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East St. Louis saxophonist Kendrick Smith wants to give jazz artists a bigger stage

St. Louis-based musician Kendrick Smith performs on the saxophone. His Build a Yes effort is aimed at helping jazz artists snag gigs and recording opportunities.
Kendrick Smith
East St. Louis saxophonist Kendrick Smith wants to support local active jazz musicians. In 2022, he started Build a Yes, an organization aimed at helping them snag gigs — and recording opportunities.

The St. Louis region is largely known for blues, rock and R&B. But for more than a century, the region's jazz artists also made big musical statements.

East St. Louis saxophonist and composer Kendrick Smith wants to support active jazz musicians and highlight the work of artists, like jazz singer Jeanne Trevor and trumpet and band leader Eddie Randal, who played big roles in the region’s jazz scene.

Smith’s Build a Yes effort aims to help artists snag gigs across the region and beyond and secure recording opportunities. He also wants to collect the arrangements of local jazz composers so musicians can share them.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Chad Davis talked with Smith about this organization, what jazz artists need and his plans for a St. Louis jazz documentary.

Chad Davis: What do artists typically say they want to do more of?

Kendrick Smith: The biggest thing is working, but they want to be able to grow, to kind of appeal to a bigger audience. They would like to be able to even create albums. An album is not so much so you can sell it and make a lot of money, but I learned this especially with the passing of Montez Coleman, it is the way that we continue to live on in this music. Whenever I want to hear Montez again, I just cut on the record of him and Willie Akins.

Also traveling. St. Louis is one of the weird cities where we don't travel a lot, especially on the jazz side of things, we don't typically go to a lot of places. That's why one of the things that I've really been trying to work on creating is a type of artists exchange program. That's something where we can allow musicians from here to go out and travel and bring in more talent from here, because St. Louis is very welcoming to just about anybody. I've seen them bring in so many talents from Kansas City and Chicago and New York and all these wonderful places, but we don't get a chance to kind of make that happen.

Davis: It sounds like infrastructure is one of the main issues that you're kind of like tackling. Is that something that other cities have that we don't and why?

Smith: 100%. A city's identity is like its sound. Like everybody talks about the Chicago sound, the New York sound, that's because there's creative people contributing to that. Most of the styles of music that we have is because of different cross-pollination of different things.

Scott Joplin spent time in St. Louis and came up with great music and Louis Armstrong came over here and Duke Ellington came into St. Louis. We were all like picking off of each other and growing, and all of a sudden, now we have this music that's called jazz that’s reached the entire world and I think we need to open back up.

Davis: Talk about the accomplishments that Build a Yes has already achieved.

Smith: The start of this organization has the respect and the kind of green light from my peers, which is more important than anything.

We've had a very, very good first series featuring composers. What I'm working on is creating a local-based book of all original compositions that kind of came out of the series that we did. The way that we live on is through our art and through our music so that would be a way of solidifying this great music that we write and then play but it will also get us to play each other's stuff. Because again, like we just talked about this, what is our identity? What is our reputation? Well, that comes down to a sound.

If somebody comes to the city and hears us playing his tune, it's like, “Man, that tune is bad, what is it?” Oh that’s called “Who’s Waldo” by [trumpeter] Brady Lewis or [pianist] Ryan Marquez. He's another great writer, and he's got music and television stuff. I wanted us to have identity, so that's what we're doing with that.

Davis: You have a jazz documentary that you’re working on. What is this?

Smith: There's so much history here that is not talked about, and it's not particularly ever been approached. So it's something that I really want to spend time tackling right now. I really want to be able to capture people's attention and to know that this is not just from a historical standpoint but this is about like a culture. I kind of want to show the historical aspect of it but then how that tradition still is carried today. And then also like how we've dwindled some but also how we've gotten stronger in some aspects, how we're moving in a better direction.

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