Robert Willey conducted this interview with T.J Müller on July 11, 2017. T.J is a musician living in St. Louis who is active in developing the traditional jazz music scene.
T.J Müller moved from the United Kingdom to St. Louis to play with Pokey LaFarge’s band. In our interview he talked about the traditional jazz scene there, and how it is suited to the rooms that it’s played in. The complete interview is included in the book Midwest Music Business: A Primer.
RW: How did you develop a love and aptitude for traditional music? What got the ball rolling that eventually meeting Pokey LaFarge and emigrating to the United States?
TJ: I was born in the south of England. We travelled a lot from parish to parish, the longest period of time we lived in one place was when I was about 10 to 18 years old and we lived in the north. My father was a Church of England vicar and played a lot of traditional music. He was a pianist and a flutist and double bass player. Traditional music was in the house while I was growing up, and I learned a lot of the songs as a child because of him. We had a little family band and played a lot of traditional band numbers on a steam boat—“American Patrol”, “When The Saints Go Marching In”, the basic ones.
RW: How do you decide where to put your efforts in social media? Is it based on your audience’s demographics? Are the traditional jazz fans an older crowd that passes information more by word of mouth than Facebook?
TJ: We have an older audience as well as a younger audience, so I’m pretty selective about what I put on social media. I don’t bother to put a lot stuff on what I know the younger people aren’t going to be interested in. I know that they’re not going to want to pay $20 for a show they have to drive a long way to see, so I concentrate my social media on less expensive local ones. There’s another project I’m doing with the Arcadia Dance Orchestra playing 1920s style foxtrot, Charleston, and swing dance music. That’s a slow-burning project which we’re gearing up for that will have just two performances a year. We’re trying to make the social media for that project very regular in order to build interest around the project.
RW: How important are the characteristics of the space in which you perform?
TJ: Oh, absolutely. The environment is everything. So many things in popular culture are artificial. Everything gets digitized and cleaned up. When people see something that’s authentic, I think they respond positively to it. When they go into a bar on the corner and the bar has hardwood floors and there’s a guy playing a real upright piano, and not like a little small one, but a great big upright grand piano playing Joplin rags without sheet music, and they can just sit there and enjoy something authentic, I think people really do respond to that. It’s so vastly different from everything else they are experiencing, and seems special and interesting. Then you can tell them, that on top of that, it isn’t a bizarre thing, it’s something that belongs to the city. We’re not introducing something foreign or weird here, we’re just maintaining it. If you nurture it it can grow, it still has room to grow. It doesn’t have to be a weird thing, it should just be part of the town.
RW: Do you think breweries and wineries are more conducive to traditional and acoustic music than bars? If so, is it because they cater to a more mature clientele—people who more likely to want to carry on a conversation than hook up? How important are people like Tom Schlafly (Schlafly Bottleworks, Schlafly Beer), Mike Willerton (Kirkwood Station), and Chris and Lisa Lorch (Sugar Creek Winery)? Do they have an interest in supporting the music beyond just selling drinks and food? Are they nurturing it?
TJ: Oh, man, Schlafly has been great to us! He books so many great bands. Schlafly now hosts the St. Louis Banjo Club once a month, and they give us this whole huge room to perform and hang out in with our own bar, our own little stage area, all the amenities we need, a huge parking log. Schlafly has been so good for that. He especially nurtures the old school acoustic American music atmosphere. They’ve been great. I’m biased, but I think acoustic music works best in that environment. If you want to engage with it you can. You can enjoy the performance, but it’s not loud, it can be background music. You can half listen to it, or be completely engaged, or dance to it. It can be whatever you want it to be.
RW: Music has always evolved with the spaces where it was played. The long reverb tails of single line Gregoria's chant sound best in rock-walled cathedrals. The sound of the harpsichord projected well in the small rooms of Baroque palaces. When auditoriums grew larger to accommodate the growing number of middle class ticket buyers, the same technological advances in cast iron steel that allowed balconies to spam wider spaces was used in the frames of grand pianos, whose increased volume was thenable to fill the larger room. Rick Kinney talks in another of this book’s interview about his vision of renovating a movie theatre to create a room where a standing audience of 2000 can supply the right energy to inspire a high-energy rock band playing through a powerful sound system. What you mentioned about the hardwood floors being so well-suited to acoustic music makes me realize how much the architecture is connected with the acoustics and the listener’s experience. There are so many charming historic buildings in the Midwest and others ripe for renovation, and the rooms are on the right scale. You can fill one up with the sound of an upright piano, something you can’t do in bar that has low ceilings, carpet, and couches.
TJ: Exactly. It’s great to play the music in these spaces where the building was designed for that purpose. When you put the pieces together properly it works so much better than if you try to put the music in the wrong environment.
RW: And traditional jazz evolved to fit that. There are little breaks in the music, solos, and ebb and flow so that people can be talking with each other, but there are appropriately placed changes in the form of the song that hook their attention, keep them engaged, and keep things “lively”.
TJ: Absolutely! If you listen to early 20th century jazz records you’ll notice that quite often the band will drop out when the piano solo starts, maybe with a little bit of light cymbal work behind it. When you do that in a quiet concert environment it’s a cool effect, but it’s not necessary. In the places where we play, if we don’t do that, then the piano player can’t hear their solo enough, and the band can’t, and the audience can’t. If the band drops out, you can hear the piano loud and clear. You really see why the music was designed the way it was.
RW: Do you think that the audience for traditional music in St. Louis is more for locals than it is in New Orleans? I suppose there it’s much more of a tourist scene.
TJ: Right. I certainly agree with that. There isn’t a big tourist industry in St. Louis, and so I think our working musicians consider it to be something for the audience who lives here.