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St. Louis gets ready to showcase the blues for much more than a week

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 23, 2011 - The second annual Bluesweek Festival returns to St. Louis Aug. 25 through Sept. 4 with 10 events packed into its 11 days. The centerpiece of Bluesweek will be the free music festival Aug. 26 and 27 on Washington Avenue and 6th Street, featuring a host of talented area musicians.

But there's plenty more to Bluesweek than the two-day music fest. A "Blues Cruise" on Sept. 2 and 3 features admission to music at 10 clubs in Soulard and downtown St. Louis for a one-time fee of $10 a night. The second annual St. Louis Blues Awards on Sept. 4 at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room will honor five area legends - including Chuck Berry, who will attend. And there are blues harp and guitar workshops, a blues history panel discussion, a blues brunch and an opening cocktail reception on the agenda as well.

The Bluesweek Festival has moved from its 2010 location in front of the Peabody Opera House to Washington Avenue for one reason: The northwest corner of 6th and Washington, just west the music stage, is where Bluesweek producers, groups such as the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis and dedicated music fans envision the future home of the National Blues Museum.

The dream of a St. Louis-based Blues Museum has been floating around for quite some time. Back in 2003, there was an effort to build support for a Blues Museum on the site of the old Switzer Building on Laclede's Landing. But financial support and funding for the proposed museum never materialized.

Despite that setback, several individuals involved at various levels in that effort -- including Mike Kociela of Entertainment St. Louis, John May of BB's Jazz, Blues & Soups and the St. Louis Blues Society and Dawne Massey, former executive director of the Laclede's Landing Merchant's Association -- along with Dave Beardsley of www.stlblues.net, are once again working to make the dream of a National Blues Museum in St. Louis becomes a reality.

Should their efforts succeed, the entire area could benefit, but more on that later.

A Blues Museum Downtown

The push for the Blues Museum began to build momentum again as work on the first Bluesweek started in 2010. Kociela and May had worked on the annual Big Muddy Blues Festival on Labor Day weekend for several years and were both ready for a change.

Inspired by a visit to the famed New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Kociela decided to try to create a event in St. Louis that would focus on the rich blues tradition that has been built over the last century. Rather than bringing in national acts to headline, as the Big Muddy Fest had done, he wanted to put the spotlight on St. Louis blues. He contacted May and began to build a team to make Bluesweek a reality.

As the plans for the first Bluesweek event came together, so did an opportunity to build a National Blues Museum in St. Louis.

Spinnaker, the company developing the Laurel Building on Washington Avenue (formerly home to Dillard's) was looking to fill the ground floor with a unique attraction. The blues museum seemed perfect fit.

"I really wasn't that involved the first time the blues museum concept for the Landing came up in 2003," Kociela said in a telephone interview while on his way to a museum fundraising meeting. "But everything seemed to begin to fall into place last year once Bluesweek got rolling. Many cities have tried to make this happen in the past -- including us a few years ago. But now the time is right."

Such a development also may be coming at exactly the right time to help St. Louis not only attract additional tourist dollars -- but do it in a way that recognizes the unique contributions St. Louis-area musicians have made to blues music and traditions, as well as to jazz and R&B, which are both strongly influenced by the blues.

At the news conference for Bluesweek in 2010, Maggie Campbell, president of the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis, underscored the importance of using music and its history and continued vitality to make the St. Louis area more attractive to visitors.

"With this blues entertainment and educational complex coming alive, downtown St. Louis could actually be reaching its tipping point," Campbell said last year. "St. Louis is joining the ranks of cool cities like Nashville and Austin and Memphis, cities that have built upon their rich cultural heritage of music, where in every one of those cities that energy has fueled creativity and commerce."

Traveling to Music

The energy that musical heritage attractions can bring to a city -- or to a rural area -- was clearly apparent during a recent weekend visit to Memphis and a stop beforehand in the small town of Dyess in northeastern Arkansas.

Dyess was the home of country music legend Johnny Cash from the time he was 3-years-old until he graduated from high school in 1950. Recently, Arkansas State University purchased the Cash home in Dyess, intending to restore it as accurately as possible to the period he lived there.

More than 7,000 fans came to a fundraising concert at Arkansas State's Convocation Center on Aug. 4 to hear an all-star lineup of Rosanne Cash, Kris Kristofferson, George Jones, Rodney Crowell and others pay tribute to the music made famous by Johnny Cash.

