Transplant St. Louisans dive deep into blues, bluegrass

Mandolin player Joel Ferber has been performing bluegrass music for more than 30 years. Photo: Bill Motchan 

By Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

St. Louis fans of bluegrass or the blues are likely to have heard two accomplished Jewish musicians playing gigs around town. Joel Ferber and Ethan Leinwand both grew up on the East Coast, but they settled in the Midwest.

Ferber, 59, is a Long Island native who arrived here in 1985 after earning a law degree from New York University. He was hired by the late Honorable Richard B. Teitelman, who ran Legal Services of Eastern Missouri at that time and was the first Jewish member of the Missouri Supreme Court. More than 30 years later, Ferber continues to work for Legal Services as director of advocacy. 

“My background is very much in health law, and much of my career has involved filing lawsuits to enforce people’s rights to Medicaid and other public benefits,” Ferber said. “In my current role, I also get involved in housing, education and other issues, particularly with strategy and technical assistance.”

His work directly affects people’s lives and welfare, so it’s not without stress. One way Ferber deals with that and achieves balance is through music.

ADVERTISEMENT


“It’s a total release from the stress of the job,” he said. “I enjoy playing with the band Missouri Breaks. I also love playing the mandolin.”

Ferber is probably among a small fraternity of Jewish mandolin players in Missouri. He is also proficient on guitar, and he still bangs around a bit on his first stringed instrument, the banjo. His interest in music was influenced initially by his older brother’s record collection.

“He was really big into the folk music scene, especially protest songs,” Ferber said. “When I was little, I knew the words to all the Beatles songs, and I played them on a toy guitar, but in school I played piano and trumpet.

“My brother had a banjo lying around the house. I picked it up and found this book by Pete Seeger on how to play the five-string banjo, and so during the summer before 10th grade I taught myself to play. Then I found a teacher, and I got pretty good pretty fast. Then in my last year of high school, I found a really cool teacher who played New York-style and was part of the city’s Jewgrass scene.And so I started learning all this really way-out banjo stuff.”

Ferber entered a contest in high school, but his main competition — and the winner — turned out to be Bela Fleck, a future 16-time Grammy award-winning banjo player. College took Ferber to Baltimore and a thriving bluegrass scene, so he started a band with other like-minded musicians. By then, he’d also started playing guitar.

Music became a big part of Ferber’s life, so after he completed his undergrad studies, he was accepted to law school at NYU, but he deferred admission. Instead, he joined a progressive bluegrass band called Charged Particles, replacing noted country-bluegrass singer/songwriter Jim Lauderdale on guitar. The band’s name came from Ferber’s friend and band mate Marty Cutler who was a big science fiction fan. They released an album in 1983, played gigs around New York City and did some touring. Charged Particles was a bit of an anomaly, one of only two full-time professional bluegrass bands in the New York City area.

Ferber eventually started law school and he grew tired of schlepping around a guitar. In his second year, he switched instruments after visiting Mandolin Brothers, the store Joni Mitchell paid homage to in her “Song for Sharon.” (“I went to Staten Island/ To buy myself a mandolin/ And I saw the long white dress of love/ On a storefront mannequin.”) 

When Ferber moved to St. Louis, he went right to Music Folk in Webster Groves where he met co-owner Andy Ploof. The two immediately became friends.

“I remember meeting Joel here in the store,” Ploof said. “We just picked together and we played with several other bluegrass players around town in different configurations.”

One of those groups, Natural Bridge, still exists. The band’s members get together several times a year to perform. Ferber’s regular band is known as Missouri Breaks. Members play a lot of traditional bluegrass as well as progressive bluegrass that has hints of rock and some jazz. They also cover jam bands such as the Allman Brothers Band and the Grateful Dead. They forgo acoustic instruments and plug in for a more high-energy and rock-oriented sound, even when they play traditional tunes. 

There’s one more musical Ferber in town as well. Joel’s son Joey plays guitar for the hip-hop band Looprat and the jazz-pop oriented Tonina Quartet. He’s also the lead of the Joey Ferber Trio.

