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In '97, jazz great Denise Thimes lost her mom. For 20 years, she’s paid tribute to her in song

Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Denise Thimes, local jazz great, pays tribute to her late mother in song.

In 1997, St. Louis jazz vocalist — legend, some do say — Denise Thimes lost her mother to pancreatic cancer. In the wake of that loss, Thimes launched the Mildred Thimes Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer. While she’s held an annual Mother’s Day concert for the past 20 years to pay tribute to her mother, her rock, the reason Thimes sings could be applied to anyone who has lost their mother: maternal sacrifice.

“I remember one time, being home from school my sophomore year and my mom was on the phone talking to a friend of hers,” Thimes told St. Louis on the Air contributor Steve Potter. “She said: I always wanted to be a singer. I never knew that about my mother. She could sing, of course, but she never pursued it. I was washing dishes and I cried. I felt like my mother had sacrificed her dreams for seven children.”

Now, Thimes sings to pay tribute to the sacrifice her mother made for her. It was her mother who urged her to follow her own voice.

“My mother was the one who discovered I could sing,” Thimes said.

While her mother did not educate her daughter herself, she used her connections to help Thimes learn more about her voice at age 7. Mother Thimes  reached out to a friend, Barbara, who confirmed that Daughter Thimes had talent. It wasn’t until Thimes’ freshman year at Spellman College, however, that she had technical voice training.

The rest was history. Just this year, Thimes won a St. Louis Visionary Award for her oeuvre. As her fame grew, Thimes traveled all over the world to share her jazz vocals. It was then that she learned her mother had cancer.

“I was in Singapore when my mother was diagnosed, and when I got back I wanted to do something that would honor her or a way she could see me sing before God called her home,” Thimes said of the impetus behind the Mother’s Day concerts. “May of 1997 [at the Mother’s Day concert] was her last time seeing me perform.”

"She was the kind of person who would role her sleeves up and make whatever looked impossible happen."

Thimes describes her mother as soft-spoken and as a dedicated mom and wife.

“I saw two people in the home, my mom and my dad, who made things happen,” Thimes said. “We never saw them argue. We never saw them fight. She was the kind of person who would roll her sleeves up and make whatever looked impossible happen.”

Listen to some of the selections from this year’s concert, ones that pay tribute and celebrate those who Thimes has lost over the course of her life:

“In the beginning, we did do a lot of healing type songs,” Thimes said. “Now, I’m leaning more toward being celebratory, that we celebrate the lives. If I do a song, it will take everyone there. I lean more now within the last two or three years to just creating music that will help you reminisce and celebrate the life instead of feeling really heavy.”

Related Event

What: Denise Thimes & Friends Special Mother’s Day Concert
When: Sunday, May 8, at 5:30 p.m.
Buffet dinner served 3:00 - 4:45 p.m.
Where: Touhill Performing Arts Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis
More information.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.