She points out that the city served as the "crossroads" as blues artists traveled north to south and east to west. Massey also notes that the blues continue to thrive in St. Louis. "St. Louis is lucky to have such a great local music scene," she says. "One thing I've noticed is that you can go hear live blues just about any night of the week somewhere."

Massey hails from Memphis, a city well know for its blues heritage, but when she came to St. Louis in 1994, she says she was impressed by the city's thriving blues scene.

"It's justified," agrees Mark O'Shaughnessy, president of BB's Jazz, Blues & Soups. "I think it's a great idea. There're plenty of people in St. Louis who pioneered the way for music nationally and internationally. There's a ton of people here who were recording pioneers. St. Louis was the place that incubated talent that went on to national acclaim when they went to other cities where there were industries of musical activity."

"I think there absolutely should be a blues museum here given the fact that St. Louis is one of the foundation cities in the world in the history of blues music," says Ray, who also hosts the "Soul Selector" show on KDHX-FM (88.1). "It's only logical, if not overdue, that a blues museum be founded on the riverfront of St. Louis. The establishing of a blues museum would be a very crucial step in St. Louis' recognition of its own cultural worth."

Robert Santelli, director and chief operating officer of the Experience Music Project, is pulling for St. Louis. "I think it's very important for Americans to continue to preserve and celebrate its roots and popular legacy. Even though Chicago gets the bulk of the credit, without question St. Louis has a very long and rich history and would make a great home site for a blues museum.

"It's all about people with a mission who can put their money where their mouth is. St. Louis has just as much claim to it as any other city. If they're anxious to do it, I applaud them."

In addition to the Experience Music Project, Santelli helped oversee the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and he's president of the Seattle-based Music Museum Alliance. He also authored "Big Book of Blues: A Biographical Encyclopedia" and edited "American Roots Music."

"I get excited about this, as a blues person," he says. "What we don't have is a national museum that's dedicated to preserving the entire history of the blues. That's the ideal location, right on the Mississippi River, and it'd act as an attraction, a reason to come to St. Louis."

Artifacts are limited

Santelli does have words of caution and advice for the museum organizers to consider. For starters, he says they shouldn't except the same hoopla that surrounds rock-museum openings. "That won't ever happen with the blues. But with great blues education programs and maybe a festival built around the museum, it could be very successful and play a big part in the national landscape."

He also points out that, unlike rock 'n' roll museums, which feature abundant memorabilia, a blues museum won't find such items as easy to come by. Santelli has already secured many blues artifacts for the 5,000-square-foot "Sweet Home Chicago" blues exhibit at the Experience Music Project that coincides with 2003's Year of the Blues theme.

"I can tell you that we had to search high and low for artifacts, especially early artifacts," he says. "Many of them were either left with collectors or they don't exist. If you were a poor blues musician living in the '40s and you had this suit, after you passed it was used again. Somebody else wore it. No one thought to preserve it because it might wind up in a museum."

He suggests a national blues museum would work best if it weren't artifact-driven and says there are creative ways to construct dynamic exhibits that aren't based on artifacts. An exhibit can be interactive, for example.

Santelli also believes any music museum, to be successful, must have a strong educational component, one teachers can rely on. It should be a place where students can take field trips to learn stories with blues backdrops that relate to both specific locales - St. Louis, the South, the Midwest - and issues such as race. "Funding is easier with an institution dedicated to education," says Santelli. "The mission is stronger, and it's not just an attraction. All great institutions are ultimately educational."

And funding will prove the museum's biggest hurdle, Santelli assures. A business plan must be drawn that looks attractive to business and civic leaders in the city and state. The museum must figure out how to make itself self-sustaining. "There are novel ways to work that out, lots of plans for St. Louis to look at," he says. "You have to make sure you're creating something with a sound financial strategy to allow it to succeed."

He suggests keeping costs in check, making sure the museum is affordable to visitors and nailing down a strong vote of confidence from the community. The latter component involves educating the public about how the museum can become an important part of the city's cultural landscape.

Where to get the money

Massey is familiar with all of Santelli's points. The foundation is just beginning to come up with a development plan to raise funds. "There are lots of ways to come at people," she says. "Everyone I talked to says to go to Anheuser-Busch, but everybody goes to them for everything. There are a lot of other corporations what would fit with this." Massey mentions Emerson and Enterprise as examples.

A meeting with Mayor Francis Slay's development office went well, says Massey. Kociela notes that the museum would provide an economic boost to the city and deserves its support. "It would be an incredible asset for the Landing, without a doubt," he says. "It would be another tourist attraction, which we need. It'd be a great focal point for blues showcases and bring a lot more attention to the Landing, which could help with the redevelopment of the streets and bring more money to the area."

Once built, the museum should also generate significant revenue of its own. "If you build it, they will come," says Massey.

She agrees that education should be a key part of the museum, making it eligible for grants. But Massey says it must be presented "in an entertaining way. That's something Santelli did at both museums - training teachers to use the music as a way to reach students. I'd like to do something like that as well. St. Louis schoolkids need to know about the blues."

Finally, Massey acknowledges that there aren't a lot of blues artifacts left out there, but says she'll make up for it through technology. "People don't want to just look at dusty artifacts," she says. "They want computers." And she is counting on May to provide some key St. Louis artifacts. "We're getting all our ducks in a row," says Massey. "Now it's just a matter of getting them to march." St. Louis Blues Museum

Proposed location: Switzer Building on Laclede's Landing
Approximate size: 80,000 square feet
Projected cost: $10 million-plus
Expected funding: St. Louis-based corporations, educational grants
Target opening: late 2005

Critic Kevin C. Johnson | E-mail | Phone: 314-340-8191

Republished with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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