A New Arrangement

 In Culture, Feature

Jazz St. Louis expansion reignites St. Louis as a music destination.


Exactly 1 mile from jazz pioneer and ragtime composer Scott Joplin’s house Downtown, Jazz St. Louis’ Harold and Dorothy Steward Center for Jazz opened its doors in a grand effort to reinstate the city as a national hotspot for the genre. The center, which was under renovation from late May until just before its Oct. 2 Opening Gala, now incorporates a completely renovated Ferring Jazz Bistro, the adjacent Nancy’s Jazz Lounge, the nonprofit’s offices and the Centene Jazz Education Center.

The renovation plans have been in the works for Jazz St. Louis since 2009, according to Gene Dobbs Bradford, president and CEO of Jazz St. Louis, whose mission is to advance jazz performance, education and outreach in the community. A portion of a $10 million capital campaign was used to purchase the building from Grand Center and the adjoining three-story structure from John and Sarah Van Doren. Another $6.7 million of it was allocated to the renovation (the remainder, enough to cover approximately seven years of operating costs, will be placed in reserves to sustain the center). Only SFJAZZ in San Francisco and Jazz at Lincoln Center in NYC have similar technological, acoustical and educational capabilities, Bradford says.

“We have a mission that people in the community believe in,” Bradford says. “I would like to see jazz be as popular in St. Louis as Ted Drewes. I think that by having something that people can really be proud of, it’s going to help bring that change about. We want to be the Midwest capital for jazz.”

Ferring Jazz Bistro, the main area of the venue, has been completely revitalized. Patrons with keen ears will fall in love with the acoustics of the space, designed by world-renowned acoustician Sam Berkow of SIA Acoustics, whose firm also executed the acoustic design for the SFJAZZ Center and Jazz at Lincoln Center. All 200 seats are positioned within 45 feet of the stage, which occupies the longest wall and is backed by an acoustic soundboard in rich wood tones. Designed pro bono by renowned St. Louis designer Jimmy Jamieson, a longtime series subscriber, the style of the room—and venue overall—is timelessly modern and elegant, with beautiful wood tables and ivory leather seats, as well as a wave of booth seating along the back wall.

“We wanted it to be very warm and welcoming,” Bradford says. “The jazz club as you usually see it doesn’t seem very welcoming. You think about it not being very clean and [being filled with] cigarette smoke. Everything is very comfortable and invites you to come in, sit back, relax and enjoy, so the environment is conducive to the concert experience. And the sound that we have here is world-class.”

Next door, Nancy’s Jazz Lounge (named after St. Louis arts patron Nancy Kranzberg) provides a resting place and watering hole for guests who come in from a walk through Grand Center. A large-screen TV streams concerts live from the adjacent venue, while modern couches and chairs—enough for an intimate crowd of 60—provide seating for groups of friends to enjoy live jazz and good conversation. While patrons in the lounge get a glimpse of what’s going on just a few feet away, jazz aficionados around the world do as well: The center’s concerts also stream online. During the opening night gala, people across the US and in Japan, Norway, France, Denmark and Spain all tuned in to hear Wynton Marsalis kick it up with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

On the third story, a floor above Jazz St. Louis’ offices, is the Centene Jazz Education Center, a 4,000 square foot facility built to enhance educational programs in area schools, as well as provide a space for community members looking to reignite their passion for jazz performance. Two rehearsal rooms hold weekly classes for small groups, taught by top jazz educators and visiting artists, and catered to both young students at partner schools and adults wanting to revive their musical talents in a low-key setting. A recording studio provides the means for the center’s live broadcasts, and six soundproof rooms serve as individual practice and one-on-one tutelage spaces, while a resource lab features composition software and a music library.

Bradford and those behind the plan expect the center’s revitalization, along with the extended reach and programming it facilitates, to double attendance in just three years.

“When you look at the wealth of art in high cultural institutions here in St. Louis, it’s really overwhelming,” Bradford observes. “One of the world’s greatest symphonies is here, a great art museum, great theater companies, great dance companies…it’s really amazing. The St. Louis community is so supportive of the arts. We wouldn’t be able to do this if it weren’t for a community that believed in the power that the arts have to enrich. We’re very, very fortunate here, and that’s why the arts are thriving in St. Louis.”

December couldn’t be a better time to check out the new space: Bradford’s top picks for performances to catch include Joey DeFrancesco Trio (“a soulful good time,” Dec. 3-6) and “A Very Manley Christmas” with Jim Manley’s Mad Brass & Rhythm Band (Dec. 12-13). The Jazz St. Louis Big Band will also give special holiday performances of the legendary Duke Ellington’s “Nutcracker” (Dec. 22-23).



Photo by Wesley Law

Photo by Wesley Law


Photo by Wesley Law


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