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Aug 20, 2014
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An essential piece of local jazz history continues to fit in today’s scene
By Thomas Crone • Photo by Roscoe Crenshaw
Posted On: 06/30/2007   

It’s understandable that, over a more-than-40-year career, Jeter Thompson would play with a few different musicians. Jazz artists, in particular, are known for their ability to meld and morph projects, with players coming and going at sometimes dizzying rates.

But Thompson’s had a relatively stable career, enjoying success originally as the Quartette Trés Bien and then settling in with a couple core musicians as the Trio Trés Bien for many years. Most recently, the veteran pianist has been performing with his brothers, Howard (drums and percussion) and Harold (electric and acoustic bass). The three are frequently joined by vocalist Danita Mumphard. They’ve released their first album as a trio, Coming Together, which features a dozen originals in a smooth jazz style with touches of Latin jazz and contemporary pop.

“We just had a backlog of original stuff,” said Thompson, noting that the tracks tend toward the exotic, with titles such as Brazilian Rainbow, African Romance and Sunset in Japan reflecting a self-styled “international feel.”

The final track on the record, though, Kilamanjaro, is the one that will take some local music fans back a few years. The title cut on Quartette Trés Bien’s debut album, Kilamanjaro was a local hit for the act, which released that record and Boss Trés Bien on Norman Wienstroer’s popular local Norman Records label. Playing around town in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the group settled into regular work at the Dark Side, arguably the most famous jazz room in the old Gaslight Square, before taking on an ownership interest in the Club Trés Bien.

“I still get royalty checks from Kilamanjaro today,” said Thompson. “From that and Boss Trés Bien, for songs written in the 1960s.”

After Quartette Trés Bien (Thompson, drummer Al St. James, percussionist Percy James and bassist Richard Simmons) caught the ear of Decca Records, the group’s contract was transferred, with Wienstroer’s blessing, to Decca, which rereleased those works. Beginning to split from the Gaslight scene, the group’s exit from a mostly local label paralleled the drop in the square’s fortunes; by 1963, the band was on the road, playing around the country and gaining a following in cities such as Detroit, Chicago, New York and varied California locales.

“We wound up [on] bills with all kinds of artists,” Thompson said. “We saw a lot of this country and had two hit records on the West Coast at the same time.”

Often doubling up on bills with St. Louis comic Dick Gregory, a
major comedian and increasingly a civil rights activist, the band essentially took to the road for a full decade, before wider changes in the music industry stalled its travels. With that roadwork as a springboard, the group wound up recording a dozen albums with Decca, along with session work for varied labels, some released,
some not.

As you might expect, all that touring and, especially, recording meant that the band’s music was heard not just around the U.S., but also around the world. One of the common statements about jazz and blues artists is that their music is often better known abroad than in their hometowns. And while Thompson wouldn’t necessarily go that far, he did confess to a bit of interest from international fans.

“I’ve heard from people in Germany, Japan, England, Taiwan – that’s a weird one, that’s way over there,” Thompson said. “I just got a call from a Serbian radio station. I sent him a CD and he’s going to be playing it.”

Lately, the group’s been keeping up a steady, if not prolific, amount of local work. Private parties and cocktail affairs take up a chunk of the Trés Bien calendar, but Thompson said that the club settings like Cookie’s Jazz and More in Webster Groves and Brandt’s Red Carpet Lounge in The Loop are where he enjoys gigging. “I enjoy the clubs,” he said. “There’s that close proximity to the audience, that intimacy.”

Jazz experts suggest that seeing the band isn’t just a trip out for a bit of music, but an essential part of boning up on local music history. “Jeter’s just a dazzling pianist,” said longtime jazz DJ Dennis Owsley, author of City of Gabriels: The History of Jazz in St. Louis, 1895-1973.

And local entertainment publicist Dawn DeBlaze, who has worked with the group, said, “Trés Bien is a legendary St. Louis jazz group that has had a strong presence in our area music scene for over 30 years. Unless you know about Trio Trés Bien, you don’t have a complete picture of jazz in St. Louis.”

This month, Trio Trés Bien will be found at Cookie’s Jazz and More, on July 21, playing with guest vocalist Mumphard. Coming Together is available at Vintage Vinyl and Webster Records.

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