In St. Louis, there are important efforts afoot to both preserve jazz’s history and nurture its ongoing cultural health. The jazz presenting organization Jazz St. Louis recently shut down for the best of reasons: it is undertaking a $10 million campaign that will “reimagine and expand” the venue’s presentation of the music. Already a key destination for national touring acts, the revised Steward Center for Jazz will seat 220 by the fall season and will be the Midwest’s answer to New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center. It is part of a trend toward non-profit cultural centers such as JALC and San Francisco’s new SF Jazz Center that give a kind of final stamp to jazz as a subscription series-ready art music, though Jazz St. Louis director Gene Dobbs Bradford has made innovative efforts to keep his organization involved in music education in the region as well as making Jazz St. Louis concerts affordable for younger listeners. While there may be legitimate concerns that venues such as these may weaken an already marginal for-profit jazz club scene in America’s cities, these spaces may end up being the only places most people with any interest in the music are bound to venture. Los Angeles’s Jazz Bakery is also committed to a new Frank Gehry-designed building in Culver City, following the trend.The history of jazz venues is a fraught one. Also in St. Louis, efforts are underway to preserve the Palladium, which until after the war went by the name of Club Plantation (I comment in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s article here). New York’s Cotton Club was the model for the Plantation’s segregated presentation, with black performers and white audiences. As I recount in my concluding essay in Gerald Early’s Miles Davis and American Culture, this was the world in which Davis cut his teeth as an aspiring young musician. Billy Eckstine’s touring band featuring Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker flouted the Plantation’s segregation policy by walking through the front door in 1944. The band repaired to the Club Riviera, which catered to black audiences. “Afterward,” I wrote based on Davis’s autobiography, “he knew that he would leave for New York to play with Bird and Diz. St. Louis’s racism changed music history.”
I also mentioned in Blue Notes in Black and White that the romantic image of jazz musicians photographed in smoky clubs often disguises shady business practices and difficult working conditions during the classic era for jazz. One of Jazz St. Louis’s great virtues practiced over the years is to consider its venue a “listening room” free of the very smoke that Herman Leonard’s photography captured so dramatically. The policy began with founder Barbara Rose and Bradford and his staff remind patrons to “keep conversation to a minimum” before every set. Treating the music and its practitioners with respect is something of which the new jazz venues may be proud.
While jazz clubs have almost always had a tenuous economic hold, they become important community spaces for those who love the music. San Francisco’s Keystone Korner, owned and managed by Todd Barkan in the 1970s and early 1980s, was one of these special places. In 2014, CSU Fullerton’s Center for Oral and Public History and the departments of History and Music plan to present a multimedia commemoration of Keystone Korner based on the work of photographer and oral historian Kathy Sloane. My students worked directly with Kathy this past spring to plan an exhibition on the club, and their show will recall a time when you could hear Art Blakey or Dexter Gordon for a few dollars in a cramped club with fellow jazz lovers of all persuasions who didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world. There will be more information on the Keystone Korner celebration in the coming months.
So best of luck to Jazz St. Louis, the Jazz Bakery, to those hoping to save the Palladium building, to the New Orleans and Harlem and Chicago clubs fighting to stay alive sometimes in opposition to forces within their own cities. However it is done, the spirit Kathy Sloane found at Keystone Korner has a chance as long as the music’s fans are willing to take the risk for what they love.
 “Remembering Miles in St. Louis: A Conclusion,” in Gerald Early, ed., Miles Davis and American Culture (Missouri Historical Society, 2001), 194.