***

Four years ago, Ethan Leinwand bought a one-way ticket and relocated to St. Louis from New York. It’s a move he’s never regretted.

“This place has given me such a platform to talk about music, because St. Louis was historically such an important piano town,” Leinwand said. “This has given me such a great platform, the town has given me it’s back, called me its own, and now I represent it.”

Leinwand plays a style of piano known as barrelhouse blues. It’s a historical curiosity and one of the earliest forms of jazz. Barrelhouse is a good-time, often raucous boogie-woogie style of music that has been described as the blues but at a speed that encourages dancing. Barrelhouses were wooden shacks in the South that often doubled as bars and dancehalls. Barrelhouse is also a uniquely African-American music genre. It was popular in St. Louis in the 1920s. 

Enter a champion and virtuoso of barrelhouse: a Jewish kid from Connecticut.

“I began to care about and the regional styles of old piano blues,” said Leinwand, 35. “The music that was speaking to me the most was St. Louis style. Nobody in New York knew the type of blues I was playing. So I got a book called ‘Devil At the Confluence’ by [St. Louis artist] Kevin Belford, and it was filled with illustrations and information about the prewar blues music of St. Louis. I reached out to him, and he put me in touch with Valerie.”

One of the most popular performers working in St. Louis is Valerie Kirchhoff, aka Miss Jubilee. She sings a blend of hot jazz and lowdown blues from the ’20s and ’30s, essentially a form of barrelhouse. She met Leinwand when he came here to check out the blues scene in 2014, and they immediately hit it off. He is now a regular in her group.

“A mutual friend of ours knew a lot about my band,” Kirchhoff said. “He told Ethan, so he became well aware of what I was doing musically. On a longer term, it was very much what Ethan was interested in, and the things he learned being in my band helped him learn ragtime and jazz and it ended up being his training to learn some music he didn’t know before.

“What was really cool when Ethan came here was that what he was interested in playing benefitted me. I never had a piano player who was able to get me to where I wanted my sound to be. Now we have a certain sound, with more blues to it but it still has the jazz chords.”

Leinwand grew up in Middletown, Conn., and attended Wesleyan University. At 24, he went to New Orleans to teach and absorb the jazz and blues scene. His major Big Easy influences were James Booker and Professor Longhair. Leinwand’s next stop was Brooklyn, N.Y., where his brother works in the visual arts. Leinwand’s father, Steve, is a noted mathematics educator and author.

While living in Brooklyn, Leinwand went to a party where there happened to be a piano. He played a little, and everyone loved his style. A few months later, he got a call from someone who heard him and was getting ready to open a piano bar.

“He said, ‘Hey will you play our soft opening?’ Leinwand recalled. “I started playing there four nights a week, I quit my job as a waiter, and that was really when I started my journey.”

In college, Leinwand had begun dabbling in piano, but he knew he wanted to eventually work in a creative field. His friends assumed that he’d end up being a starving artist. While that’s a reality for many musicians, Leinwand is carving out a niche and thriving. He plays in the Bottlesnakes, the St. Louis Steady Grinders and Miss Jubilee’s band. He also plays solo gigs, during which he performs the blues and educates his audience about an underappreciated style of music.

“Adding an education component is something I’m excited about,” her said. “I’ll be teaching a seminar at the West Coast Ragtime Festival this year in Sacramento, where I’m going to just lecture, and I’d like my career to move toward lecture concerts in university settings where I can tell a story.” 

You can hear Joel Ferber and Missouri Breaks play at various venues around St. Louis and Southern Illinois, including Third Wheel Brewing, Vintage Wine Bar, the Old Bakery Beer Co., Town Hall at Cedar Creek, Schlafly Bottleworks and Pop’s Blue Moon. Ethan Leinwand plays the first Tuesday of each month with the Tick Tock Jazz Band at the Tick Tock Tavern in south St. Louis. Miss Jubilee and Ethan Leinwand also will be performing Friday, Sept. 28 at the Casa Loma Ballroom at 7:30 p.m.



Sign up for Your Morning Light