Gene Dobbs Bradford (third from the left) with gala co-chairs Dave Senay, Lori Harris and Eugene Harris

St. Louis’ history in music ranges from one of the oldest symphonies in the nation to strong roots in ragtime. Names like Joplin, Slatkin and Berry are synonymous with celebrated music and St. Louis. And then there’s Barbara Rose, whose gift to the city was organizing and presenting great jazz performances.

“Way back in 1995, there was a series of concerts at the Hotel Majestic called Just Jazz,” says Gene Dobbs Bradford, executive director of Jazz St. Louis. “The concerts were put together by a lady named Barbara Rose, who had a really good ear for up-and-coming talent. Among the people at the very beginning of their careers who she presented here were Diana Krall, Joshua Redman and Christian McBride. These performers are some of the top jazz musicians in the world right now.”

And then several events unfolded: The hotel was purchased by Omni Corporation, and it decided not to continue the jazz program, according to Bradford. “At that same time, Peter Bunce, who was working with Grand Center, was looking for a way to get people to come to the restaurant that Grand Center had at 3536 Washington Ave.,” he explains. “The arts district really needed a restaurant for people looking for pre-theater dining, but as you can imagine, after 8 p.m. when all the shows started at the Fox and Powell Hall, the restaurant was empty. While looking for a way to bring people in, they got together with Barbara Rose, and they came up with Jazz at the Bistro.”

After Rose’s death from breast cancer in 1998, Bradford, who had been director of operations at the St. Louis Symphony, joined Jazz at the Bistro. “I brought over a lot of the education and outreach programs that the Symphony had and tried to apply them in a jazz context,” he says. “We began taking musicians who performed at the Bistro out into the schools throughout the St. Louis area (Emerson Jazz in the Schools program), and we also started a group of musicians with the help of THF Realty called the Jazz St. Louis All-Stars, which is an auditioned group of top local jazz musicians.”

As education and outreach activities grew, Bradford notes that a new name, Jazz St. Louis, was needed to better describe the organization’s mission, with the name Jazz at the Bistro remaining for the concert series.

Other Jazz St. Louis initiatives, according to Bradford, include the Adopt-A-School program. “We’ve adopted East St. Louis Senior High School, and last year, they participated in the Essentially Ellington competition, which is a program of Jazz at Lincoln Center. We also have Jazz St. Louis Youth Concerts presented by PNC Arts Alive at the Touhill Performing Arts Center. And we have JazzU, which is an after-school program that teaches young people how to play jazz. Many of these programs were started with the support of The Whittaker Foundation, and that’s one of the reasons we are honoring them at this year’s gala.”

The Jazz St. Louis Gala 2012 will take place March 9 at Hilton St. Louis at the Ballpark, with performances by JazzU students, as well as the traditional march into dinner led by the Funky Butt Brass Band. “In addition, an auction will feature some wonderful items, including a dinner prepared by yours truly for you and 10 of your friends,” Bradford laughs. “It’s really one of our better-selling items—I’m actually a great cook!”

In the meantime, Jazz at the Bistro’s upcoming concerts include the Robert Glasper Trio (Feb. 10, 11), Erin Bode (Feb. 14), the Anat Cohen Quartet (Feb. 15 to 18) and Bryon Stripling (Feb. 24, 25). “Did you know that Wynton Marsalis named Jazz at the Bistro one the top 10 places for live jazz in the country?” Bradford notes. “Jazz is an important part of St. Louis’ cultural history, and with continued support, we’re going to do much greater things for St. Louis.”