St. Louis has produced more than its fair share of great saxophonists over the years. The list includes bebop and hard bop heroes (Oliver Nelson, Jimmy Forrest, Ernie Wilkins), avant-garde greats (Oliver Lake, Greg Osby), even a crossover jazz star (David Sanborn). One thing those guys have in common is that they all left town for metaphoric greener pastures.
Willie Akins is the St. Louis jazz sax great who stayed put. "He's the most important, longstanding jazz mentor of the St. Louis region," said Australian-born pianist and educator Simon Rowe.
"Probably so," the 71-year-old Akins agrees, with a chuckle. "All the other guys are gone. They moved to other places or have passed on."
Akins did head to New York City himself, way back in 1957 at the ripe old age of 18. And he got to play with some Big Apple heavyweights back in the day -- notably Roy Haynes and McCoy Tyner. He also got to hear his acknowledged inspirations in person. "John Coltrane, Hank Mobley, George Coleman, Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins. I like to say -- 'all the good ones.'"
But Akins returned to his hometown decades ago, when his father was dying of lung cancer. And he's been a bandstand mainstay and teacher there ever since. "I'm still teaching jazz combo, as an adjunct professor at Webster College," he said.
The tenor man with the big classic bop sound teaches quite a bit outside the classroom, too. "Willie has presided over the longest-running jazz gig going in St. Louis, once a week at Spruill's -- it's been a scene for over 15 years," Roe noted. "And he's mentored a string of up-and-coming musicians at those gigs."
Rowe produced the great album "Alima" back in 1998. This month, he's gathered the band from that CD for a brief Midwest tour that comes to the Artists' Quarter Wednesday. It's quite an ensemble, with players from all over the globe. Bassist Willem von Hombracht works regularly with Akins in St. Louis, but he was born in San Francisco and grew up in the Netherlands. Rowe grew up in Sydney, Australia, but now resides in Fargo, and teaches at Minnesota State University, Moorhead. And super-drummer Montez Coleman, one of those talented St. Louis kids whom Akins mentored back in the day, now lives in New York City and tours the globe in Roy Hargrove's band.
"We haven't played together as a group since we made that recording," Akins said. "It's going to be a fun reunion. Then at the end of the tour, I understand the plan is to record a new CD."
It's about time. Thirteen years between albums is too long even for Pink Floyd. And Akins has a classic sound that deserves exposure outside St. Louis. He will be making his Twin Cities debut next week. Better late than never.