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A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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From Hebrew school to hot jazz, how Elana James’s musical journey brought her to St. Louis


Sometimes the most unexpected journeys lead to the most remarkable destinations. For Elana James, hers has been
a musical one which began at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Kansas City and now brings her to St. Louis, for a show on Friday, April 12, at
Blue Strawberry.

This year, James and her “Hot Club of Cowtown” bandmate Whit Smith—along with bassist Beau Sample–celebrate 30 years of making music together.

Elana James’s Jewish journey to the fiddle

James’s musical journey began at a young age, as her parents enrolled her in Jewish day school at age four and Suzuki Violin classes at the tender age of three.

“Whether it was singing prayers in school or singing in choir, there was always a lot of music,” said James from her home in Austin, TX. “And then you had all the religious celebrations. I think I took that for granted as a kid, but came to realize how much singing and making music is so central to Jewish culture.”

Couple that with her mother being a Classical violinist and it’s easy to see where James’s journey was heading. But the choice of the violin goes even deeper for James.

“I feel like the violin, and I’m sure that some may disagree, but I think it’s central to Jewish music,” said James. “Especially when I think of the Klezmer repertoire–it’s all Eastern European, it’s Ashkenazi, and the primary solo instruments are the violin and clarinet. I’ve kind of always had a fascination with village songs, traditional Romanian and Hungarian music. People have been singing and clapping to these melodies for many hundreds of years.”

However, it wasn’t until her college years in New York that James began to explore new horizons in music. While studying in the bustling city, she found herself drawn to the world of hot jazz and swing music which would pave the way for her future with the Hot Club of Cowtown.

“I discovered recordings of these great, virtuosic violinists playing swing,” said James. “They were jazzy fiddlers from the same era, the 1930s and 1940s, playing with the same kind of romantic, authentic, beautiful style that I had grown up listening to in Classical music. Discovering that made it somehow easier to move toward this other, improvisational style, because it already felt familiar to me.

Hot Club of Cowtown in St. Louis

Since its beginnings in 1994, James and Whit Smith on guitar have formed the nucleus of the Hot Club of Cowtown. The trio, now with Texas-native Beau Sample on bass, regularly tours throughout the United States and Europe, bringing down-home melodies and musical improvisation to the crossroads where country meets jazz.

A St. Louis audience will get to experience the Hot Club of Cowtown’s unique take on Texas-style hot jazz and Western swing on April 12 when the trio returns to the Blue Strawberry.

“We’re going to play our own music in St. Louis. Western swing, hoedowns, fiddle tunes. We play standards, Roma tunes which a lot of people think sound like Klezmer,” said James. It’s very lively and in the moment and it’s all about improvisation. It’s hard to transmit that in in an interview– you just have to come out to the show and get a sense of it!”

Hot Club of Cowtown at Blue Strawberry

What: Hot Club of CowtownThirty Years Tour
When: April 12 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: The Blue Strawberry Showroom and Lounge, 364 N Boyle Avenue
Ticket Info: $40/30/25 and can be purchased online



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About the Contributor
Jordan Palmer
Jordan Palmer, Chief Digital Content Officer
Jordan worked at KSDK from 1995 to 2020. Jordan is a three-time Emmy award winner who produced every kind of show from news to specials during his tenure, creating Show Me St. Louis, The Cardinal Nation Show. He started ksdk.com in 2001 and won three Edward R. Murrow Awards for journalistic and website excellence in 2010, 2014 and 2020. Jordan has been married for 25 years and is the father of two college students. He is an avid biker, snowboarder, and beer lover. He created the blog drink314.com, focusing on the St. Louis beer community in 2015. Jordan has an incredible and vast knowledge of useless information and is the grandson of a Cleveland bootlegger.