Robbie's: the new jazz club in town
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 26, 2009 - St. Louis has had many famous jazz clubs over the years, from the 1920s era Chauffeurs Club on Pine Street, which catered to the segregated black musicians and audience to the ‘30s era Plantation Club, where black bands played for whites-only crowds.
In the 1950s, clubs like the Barrel on Debalivere preceded the boom of Gaslight Square music clubs such as the Opera House and the Tiger’s Den, and establishments like Peacock Alley, Club Riviera and the Blue Note in East St. Louis. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the Moose Lounge and La Casa featured the best local talent and occasional national artists.
Today, Jazz at the Bistro in Grand Center is the pre-eminent jazz venue in the area – but other clubs have recently attempted to present jazz on a regular basis as well. Cookies in Webster Groves was open for several years before closing at the end of 2008. And the St. Louis Jazz Café had a short run downtown before closing a few months back.
Now there’s another new jazz club on the scene. It’s called Robbie’s House of Jazz, and is located at the former Cookie’s location, 20 Allen Avenue in Webster Groves. Robbie’s had a soft opening in late September with performances by legendary baritone sax player Hamiet Bluiett.
Since then the club has presented poet Quincy Troupe backed by former St. Louis musicians Ronnie Barrage and Kelvyn Bell (both now working in New York City), pianist/vocalist Johnny O’Neal and St. Louis area musicians such as Reggie Thomas and Rick Haydon from the SIUE jazz faculty, and Ron Carter, former director of the Lincoln High band program in East St. Louis – and the current head of the Northern Illinois University jazz studies program.
One of the owners of Robbie’s, musician Robert Edwards, has also appeared frequently at the club with his big band and ensemble. Edwards' partner in Robbie’s is his wife, Dorothy Edwards. Recently I stopped by Robbie’s to sit down with both of the Edwards to discuss what prompted them to open a new jazz club – especially at a time when the economy has made spending discretionary income on live music a much tougher decision for most of the population.
“Actually, I’ve always wanted to open a jazz club,” says Dorothy Edwards. “My godmother had a jazz club years ago on Chouteau called Charlie’s. We used to go over to see her when I was growing up and I still remember the fun, the people and the music of that place. So when I took early retirement from Monsanto, I decided to do my homework and prepare to open my own jazz club.”
Dorothy enrolled in business classes, took part in the Women Entrepreneur program at St. Louis Community College, then earned her business degree at Fontbonne University. She also attended seminars in various cities – learning the ins and outs of running a music club. She even went to bartending school to understand that side of the club business.
“I was unable to get my bartender’s degree because of all the other commitments I had getting Robbie’s open,” she explains. “But it was a very valuable experience for me.”
She and Robert looked at locations in University City, Olivette and several other parts of metro areas, but finally decided that the old Cookie’s location in Webster Groves was ideal. “Not only was the location already established as a jazz club through Cookie’s, Robert also went to Webster University as did one of my daughters. I always liked the area and it just seemed like the right choice for the club I envisioned.”
Robbie’s plans on a mix of St. Louis and national artists for its entertainment schedule, and Robert Edwards certainly has the musical connections to make the bookings happen. A St. Louis native, he taught in the St. Louis City Public Schools and then at Normandy High School for 38 years. He has also taught at Washington University and has toured and played with an array of well-known jazz musicians over the years. He’s toured and taught from China to Peru, and is committed to carrying his love for teaching young people into the activities at Robbie’s.
“It’s so important to help out the young people coming along in music,” he says. “The emphasis has got to be on young people if we’re going to keep this music vital and alive. That’s why I have a lot of younger musicians in my big band as well as my ensemble. We’d like to do some kind of fund-raiser once a month here to support music education.”
Although attendance at performances at Robbie’s has been up and down since the opening, both Dorothy and Robert insist they are in it for the long run.
“It’s a process that every startup has to go through,” emphasizes Dorothy. “We’ve planned for this, and we know it will take time to develop an audience. We’ve got a built-in framework of Robert’s Big Band and Ensemble performances, and we’ll expand from there. We want to eventually bring a real variety of quality music into the club.”
In terms of competition from established venues such as Jazz at the Bistro, Robert really sees no competition – only support from the Bistro and its staff.
“The Bistro was a great help to the music program at Normandy with their educational outreach efforts,” says Robert. “I love the atmosphere at the Bistro, and Gen Dobbs Bradford (executive director of Jazz St. Louis, which oversees Bistro bookings) has been very supportive as well. There’s room for more jazz here in St. Louis!”
Terry Perkins is a freelance writer who has long written about music.