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“I grew up thinking art was pictures until I got into music and found I was an artist and didn’t paint.” – Chuck Berry
Music is a universal language. It helps people express themselves, form connections and break down barriers. From storytelling to bridging cultural differences, music – and musicians – have played a significant role in society over time.
Missouri has been the home to incredible Black musicians who shaped genres, pioneered new styles, and set the standard for musical performance.
Characterized by its syncopated rhythm and the combination of African American and European influences, Ragtime paved the way for future genres of music, specifically jazz.
Faced with blindness, poverty and discrimination, John William “Blind” Boone discovered his talent for music – he could play nearly every instrument he laid his hands on – at an early age at the Missouri School for the Blind. He went on to form the Blind Boone Touring Company in 1880, which became famous for mixing many genres and creating a new sound that came to be known as ragtime.
Scott Joplin is widely recognized as the most prominent ragtime performer and composer, earning him the title “the King of Ragtime.” He began publishing sheet music when he was living in Sedalia, including his most famous composition, “Maple Leaf Rag,”released in 1899. He would go on to compose numerous ragtime productions, an opera and a ballet.
Originally called the blues because of the melancholy subject matter of the songs, the blues genre eventually expanded to include songs that describe all emotions set to a classic call-and-response structure.
Blues music thrived in St. Louis where some of the most prominent blues musicians in the world, including Henry Townsend, Albert King and Little Milton, migrated to learn and perform. Born in St. Louis in 1933, Bennie Smith didn’t have to go far to immerse himself in the music he loved. He is best known for his use of the electric guitar and helping to create a style of music specific to the area called “the St. Louis sound.”
Eva Taylor, another St. Louis native, was practically born performing the blues. As a three-year-old, she started performing and touring with a vaudeville show. However, blues music was always her passion and when she settled in New York in 1920, she continued to sing. In 1922 she began recording her music for labels and was even broadcast on the radio.
Over time, an offshoot of blues called rhythm and blues, or R&B, was formed. It was within this subgenre that Herb Reed found success. Reed grew up in poverty in Kansas City, but he found solace in singing with his friends. However, it wasn’t until he moved to Los Angeles in the 1940s that he began pursuing a career in the music industry. In 1953, he formed The Platters, a still-iconic band that recorded nearly 400 songs – all of which featured Reed.
Blues and R&B music has remained relevant over time with Missouri-born performers such as James Gadson, Akon and SZA keeping it fresh for new audiences.
Widely known as one of America’s most popular music genres, jazz borrows heavily from different musical styles that combine to form a fresh, new sound accented by each musician’s personal improvisation.
Charlie Parker developed his love for music in his hometown of Kansas City. The city had a thriving jazz scene and legendary performers often filtered through the numerous venues and clubs. In the 1930s Parker began participating in jam sessions and gaining attention for his talent on the saxophone. He joined several prominent bands throughout his career and helped pioneer bebop. Today, he’s recognized as a jazz legend.
Born on the other side of the state in St. Louis, Miles Davis watched Charlie Parker’s career in awe. He moved to New York to attend the Juilliard School of Music in 1944, but he gained real-life experience by joining Charlie Parker’s band as a trumpeter. Eventually, Miles led his own bands and established himself as a visionary who was constantly pushing the limits to keep jazz relevant in the musical landscape.
Coleman Hawkins was barely a teenager when he started performing the saxophone in public, but his career took off in earnest in 1922 at 17 years old when he joined the Jazz Hounds – the first of many bands he joined throughout his career. Hawkins is best known for incorporating the saxophone into a musical piece independent of the melody, which became wildly popular.
Missouri has truly been a haven for jazz and many incredible musicians grew up in the Show-Me State, including Ben Webster, a masterful saxophonist; Clark Terry, who performed with The Tonight Show Band for ten years; and Walter Page, best known for his innovative playing of the double bass.
Rock ‘n’ Roll
Rock ‘n’ Roll music exploded into popularity in the 1950s. It was edgy, defiant and suggestive, which made it appeal to younger generations. Some consider it an “electrified” version of the blues except instead of the typical shuffling beat of blues, rock ‘n’ roll is injected with high energy.
Born in St. Louis in 1926, Chuck Berry started his music career by singing in his church choir and taking guitar lessons. But it was his ability to expertly fuse music styles that led to the revolutionary creation of rock ‘n’ roll. As he skyrocketed to fame, he won over both Black and white audiences and helped Americans come together during a time of racial divide. Berry was the first artist to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He set the standard for rock ‘n’ roll music and his influence extends to this day.
Bridging the gap between R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, Ike and Tina Turner began performing together when they lived in St. Louis. Many of their songs became hits, and seven made it on to the rock and R&B charts. They earned a Grammy Award for their cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” in 1971. Tina Turner is now known as the “Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame twice – once with Ike Turner and once as a solo performer.
Rap music has roots in traditional West African storytelling, but it evolved into the musical style we know today in New York’s Black communities in the 1970s. Artists use raw rhythmic speech and lyrics as a form of expression. Before long, rappers from all across the country were gaining mainstream attention and popularity.
In 2000, the single “Country Grammar” launched Nelly into popularity – the Country Grammar record went platinum nine times over. But before he reached the Billboard charts, he was performing locally in St. Louis with his band, the St. Lunatics.
Chingy, another St. Louisan, toured with Nelly and also graced the top Billboard charts with singles “Right Thurr,” “Holidae In,” and “One Call Away.” He dabbled in acting and made appearances on Punk’d, My Wife and Kids, and George Lopez.
Strange Music, Inc., an independent record label based in the Kansas City area, was founded by Missouri natives Travis O’Guin and Tech N9ne. A nod to Kansas City can be found in many of Tech N9ne’s lyrics, but his hometown pride is most evident in his songs “Kansas City” and “Red Kingdom” – a song written for the Kansas City Chiefs football team.