The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will join Marsalis for the grand opening Thursday of the Harold & Dorothy Steward Center for Jazz. Other big-name performers will follow, said Gene Dobbs Bradford, executive director of Jazz St. Louis.
Before undergoing a $10 million renovation over the past few months, the space was known as Jazz at the Bistro and was a popular jazz hangout for decades. Now, the space is one of the nation’s only major performance and education centers devoted specifically to jazz, along with Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York and SFJAZZ in San Francisco, Bradford said. Although St. Louis is much smaller than those coastal cities and attracts far fewer jazz-loving European tourists, Bradford said he has high hopes for what the new venue will bring.
“This is going to offer an example of how, in markets like St. Louis, you can have a thriving place for jazz,” Bradford said. “It’s easier to have a jazz center in New York City or San Francisco where you have a large population to draw on and they have a lot of tourists who will take advantage of the opportunity to hear American music. Our market is smaller here, but we’ve figured out a way to make it work.”
The space is named after longtime jazz lovers Harold and Dorothy Steward, whose son Dave Steward was the lead donor for the new center.
“I want St. Louis to have the Lincoln Center of the Midwest. Where artists will feel that they have enough support in enough opportunities to use St. Louis as a home base,” said Steward, who is chairman of World Wide Technology.
“We have a world-class symphony, museums, zoo and world-class sports team,” Steward said. “Now we will have a world-class center for jazz.”
The jazz center is part of the city’s Grand Center area, a thriving area of arts, music and entertainment. In addition to performances, it will feature two large rehearsal rooms for students, along with five practice rooms. Bradford said top jazz instructors will conduct weekly instruction sessions; visiting performers will also take time to teach the craft to young musicians.
“We have to make sure it’s not just a question of preserving our jazz heritage,” Bradford said. “We have to educate and train the next generation of great St. Louis jazz musicians.”
It’s not an easy task. The popularity of jazz, which peaked in the early- to mid-20th century, has waned as other forms of music – pop, rock, country, rap – have taken over.
So Bradford said the new center has created a space for people who want to drop in and listen to jazz without paying for anything. Large-screen televisions have jazz piped in, allowing the curious a taste of the improvisational-based music to whet their appetites.
Those who develop a taste will get a chance to see top-level performers. After Marsalis, suburban St. Louis native saxophonist David Sanborn will perform Oct. 8-11. Vocalist and guitarist John Pizzarelli is at the center Oct. 22-25. The eclectic list of performers includes the fusion group Jeff Coffin & the Mu’Tet in November and jazz violinist Regina Carter in May.
“We’re very intentional about programming a wide variety of jazz and trying new things,” Bradford said. “The music is going to evolve.”