National Blues Museum Meets Fundraising Goal, Begins Construction on World-Class Blues Experience

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The home of the National Blues Museum on Washington Avenue. - GOOGLE MAPS
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  • The home of the National Blues Museum on Washington Avenue.

When the National Blues Museum announced on December 11 that it had completed financing and was ready for construction in downtown St. Louis, business executives and music fans around the metro region became excited. After all, a world-class tribute to the blues located on Washington Avenue could drive all kinds of economic and cultural development.

But Rob Endicott, chairman of the board of the National Blues Museum, isn't merely excited about the museum; he's also confident that this is the piece that will forever connect the Gateway City with a style of music that has contributed so much to America's rock & roll legacy.

He should know. He's a blues musician himself.

"It's been a great project for me and a labor of love. I just really get enthused about it," says Endicott, who plays trumpet in the Voodoo Blues Band, among other groups. "We've got a great history of the blues in St. Louis that people, I think, underappreciate."

Certainly, there was some surprise throughout the nation when St. Louis first broached the notion of claiming the country's foremost blues museum. Over the years, Chicago, Memphis and other cities have pushed for the honor because of their own long-time associations with the blues, but those efforts largely have slowed or stalled. St. Louis simply offered up its own legacy as a key blues city along the Mississippi River, worked out a proposal and funding, and got the job done.

"We don't ever claim that we're a more appropriate place [for a blues museum]," Endicott cautions. "We love those other cities; we don't feel like we're trying to compete with them. We're celebrating the blues because we have a place in its history, and we love it."

That St. Louis legacy Endicott speaks of naturally includes many musicians who employed blues techniques and eventually became big names in rock & roll, such as Chuck Berry, Fontella Bass, and Ike and Tina Turner. But those who were more known for blues proper and who were influential to the genre in the Gateway City -- like Henry "Mule" Townsend, Johnnie Johnson and Walter Davis -- also earned rightful reputations as being master musicians.

"From a musical standpoint, the blues are the backbone of American popular music. It's this great intersection of African American roots and the blending of that with European traditions in a way that is uniquely American," Endicott shares. "It's literally almost in the DNA of music, and that's one of the things I really hope people take away [from the museum]."

Many blues musicians and celebrities are backing St. Louis as an appropriate choice for the National Blues Museum, including legends Buddy Guy and Denise LaSalle, actors John Goodman and Morgan Freeman, and musicians Jack White, Robert Cray and Derek Trucks.

Moreover, Devon Allman, the son of Gregg Allman of the Allman Brothers, is a National Blues Museum board member. Growing up in St. Louis and later touring with a variety of acts (including his bands Honeytribe and the Royal Southern Brotherhood), Allman has championed the museum's importance to music history.

"Finally the blues -- its rich, storied history, its unique cast of characters and its mojo -- has a home we can all be very proud of," Allman said in a recent statement. "This genre of music which has influenced so many artists throughout the last century is so very deserving of this museum."

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"Somebody like Devon -- obviously his family background [is important], but beyond that, he's just such a great artist in his own right. He's another guy who will just get your heart pumping about things," Endicott says. "[Devon will] say something like, 'Well, we've got to do something [in the museum] on the slide guitar, because my uncle was the greatest slide guitar player in the history of slide guitars, so we've got to do that right,'" Endicott laughs.

At 601 Washington Avenue, the National Blues Museum has long branded its street-level space with colorful "Coming soon!" imagery, but the road to actual construction has been long.

The museum originally was proposed in 2003 but saw no real action until 2010. "There was a series of meetings, and I think the idea was developing with the Spinnaker [real estate] folks who were doing the MX [Mercantile Exchange building]," Endicott says. "The idea sort of grew from a blues bar to a St. Louis blues hall of fame to a national blues museum."

Endicott says that enthusiastic response continued, eventually with high-stakes players like St. Louis mayor Francis Slay weighing in and Bob Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, playing a key advisory role.

"He's sort of the guy in the deep background who was whispering in our ears, 'You can do it! I want you to succeed,'" Endicott says of Santelli, who also is a former vice president of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and CEO of the Experience Music Project in Seattle. "He wrote our initial curatorial plan and introduced us to the designers who did the Grammy Museum and other places he's been involved with."

On December 11 of this year, the museum announced that it had reached its financial target of raising $13 million, which Endicott says is a combination of about $7 million in donations and about $6 million in financing (federal and state historic tax credit financing, among others). It was a large donation in late 2012 from Pinnacle Entertainment that gave the tax-credit path some momentum, and with all funding now in place, the museum has wasted no time bringing in crews to start constructing walls and installing electrical systems.

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At completion, the museum is expected to include 16,000 square feet of interactive galleries and exhibits that will feature artifacts as well as technology. There also will be a theater, a special-events space and classrooms, with plenty of programming available for the public and educational institutions. Additional funding after opening day will enhance exhibits even further, provide curriculum-based music education and add a new performance space. The National Blues Museum is also planning to host temporary exhibits of collections from other cultural institutions and already has a National Blues Museum radio broadcast in place, hosted by Christian Cudnik.

Endicott says the building -- which will encompass 23,000 square feet in total -- is aiming for a late 2015 opening, hoping to coincide with the celebration of CityArchRiver's riverfront construction efforts.

"This is a project that doesn't fit neatly into one bucket, and that's been one of the fun things," Endicott says. "It's also a challenge because it's a complex business operation, plus it's a museum, but it's not like a traditional museum. And Bob [Santelli, of the Grammy Museum] has told us this a million times: 'It's one foot in the museum world and one foot in the music world.'"

It all adds up to a huge project -- something that would be awfully time-consuming for a busy musician to assist with, let alone lead. But National Blues Museum chairman Endicott isn't just any musician; he's also a partner at law firm Bryan Cave who has seen his share of complex ventures. Endicott became involved with the National Blues Museum in 2011 when museum co-founder and STLBlues.net owner Dave Beardsley happened to mention the endeavor.

"He'd been sort of hitting the pavement on this project and telling everybody who would hear about it," Endicott explains. "I overheard him talking about it to somebody else in the band, and I said, 'Hey, do you need some help? Because I do other things besides play in a blues band.' And he was sort of like, 'Oh! OK! Then do you want to be on the board and be chairman of the board?'"

Endicott laughs and advises, "Never raise your hand."

For more information, visit nationalbluesmuseum.org.

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