On an overcast Tuesday night in downtown St. Louis, the streets are predictably quiet — at least since the Cardinals are playing an away game in Los Angeles. But in the shadow of Busch Stadium, along Broadway, three of the city's best-loved music clubs — Beale on Broadway, the Broadway Oyster Bar and BB's Jazz, Blues & Soups — are doing brisk business. The one-block strip is a dependable destination for locals and visitors. Outside of BB's, a couple smokes cigarettes and speaks French in hushed voices; inside, a woman with an Australian accent inquires about the club's titular soup selection. And on stage, two performers — one old, one young; one a native and the other a transplant — are working through a set of blues tunes for an attentive audience.
Tom Hall and Ethan Leinwand don't get a chance to play together too often, but their sets are a fitting picture of St. Louis' blues heritage. Hall is one of this city's most beloved and respected musicians, a humble sage of the steel resonator guitar and an embodiment of Soulard-bred cool and nonchalance. Leinwand is less well-known, but it's not for lack of trying; the 34-year old Connecticut native moved to town three years ago and has set about preaching (and performing) the gospel of St. Louis piano blues.
On the sidewalk outside of BB's, once he and Hall have divvied up the door money, Leinwand walks through a few of the tunes he and Hall performed that evening. His love of history and its many musical entanglements in St. Louis is evident from his song selection.
"I did a St. Louis one by a guy named Stump Johnson," says Leinwand, "and he was cool because he played down on the levee, in the sporting houses. His brother was a talent scout for all the local companies, so a singer like Victoria Spivey, a famous blues singer, came up from Texas and went right to his record shop to get a deal."
Leinwand's brown bowler makes him look a bit like a John Hartford devotee, but with his tortoise-shell glasses, lanky forearms and modern-antiquarian mien, he fits the role of someone whose heart throbs to the striding, syncopated beat of early 20th century music.
Leinwand talks excitedly about his latest project, the 2nd Annual St. Louis Piano Festival, which will feature Leinwand and a handful of local and national performers, each pulling on a different thread of piano music from the 1920s and '30s. "A big part of the popular stuff was from St. Louis — that's the stuff I fell in love with before I came here, and really what brought me here," says Leinwand.
"In St. Louis, it was a low-down style," Leinwand adds, comparing it to styles of barrelhouse and boogie-woogie piano in other parts of the country. He describes low-down piano as "a sparse sound; it's generally an accompaniment, so the left hand will just hit out quarter notes or a crude-style shuffle." He talks about the "hidden beauty" in that style of playing, which was often meant to accompany vocalists.
Leinwand has grown into that St. Louis style since moving here — he's become a vocalist in his own right and partnered with Valerie Kirchoff, better known as local singer and bandleader Miss Jubilee. He does weekly solo gigs at the Gramophone and Yaqui's as well.
How did a New England-born piano player fall in love with the St. Louis blues? "It was the search for music," Leinwand says. "It was the search for a specific piano sound I was looking for."
That search for piano-driven blues music led him across the country — briefly to New Orleans, then a six-year stint in New York — before his scholarship led him to St. Louis and its roster of innovative, if largely forgotten, piano players. In his nearly three years in St. Louis, Leinwand has only seen the interest in traditional blues music grow.
"It's fun to be a part of the scene that I fell into here — Miss Jubilee, Rum Drum Ramblers, Gaslight Squares," he says. "To see more people in town trying it and building it up, it's a really cool and rare thing. It speaks to what I love about this town."
Leinwand sees himself preserving and promoting our city's musical heritage; it's also a reciprocal arrangement. "St. Louis is a blues town. For me, as a blues piano player, I'm in the very best place I can possibly be," he explains. "I can talk about it, because it connects with the town spiritually. I get to play for a knowledgeable fan base who is passionate and makes it their responsibility to come out and support it."
If there's a certain backwards-looking element to Leinwand's passion, he makes it his mission to tie the music to the present and continue what he sees as an interwoven tapestry of musicians. "What I like about St. Louis is that almost everyone is from here, almost everyone is playing music, and they can talk about the guy that they heard when they were fifteen that made them learn it," he says. "You feel the lineage so strongly."