More than $300,000 was raised to restore the house and eventually build a Cash Museum in nearby Dyess. As I learned from a visit with Dyess Mayor Larry Simms, the restored Cash home and Childhood Museum has given the tiny town of 400 big hopes for the future.

"The town had been going down for quite awhile," explains Sims. "We were losing population and the school closed. But this has really given us hope that there is a real future for Dyess. And it's all due to the fact that Johnny Cash lived here. He was more popular overseas than Elvis, because he toured all over the world. We already get people coming from Europe, and now they'll actually be able to see his restored home and a Museum."

Unlike tiny Dyess, Memphis is a major metropolitan area. But a quick look at the city's tourist marketing makes it plain that Memphis' musical roots are a major part of its draw as a tourist destination.

It starts, of course, with Elvis Presley's home, Graceland. Sun Studios (where Johnny Cash recorded his first hits) has also been a draw for many years. But in recent years, Beale Street has been reworked to become a cross between a bluesy hybrid of Gaslight Square and -- for better or worse -- incorporating the more touristy aspects of New Orleans' French Quarter.

But real music fans can visit the must-see Stax Museum on the south side of the city, as well as the acclaimed Rock 'n' Soul Museum (affiliated with the Smithsonian) and the Gibson Guitar Factory -- both very close to Beale.

According to Sid Selvidge, a respected member of the Memphis musical community for decades who also produces the weekly PBS radio show, "Beale Street Caravan," Memphis tourism marketing is clearly focused on music as a prime pathway to attract visitors.

"There's just so much musical history here that it would be hard not to miss it," says Selvidge as he drives me around the city for a tour of music sites and barbecue joints. "It's not that some of the folks doing the marketing actually know that much about the music and the history they're trying to sell, but it doesn't seem to matter much. There's just so much to choose from."

Back to St. Louis Blues

Like Memphis, St. Louis has a strong musical story to tell, from the ragtime era of Scott Joplin through the early jazz bands on the riverboats and thriving blues scenes in sections of the city like Deep Morgan (think the riverfront around Delmar). And names like Miles Davis, Ike and Tina Turner, Chuck Berry, Oliver Sain, Johnny Johnson and a host of others who all had deep musical roots in the area mean there are plenty of interesting chapters to communicate.

But aside from the Scott Joplin house, no museum is dedicated to music in St. Louis. Kansas City has the American Jazz Museum. Cleveland has the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and Nashville has the Country Music Hall of fame and Museum. Even Clarksdale, Miss., has the Delta Blues Museum.

So why build the National Blues Museum right here in St. Louis? Perhaps the better question might be — why not?

Start with a central location on the Mississippi River that has plenty of blues roots and history. To that, add some experience.

Robert Santelli worked with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum as vice president of education and public programs, was the CEO and artistic director of the Experience Music Project in Seattle and is the executive director of the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles. He's on board with the National Blues Museum as a consultant and advocate of the St. Louis location.

"Robert's endorsement and participation has really given the Blues Museum effort credibility far beyond St. Louis," says Rob Endicott, partner at the law firm of Bryan Cave, trumpet player with the Voodoo Blues Band and chairman of the National Blues Museum's Board. "And when you combine St. Louis' central location with the fact that we have a very active blues music scene, I think it makes a great combination. Cleveland made the commitment to make the Rock and Roll Museum happen there, even though the history is a little tenuous. I think we have the resources to make the National Blues Museum happen here, and make it a great fit."

Despite all the positives, the National Blues Museum will only open its doors sometime in 2013 if the money is there. To that end, Kociela, Massey, Endicott and others are focusing on fundraising.

"This year's Bluesweek is really the kickoff for our major fundraising efforts,' concludes Kociela. "The Downtown ball will be at the Peabody Opera House this year and funds raised will go to the National Blues Museum. We're ready to send out our sponsorship Powerpoint, and I can let you know today that we've now got Donna Wilkinson on board to head up fund-raising, as well as Mike McCarthy of the St. Louis Blues Hockey team. As I said, the time is right to make this Museum happen. It's just too important. And it will happen."

For more information about the effort to build the national Blues Museum in St. Louis, go to https://www.nationalbluesmuseum.org/.

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.

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