Local musicians hail Blake Travis
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 22, 2010 - Blake Travis, a musician in groups such as the Road Apples and Dangerous Kitchen, was also a talented professional storyteller with a special rapport with children. Travis, who died at age 60 from congestive heart failure on Feb. 26, is being honored this week with two memorial events.
When musicians come together to play a memorial event for one of ther own who has died, it's an honor. When a departed artists has two memorials -- well, that's a truly rare event.
But as anyone who knew Blake Travis can testify, he was a remarkable and talented human being who lived life to its fullest every day. He had the rare ability to make anyone he met see the world around as a brighter, more vivid place. He left behind a wife and three children, his mother, two sisters and other relatives.
It's fitting that Wednesday's concert will be at the Sheldon. Travis played there many times for the Sheldon's education outreach efforts. Paul Reuter, the Sheldon's executive director, recalls Travis' effect on the many young students who saw and heard him at the hall.
"At the Sheldon, Blake was a key member of two of our education programs -- Folk Music in the Melting Pot and Book of the Blues -- and numerous special concerts and projects for the good of the community," says Reuter. "Blake Travis was an amazing individual, a storyteller and musician who was able to connect to young people in ways that you can't put into words. He was kind and generous, always interested in others, and he made us all feel that we're in this together. We continue to miss him deeply."
Dale Benz, the Sheldon's longtime operating manager, put together the musical lineup for the concert, which features Carolbeth True, Sandy Weltman, Barton and Sweeney, the Road Apples, Lydia Ruffin, Lisa Campbell, Tim Albert, Sandy Weltman, storyteller January Kiefer and many musicians Travis worked with at the Sheldon, including Charlie Pfeffer, John Higgins and Tom Hall. Benz first met Travis at the Sheldon nearly 15 years ago.
"The guy rates as a rare person on this planet," he states "Even when you knew he wasn't doing well in terms of his health, he still had a smile on his face and was always laughing. He was such a great person to be around. He always brought you up if you were down."
Sunday's jazz funeral and musical tribute was organized independently of the Sheldon event by Travis' longtime friend, Doug Brown, and will feature the Funky Butt Brass Band leading the jazz funeral -- a New Orleans tradition that features a slow solemn march to the graveside, followed by a raucous, upbeat march back from the cemetery as the participants celebrate the life of the deceased.
"This jazz funeral is as much Blake's idea as it is mine," states Brown. "He told me that's something he liked, and I'm just trying to make it happen. If the weather's nice, we'll march outside, say a few words about Blake -- secular but hopefully spiritual -- then second line back to the upstairs area at the Tap Room," says Brown.
The music before will again feature the Road Apples and Barton and Sweeney, as well as members of Dangerous Kitchen and other musicians sitting in.
John Jump, a founder of the Road Apples, is playing at both events. Jump grew up in Webster Groves.
"I've know Blake since he was in high school," says Jump. "He was in that CBS television documentary, '16 in Webster Groves,' back in the 1960s, and he really stuck out in that.
"I won some recording time one year, and went into the studio with my friends, Bob Breidenbach and Bob Lawder to record an album," continued Jump. "Bob Lawder suggested that we bring in Blake. We all really hit it off, and Blake became a member of our band, the Road Apples. At these concerts, we're going to try and do songs that Blake either would have been part of -- or that bring back memories of him."
Filmmaker Kathy Corley, who teaches a documentary class at Webster University, was making a documentary about Travis when he passed away. She plans on incorporating footage of both tribute concerts into the final cut of the film.
"In my documentary film class at Webster University," she says, "I show '16 in Webster Groves' every year, and I also had Blake come in every year to talk to the students. That's how I really got to know him. I thought it would be interesting to do an update on the film, but eventually I realized what was most interesting were the things about Webster Groves that weren't in the original documentary. And Blake represented all of that to me -- the African-American community and the arts and music communities especially. To me, he was the connecting link. So we started making a documentary, with Blake as the focus."
Like everyone that Blake Travis encountered during his life, Corley has special memories of her friend. But for her, as well as many of his other friends, it's hard to pinpoint one that stands out.
"All my memories of Blake are special," she says. "He was so alive in every sense of the word when you were with him, that it's just very hard to realize that he's not here anymore physically. But his presence and spirit will always be with me -- and with everyone who met him."
Terry Perkins, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has long covered the local music scene.