December 4, 2020

Webster jazz ensemble, guest musicians perform tribute to Dennis Owsley

BRITTANY RUESS / The Journal Trumpeter Randall Holmes performs a solo at the Dennis Owsley Recognition Concert in the Winifred-Moore Auditorium on Monday, March 19. Owsley is a jazz historian who gifted his jazz collection to Webster University. PHOTO BY BRITTANY RUESS

The sweet sounds of jazz music filled the Winifred-Moore Auditorium on March 19 at Webster University during the Dennis Owsley Recognition Concert: “Musical Reflections on St. Louis Jazz History.” Owsley, a jazz historian and radio personality, donated his lifetime collection of jazz recordings to Webster. His music is currently being catalogued at the Emerson Library.

“Feels like I’m giving away one of my children,” Owsley said to the audience.

Owsley said he gave up his collection, which is written into his will, after his wife died in 2008.

“Living in a big old house that’s full of these things, there was just no way to keep those,” said Owsley.

Owsley was born in California and has been collecting jazz music since the late 1950s. He moved to St. Louis and started his radio career with KWMU-FM in 1983. He currently has a show titled “Jazz Unlimited.”

“The whole idea is to basically present the whole spectrum and history of the (jazz) music,” Owsley said of “Jazz Unlimited.”

In 2006, he published the book “City of Gabriels, the History of Jazz in St. Louis, 1895-1973.” He also photographs jazz musicians and their performances. The Sheldon Art Gallery has displayed his work in a show called “Festival Jazz!” and “In the Moment: Jazz Music in the Performance.”

Owsley has been a big supporter of the Webster Jazz Concert Series since the 1980s and has also been an emcee.

Owsley’s friends Paul DeMarinis, Randall Holmes, Steve Schenkel, Kim Portnoy, Carolbeth True, Ric Vice and Kevin Gianino played a 10- piece set, which consisted of jazz music from various jazz artists. Owsley said he was very touched by the recognition concert.

“It meant a lot,” he said. “These guys are all my friends and they played very, very well.”

DeMarinis, who played the saxophone in the concert, has known Owsley since 1977.

“He was doing some photographing of a band that I was playing with,” said DeMarinis. “We became aware of each other around town and we were both interested in the same music. A friendship developed and we’ve known each other ever since then.”

DeMarinis paid a tribute to Owsley with a song titled “Thank You, Dennis.” DeMarinis said it was the least he could do for Owsley because he donated his collection.

“For everything he’s given to the community, just having a night like this, all the love is out there for him and to see it shared, it’s nice,” DeMarinis said.

Owsley said he feels that it’s important to be recognized for a lifetime’s work and he explained one of the reasons why he does what he does.

“This music has been for me a part of my spirit,” Owsley said. “In very troubled times it’s helped me through. I play music on the air and I hope that can soothe some other people when they’re having trouble.”

Owsley still records his radio show, which airs on St. Louis Public Radio every Sunday from 9 p.m. to midnight.

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