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Hamiet Bluiett brings his music and East St. Louis students to Nu-Art

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 1, 2011 - Over the past four-plus decades, Hamiet Bluiett has gained worldwide acclaim for his pioneering approach to the role of the baritone saxophone in jazz music.

Best known for his role as one of the founding members of the legendary World Saxophone Quartet, Bluiett also worked with famed bassist Charles Mingus early in his career. Plus, he's released more than two dozen recordings as a leader - showcasing a distinctive, blues-based sound and an amazing technical approach has extended the usual range of the baritone into registers usually reserved for the tenor and alto sax.

But in 2002, Bluiett returned to his native Lovejoy, Ill., from New York City, which had been his home base for more than three decades. Health problems brought him back to the place where he first learned about music from bandleader George Hudson - who also taught music in the Lovejoy schools. St. Louis was where he also became a member of the influential and experimental Black Artists Group (BAG) in the late 1960s.

Since his return home, Bluiett's has overcome health issues and has resumed touring around the world with World Saxophone Quartet as well as his own ensembles. And he has also worked frequently with young music students in programs in University City as well as conducting student concerts in the Nu-Art concert series at the Metropolitan Gallery. 

This Saturday from 3-6 p.m., Bluiett will direct musicians from the East St. Louis Senior High School in performances of his own compositions, as well as works that the East St. Louis band performed earlier this year in a national competition at Lincoln Center in New York.

In a phone conversation from his home in Lovejoy Tuesday evening, Bluiett discussed his first rehearsal with the students earlier that afternoon for the Saturday concert -- as well as adding his own blunt and always honest opinions on music education ... and some upcoming changes in his own professional career.

"The rehearsal today was a little slow starting," comments Bluiett. "One of the teachers told me it was because of the Thanksgiving break. And I had them doing things differently. I was rearranging where instruments were placed, and where the students were in their sections. But by the time it was over, they were definitely really anxious to play on Saturday!"

Bluiett related that he had moved one of the saxophone players from more of a lead role to the position of supporting the other saxophone players because of the student's, rich, solid tone.

"It just sounded better for the whole section - and the whole band - for him to take that role," explains Bluiett. "I had to explain to him that I wasn't moving him up or down in the section in terms of position. I was moving him into a role where the fat sound he created made the most sense for the music. That's what it's all about -- the blend and the overall sound."

Bluiett went on to describe what he sees as his unique role in working with students -- a role that is outside the duties of a staff teacher and that enables him to bring a different perspective to the way that the students approach music.

"I don't have to be their buddy or their friend," he states. "I just need to show them what's really, really true about music -- from the perspective of someone who has played it all my life. My role is to get them down to the basics. Get them straight to the core of what music is about.

And for Bluiett, the core of music comes down to a foundation that includes the blues - and the ability to learn how to improvise.

"For me, knowing how to play the blues has to be there," he says. "We lost that in this country. It took the Beatles and those other English bands to wake us up by playing our own music back to us better than we were playing it. That's just essential. And learning how to improvise - to move beyond the notes on the page - is essential, too!"

Bluiett's appearance Saturday may be one of his last as a resident of our area. As he related during the interview, he thinks the time is right for a return to the New York City music scene.

"I've been playing a lot more lately," he states. "I just got back from Russia, and I've been going to new York more regularly as well, playing with groups under my own banner aside from World Sax. I lived there from 1969 to 2002, and I really think it's time to find a place there, and make it stick. I'm not sure exactly when, but I know it's what I need to do."

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer who often covers music for the Beacon. 

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.