Fate tests the resiliency of hometown jazz legend Mae Wheeler

Though Mae Wheeler has carried the moniker of “Lady Jazz” for her multiple decades of vocalizing in St. Louis area clubs, you’d be forgiven for thinking that she’s lately taken on some luster of the blues.

A few months ago, Wheeler was diagnosed with colon cancer at an advanced stage. After a sold-out benefit concert at the Sheldon Concert Hall in January and a return to gigs around town, she was handed a lengthy stay in the hospital in early March. Compounding matters was the sobering news that her neighborhood, a small African-American enclave of Richmond Heights she calls “the Hill,” has been ticketed for demolition around the end of 2007, in order to build a new commercial and residential development called Hadley Heights.

A resident of Richmond Heights for 68 of her 73 years, Wheeler’s been given a good one-two punch by her recent news, but resiliency is obviously in her blood. On the day she was released from the hospital at 1:30 p.m., she left her house four hours later to head to a gig.

“I trust God in keeping me going,” she said. “When I’m done, that’s it. It really will be. But the wicked witch is not dead yet. You can quote me on that. She is not dead yet.”

Wheeler’s desire to continue gigging in the face of cancer is notable, sure, but it can’t be considered completely surprising. She’s been working around town since her late teens, at clubs that have become the stuff of legend, places as diverse as the Moose Lounge and Kennedy’s Second Street. Her tenure as a performer takes her all the way back to the revered Gaslight Square of the early 1960s, where, she says, she was known to perform at rooms like the Vanity Fair, the Black Horse, the Dark Side and the Red Carpet.

“Back in those times, we were more loving and conscientious of one another,” she remembered. “It was never a color thing. We were like a piano, with black and white. We expected the best that could be given by each person. And you went out for the music. You could not go onstage and play things wrong. If you did, they’d tell you all about that before you were able to come back the next week.”

It was at the Red Carpet that she came into the acquaintance of Jay Brandt, then a teenage busboy at his parents’ club. Years later, when he was running his own space on Delmar, Brandt’s Café and Red Carpet Lounge, Brandt always had a soft spot for the alumni of Gaslight, keeping them active in his club despite the changing tastes of the times.

“I fell in love with the owner,” Wheeler cracked, when asked why she plays Brandt’s almost exclusively. “He comes from the old-school way of doing things for musicians. He’s such a wonderful person. I’ve been playing Brandt’s for the last three years, and I chose not to play anywhere else, except for a private gig here or there. I haven’t been doing it for the money, that’s for damned sure.”

While Brandt’s ownership has shifted recently – Brandt moved to the outskirts of Cincinnati due to his wife’s transfer from the May Co., but he retains a consultancy in the business – Wheeler plans on maintaining a presence there for as long as they’ll have her. In late March, she was still playing the Sunday early evening shift, with a 5 to 8 p.m. slot that she’s carrying into April. Starting this month, she’s looking to bring young – as in high-school aged – musicians into the fold, asking area jazz programs to send their talented youngsters to Brandt’s for a lesson in how to sit-in the way it used to be done.

“They can’t just come down, though,” she cautioned. “They have to know how to play.”

If they do, they’ll be welcomed into the fold for a song or two, in an interesting supper club atmosphere where more than a few veteran performers have played over the years. The open invitation to students extends to Wheeler’s gigs every other Sunday throughout the summer, until the school year begins.

Listening to Brandt and Wheeler you get a sense that they’re attempting to ensure there’s an audience for the kind of standards that Wheeler’s been putting her voice to for years. While Brandt’s has been mixing in the veteran performers for years, the venues for Gaslight alumni like Wheeler, Jeanne Trevor and Hugh “Peanuts” Whalum are relatively scarce.

That’s a situation that brings on an impassioned plea from Al Becker, the longtime DJ of KDHX’s jazz vocals show, “Voices in the Dark.” Becker contends that these performers are living history and should be appreciated in far greater scope than they are today.

“They are playing at clubs in your city and you should take pride in the musical culture of your city,” Becker said with animation. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that many of these [performers] could’ve had much bigger careers had they left St. Louis and gone elsewhere. When you stay in your city too long, it’s hard to go get a career. It’s hard to get one in singing anyway; there are a lot of very good people out there. But supporting your own people in your city and the musicians that back them is something that should be done. We have some incredible musicians in St. Louis. There are so many good ones.

“And you get tired of hearing, when someone passes, ‘Gee, I should have gone to see them more often. But I just never got around to it.’ Don’t wait till that happens. The live music scene is a treasure and we are very, very blessed to have some fine people.”

One of them is playing at Brandt’s every Sunday this month. She’d like to see some old friends. And some new ones, too.

“We aren’t as concerned about each other as we ought to be,” Wheeler worried. “This music we’re playing isn’t just about notes.”