Growing up in the west county suburbs of Ballwin, Jenna Bauer would often fall asleep to the sounds of classical music. Her bedroom was situated above the listening room where her father, Merrill, would spin sides of Beethoven and Shostakovich, along with occasional pop and jazz records.
Those sounds drifted upward, and the influence on young Jenna was both immediate and long-simmering; she would study orchestral music throughout school and, as she entered her late 30s, take up singing jazz standards around St. Louis.
A visual artist by trade, she had spent several years living and working in Manhattan and upstate New York. About five years ago, the symptoms from Merrill's ALS brought Jenna back to St. Louis to assist in caring for her father. Between creating her own art and her teaching schedule, Bauer found moments of respite in spending time with her father, often engaging in his favorite pastime.
"His life became very complicated but was very simple — all he could do was watch politics and listen to classical music," Bauer recalls. "He listened to mostly CDs, but we would bring up boxes — 'go get all of the Les Paul records' — and we would listen to every one of them."
Merrill Bauer died on April 30 of this year. Jenna Bauer and her brother had to contend with clearing out their childhood home and deciding what mementos of their parents they wished to keep. But given that their father was an avid audiophile with a literal ton of vinyl in his collection, parting with a lifetime of music collecting was an additional obstacle.
Merrill Bauer's collection grew to around 7,000 pieces of vinyl; given his career as an engineer, it's not surprising the fastidiousness with which he cared for his bounty. On the jacket, he would note any surface noise on the grooves; on the record's protective sleeve, he would write down the date of the last cleaning. For crate-diggers used to coming across dinged, scratched, poorly maintained wax, Bauer's collection is about as well-preserved as any set of 60-year-old LPs could be.
But neither Jenna nor her brother had any use for such a haul and, given both their state of mourning and their need to clear out the house, an estate sale was planned.
After Bauer pulled her picks — Sam Cooke, Willie Nelson, Billie Holliday — the estate-sale planners were dismayed by what was left. "Nobody wants this stuff — nobody," Bauer recalls being told. The company planned to sell the rest by volume, something of an insult given the care with which Bauer's father maintained his collection.
At the sale, some lucky bidder was going to get an entire shelf of records for $5; Bauer, ignoring the advice against attending one's own estate sale, bid $10. "The intensity of that moment was surreal," she recalls. "Am I prepared to take 4,000 more records that are dearly collected and cared for?"
Bauer ended up with those 4,000 records, carting them back to her studio space in South Hampton. She hosted an open-house sale in the early fall where friends and looky-loos could comb through the crates; every LP was listed for a dollar and all of the proceeds supported Colorbridge, an after-school arts nonprofit that Bauer volunteers with.
At this point, Bauer has sold off a few hundred titles and a friendly neighbor has agreed to purchase the rest. As she continues to part with her father's collection and consider the lessons he imparted during his life, Bauer finds herself in a reflective mood.
"What I contemplate a lot is, 'What's most important to me?' The teaching, the painting and how important it is for me to make oil paintings, and then the singing," Bauer says. "There is a large amount of joy that music brings to people, and me personally, when I'm up there singing these standards."
Bauer performs regularly with guitarist Dave Black and bassist Ben Wheeler, including a monthly gig at 33 Wine Bar in Lafayette Square. Drummer Micah Walker will join them for a quartet show on December 8 at the Judson House, a listening room/house show space in Grand Center.
"This is a listening room; people come to these shows knowing that no one will be talking, and it is a direct conduit," she says of the show. "I'm almost thinking about singing without a P.A. Every gig that I have, I sit down and plan for what feels right for the first song to come out of my mouth."
Bauer's gig planning is a good cross-pollination of the artist and musician parts of her brain. She groups songs by topic or mood — heartbreak, unrequited love, bliss — and builds a set accordingly. With a touch of synesthesia, she often thinks of the songs according to their color.
"I actually have all my songs cut as pieces of paper so I can arrange the order without erasing or using a computer screen," Bauer says. "'Love Me or Leave Me,' 'Around Midnight,' 'Caravan,' all of these darker, more complicated, heavier songs that have more of a maroon vibe to them than a sunny, yellow-red-orange vibe. It's kind of a weird aesthetic categorization of jazz songs."
That type of methodological thinking about art comes naturally to Bauer, as both an artist and art instructor. And given that she has spent much of this year surrounded by rows and rows of old music on an antiquated format, she is well-suited to think of music as a three-dimensional object, as something more than just a transmission of sound. When she sings, Bauer is using old songs to transmit something a little more substantial.
"I think that the role of the singer is really exciting," she says. "Just being able to just have a little humanity and connection with your audience."