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Dennis Owsley, longtime St. Louis Public Radio jazz host, dies at 78

Dennis Owsley, an author, photographer and jazz historian who celebrated an American art form every Sunday through his St. Louis Public Radio Show "Jazz Unlimited," has died. He was 78.

Owsley joined the station in 1983 and hosted a weekly jazz show for more than three decades until his retirement in 2019. He played music from around the world, shared selections from his personal collection and reflected on jazz history.

On the last episode of his radio show, Owsley said: “There is an old saying that begins with ‘For everything there is a season…’ For ‘Jazz Unlimited,’ it is time to go. I’ve had a good run of over 36 years, and now it’s time to retire and play with the grandkids. I will miss every one of you who has listened over the years.”

Owsley, who had been in declining health in recent years, died Friday of COVID-19 at Banner Boswell Medical Center in Sun City, Arizona, said his daughter, Anna Owsley. He had been vaccinated.

Dennis Owsley
file photo/David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
Dennis Owsley hosted the St. Louis Public Radio show Jazz Unlimited until 2019. He died Friday in Arizona at age 78.

During his last moments, his family played a recording of “Lullaby of Birdland” performed by jazz singer and friend Asa Harris Finley. Finley had performed “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” at the funeral of Owsley’s first wife, Rosa.

“I kept telling him, you’re going to go home,” Anna Owsley said.

Owsley received many accolades throughout his career. The Jazz Journalists Association named him a “Jazz Hero of St. Louis.” He also received St. Louis Public Radio’s Millard S. Cohen Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.

Former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay proclaimed “Dennis Owsley Day” in 2008. He produced a radio documentary in 1986 that led to his book “City of Gabriels — The Jazz History of St. Louis 1895-1973.” The documentary, expanded in 2013, remains the second-longest music documentary in radio history. His second book, "St. Louis Jazz — A History," was released in 2019. 

Those close to Owsley remember him as a father who passed his love for music to his children

“Growing up as a family, music was always a part of our life,” his daughter said. ''Music was always a part of my life, I just always went to concerts as far back as I can remember. Even when my musical tastes differed from my father's as I grew older, that love that we always shared was for music, you know, and for good music.”

Born in Los Angeles County in 1943 to Vernon and Lulu Owsley, he developed an interest in jazz during high school after his longtime friend from elementary school, Bob Holcomb, also known as “Hoke,” introduced him to the music of trumpeter Miles Davis and pianist Dave Brubeck. Owsley was like a brother, Holcomb said.

“Starting in about the ninth grade but really more in the 10th grade, [we] started sharing an interest in jazz,” Holcomb said. “We started going to jazz concerts, jazz clubs in the Los Angeles area.”

Owsley and Holcomb’s friendship continued at the University of California, Riverside, where Owsley would earn a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. He also met his wife Rosa there. The couple eventually moved to the St. Louis area after Owsley got a job at Monsanto, where he was a senior science fellow.

Owsley developed a relationship with jazz historian and former St. Louis Public Radio jazz show host Charlie Menees in the mid-1970s. After Menees left the station, Owsley would guest host shows with Menees’ engineer Romondo Davis. Broadcaster Jim Wallace eventually took over the show and would ask Owsley to guest produce.

Owsley became the show’s host while still working at Monsanto.

“He was just totally dedicated to jazz and so knowledgeable and happy to share that knowledge with anybody,” said Mary Edwards, a longtime station employee who produces the St. Louis Symphony broadcasts. “He was also an excellent photographer, so he used his photography skills to take all those jazz photos.”

While focusing on his career in science, Owsley kept his connection to jazz and photography. In a 2008 interview on Nine PBS show “Living St. Louis,” Owsley said his love for photography started early when he first picked up a camera.

“I was probably 12, 13, something like that,” Owsley recalled. “I remember when I was doing a lot of backpacking in my teen years that I always grabbed my dad’s Argus C3 35 mm camera and took it along with me, and I’ve still got a lot of those shots.”

That pursuit culminated in an exhibit at the Sheldon Art Galleries in 2005 and 2006. He updated his website with his photos of jazz musicians from around the world.

Owsley will be remembered as a jazz historian who crafted stories about musicians from all over the world, but especially in St. Louis, said Gene Dobbs Bradford, president and CEO of Jazz St. Louis.

“He really took a lot of time and put a lot of effort into creating things that were not just beautiful, but also very informative,” Bradford said. “He was a real encyclopedia of jazz. He knew a lot about the musicians, he knew a lot about the music itself. He was a great champion for the St. Louis music scene.”

Owsley’s wife Rosa died in 2008. He remarried in 2012 to Sara Serot, and in 2019 they moved to Phoenix to be close to family.

Friends say they will always think of Owsley as someone who continued to push boundaries in all that he did, from his radio show to history books and photographs. He took pride in that spirit throughout his career.

“If I’m not creating something, doing something creative that kind of stretches me a bit, it kind of depresses me,” Owsley said in his 2008 “Living St. Louis” interview. “That’s how I kind of keep myself going sometimes.”

Besides his wife and daughter, Owsley is survived by his brother, Kevin, of Peoria, Illinois; his sister, Gina, of Reno, Nevada; and his son, Dan, of Idaho.

Owsley’s family hopes to hold a remembrance for him in St. Louis.

Follow Chad on Twitter: @iamcdavis

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.