Peanuts' gallery of jazz

Hugh "Peanuts" Whalum Photo by Roscoe Crenshaw

St. Louis lost a musical icon on Christmas day with the passing of Hugh “Peanuts” Whalum.

“We lost a dear friend and a wonderful human being that brought great joy into the world with his kindness, his voice and his talent,” Jay Brandt, who regularly hosted Whalum when he owned and operated the live music jazz venue Brandt’s, said via Facebook.

The renowned multi-instrumentalist known best around the city for his skills on the tenor saxophone died at the age of 91 on Wednesday.

“Uncle Peanuts chose today, early this morning, to leave this place of sorrows and begin eternity with Him,” Whalum’s nephew, Grammy-winning saxophonist Kirk Whalum also said via Facebook. “It hurts. And yet I am comforted in your love — all of you. With his brothers, his mom & dad, with all those who died in hope, Hugh David Whalum is at rest.”

It’s difficult to see him as anything other than a son of St. Louis – the city he called home for 70 years – But Hugh Whalum was raised in Memphis.

His musical journey began at 8 years old with violin lessons. He didn’t stick with the instrument, but he found his calling when his father bought the young boy a cornet.

“That was the beginning of my real musical interest,” he told The American back in 2005. Soon after he played with the YMCA band and a family group that included his father and brothers.

A product of Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Hugh Whalum returned to his birth city of Wilberforce, OH to complete his college studies at Central State University back when the HBCU was known as Wilberforce University.

It was in college that tenor saxophone became Hugh Whalum’s primary instrument. He also sang and played piano. A performance with the Wilberforce University collegiate band at Carnegie Hall that had him sharing the stage with Woody Herman, Billy Eckstine, Peggy Lee, and Ella Fitzgerald compelled him to pursue music as a career instead of studying medicine at the historically black Meharry Medical College in Nashville.

Two years after earning a B.S. in Chemistry, Hugh Whalum hit the road as a musician as part of the Lionel Hampton band. He soon went to California to live with an uncle. That uncle relocated to St. Louis to further his law studies in 1949. Hugh Whalum followed him – and kept St. Louis as his musical base for the next seven decades.

He formed his own trio in the 1950s while simultaneously gigging as a solo saxophonist with such musical greats as East St. Louis’ own Miles Davis and Nat King Cole. He was a prominent figure of the famed Gaslight Square music scene. He was also an inspiration and a symbol of longevity. He gigged steadily at a time when others would have slowed down.

He was voted by the Riverfront times as the “Best Lounge Act” of 2006. He was nearing 80 years old.

With the help of his nephew Kirk’s connections, Hugh Whalum released his first solo album – a self-titled CD released on Rendezvous Records – that same year.

Hugh Whalum was often a featured guest of Kirk’s St. Louis stops of the “Gospel According to Jazz” performances.

In 2015, Hugh Whalum was honored for his contributions to the St. Louis music scene during the Jazz Edge Big Band’s special event “A Tribute to St. Louis Saxophonists.”

“God must have wanted a very special Christmas up there,” Brandt said.

Funeral services are pending. This story will be updated to include them when they become available.

Previous reporting from St. Louis cultural historian and writer Roscoe Crenshaw contributed to this story.

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