ST. LOUIS — The Missouri, unruly, bending, swooping, pouring downstream with a strong rhythmic drive, was jazz before it had a name. It was manifest destiny that the river would help spawn the sound that is the quintessence of American music.
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Even before slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 blacks began to move up the Mississippi River, away from the plantations and towards a new world of freedom, economic and artistic. Many turned west at St. Louis, heading up the Missouri, and landed at the crossroads town of Kansas City. A large, segregated black community developed, based around the intersection of 18th and Vine, and there they played music that had its roots in Africa: blues, ragtime, and a new emerging polyrhythmic improvisational form.
But it didn’t fully emerge until the 1920s, during Prohibition, when Tom Pendergast’s political machine controlled the town, and looked the other way as liquor, gambling, and every other vice got it on. Clubs stayed open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and black musicians around the country came to ply their trade, and trade their styles. At its peak, there were 200 clubs in the 18th and Vine district.
It was the musical Mecca for African Americans, a conservatory of jam, and here, parallel to its gestation in New Orleans and Harlem, was born jazz. The bands of Andy Kirk, Count Basie and Jay McShann would riff and vamp alongside vocalists such as Pha Terrell, Jimmy Rushing, and Joe Turner. Bernie Moten codified the K.C. Swing here; Count Basie fused his Big Band sound; Charlie Parker, born in 1920 along the Missouri River, pioneered bebop in the after-hours bars.
But today, as we swing our way down Vine Street, it is a different scene altogether. Buildings are boarded up, windows shattered; a once vibrant mural of great black jazz artists sits across a weed-infested lot faded, stripped and stained. The neon is gone, replaced by hand-painted scrawls. It’s a ghost of what was once the center of the universe for jazz. What killed it?
Count Basie said jazz is like murder: “You play it with intent to commit something.” But the death of the jazz scene was third-degree. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation, and African Americas, as they could afford it, moved out. The clubs closed. The music died.
The music comes alive
As we park our Hybrid, however, at the famous intersection we discover a pulse of re-emergence in the heart of the district. We suspect Ken Burns has been here: On one corner is the Baseball Hall of Fame, on the other is the American Jazz Museum. The museum is devoted exclusively to America’s signature musical idiom, an amazing tribute to the art form and its potent past.
We meet Juanita Moore, the executive director, who gives us a tour of the snazzy halls, rich in interactive displays, films, recordings, replicas of flashing club signs, and priceless artifacts, such as Charlie Parker’s plastic sax. It’s the only museum I’ve stepped through where everyone sways and taps in time while soaking in the sights and sounds. Paul Allen, who created Seattle's Experience Music Project, could learn a beat or two here.
But the truly unique facet of the place is the Blue Room, its own attached non-profit nightclub that features live acts four nights a week. And we’ve hit the jackpot: latter-day bop artist Bobby Watson is scheduled to play tonight with his reassembled band Horizon.
So, after chowing down barbecue ribs at the fabled Arthur Bryant’s (Calvin Trillin rated it best barbecue joint in world), just up the street, we slide into the Blue Room and listen to Watson’s alto sax interplay with bass, piano, drum and trumpet in virtuoso rapport. I can’t quite believe I’m sipping a Bombay and Tonic in a museum and listening to great jazz. They got some crazy little rhythms here and we went and got us some.
Lewis and Clark often wrote in their journals: "We proceeded on." Time it is for us to do the same.
As we head out of town we pass near a modern automobile plant owned by Ford, which as it turns out is where the Escape Hybrid, the vehicle we’ve been driving since Montana, is assembled. Everything’s up to date in Kansas City, but we don’t stop as our on-board navigation system has pointed us down the final stretch of highway to St. Louis. There the Missouri River ends as it conflues with the Mississippi River, and their combined waters run the final 1,170 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Their combined length — 3,789 miles from Hell Roaring Creek to the Gulf, according to our count — makes the stream the world's third longest, behind only the Nile and the Amazon.
We also make our last gas stop for the trip. Our total for the 2,654 miles we will have traveled in the Escape Hybrid, from source to mouth of the Missouri, is $192.78, almost a third less than what a normal SUV would run. Average miles-per-gallon was about 36 — about double what my Land Rover gets back home.
It’s a fast 240-mile run, along limestone bluffs and vast fields of dreams, but we make a few stops along the way. One is the Katy Trail, an abandoned railroad bed converted to a biking path that hugs the Missouri for more than 225 miles west of St. Charles. We did a quick “duathlon” as Didrik called it, canoeing downstream in the currents of the Big Muddy, then jumping on ten-speeds for pedal on the bike trail back to our staring point.
Another is in the Weinstrasse region. As early as the 1880s, Missouri was producing 2 million gallons of wine annually (surpassed only by New York), and before Prohibition Missouri was the second-largest wine-producing state in the Union, with 100 wineries in the Weinstrasse region alone. Wienstrasse means, simply, “wine road,” and today some 50 wineries prosper in the southeastern corner of St. Charles County.
At last we reach St. Louis, where the two great rivers convene. We pull from a pack the Nalgene bottle filled with the crystal clear water from the source of the Missouri, which we gathered high in the Montana Rockies two weeks ago. With all the dams and diversions in between, little if any original water reaches this point anymore, so we thought it fitting to give a few drops back. It would be our own meeting of the waters, our celebration of the Missouri as it was when Lewis and Clark made their traverse.
But there is a problem. The entire river junction area and most of the banks of the Mississippi and Missouri around St. Louis are privately owned. Factories or loading/unloading facilities line the strand. Searching for access across the conjoined river in East St. Louis we gravitate toward railroad tracks atop a 20-foot high levee. A sign says: “Private Property, Keep Out. Area Strictly Off Limits. Violators Will Be Prosecuted.” Yet this seems the only point available to make our offering.
As Pasquale makes his way toward the concrete levee, bottle in hand, a State Patrolman suddenly appears driving along a road next to the tracks. “You’re not supposed to be here,” he yells.
The policeman glowers, considering the concept. He glances up and down the river, then asks: “How long will it take?”
He pauses again, then says: “I didn’t see a thing,” and drives off.
After climbing over the levee, stepping across five sets of abandoned tracks, and scuttling down an overgrown bank, we reach our goal. Across the river the St. Louis Arch, Gateway to the West, glistens. The Mississippi rolls at our feet, brown and sluggish.
Pasquale pours the bright liquid we’ve carried across a continent into the Mississippi, where it merges with the mighty, muddy flow, and continues on to the sea.
The Great Escapes media team is traveling the length of the Missouri River in September, filing daily dispatches along the way. If you have a question or comment, mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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