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Meet Tom Wells

Tessa Souter and Andrea Wolper By

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Jazz gets into your soul. It makes you tap your foot. It simply feels good and makes you happy. I would like to see more done to expose young people at the elementary and middle school level to jazz. A few may learn to play and carry on the tradition, but many could be exposed to it and learn how fun jazz is.
Born and raised in that other "capital of jazz"—Kansas City, birthplace of Charlie Parker—Super Fan Tom Wells, along with long-time jazz date, his wife, Geri St. Clair (a future Super Fan—stay tuned!), is a huge supporter of the local scene. How huge? Well, Tom and Geri once followed the University of Missouri Kansas City's Jazz Orchestra all the way to Paris, Switzerland and Holland for the "jazz experience of a lifetime."

Tell us a little about yourself.
I was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, and grew up with no siblings in a working class neighborhood. I left Kansas City in 1954 and didn't return to live until 1985. I went to Central Missouri College in Warrensburg, Missouri. Upon graduation, I was drafted into the Army, serving two years as a medic at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, before returning to Columbia, Missouri, to earn a master's degree in social work at the University of Missouri. With the exception of a couple of years, I had a 40-year career in the mental health field. I was fortunate to have been at the beginning of the community mental health movement, and was a part of the opening of two new Community Mental Health Centers in the Central Missouri area. I was also able to attend the University of California, Berkeley, where I was one of 20 students in a post-master's program in Community Mental Health. In 1968- 69, Berkeley was an exciting place; it was the height of the anti-war movement, with the People's Park demonstrations and riots. I was tear-gassed twice—once through the ventilation system of the University library. A classmate liked to say, ..." and Tom never went to the library again." I returned to Kansas City in 1985 just in time to help the Kansas City Royals celebrate winning the World Series. GO ROYALS! I am married now to Geri St. Clair. We met in 2005 and married in 2009. She is a longtime jazz lover, so we became Tom & Geri jazz fans.

What's your earliest memory of music?
Growing up in the '40s, my first exposure to music was my parent's 78s (to the younger folk: those were big black discs with grooves and a small hole in the middle!). Much of it was big band music: Harry James, Count Basie, Glenn Miller. I was also exposed to many vocalists. I particularly enjoyed, and still enjoy, the Ink Spots and Frankie Lane. In about 1993, I purchased a copy of Frankie's autobiography, That Lucky Old Son, which he autographed for me. It is a treasured possession. In the early 1980's, I heard a group in Pensacola, Florida called the Ink Spots. The group was mostly comprised of nephews of the originals, but they sounded as good as the old records to me. I was quite thrilled.

How old were you when you got first record?
The first record I recall was "You Belong to Me" by Jo Stafford. It was played at our high school sock hops. I had to have it. Listening to it, I was probably daydreaming of dancing with a certain popular girl. Of course, it was all fantasy, as she was there with the school football hero. Interestingly, 55 years later we met at a jazz event. She was still into music and dance. Of course, she'd been unaware of my admiration from afar. Nevertheless, "You Belong to Me" is still one of my favorites. Several musicians who know I like it play it for me without a request.

What was the first concert you ever attended?
My first concert was probably the Harry James Orchestra at the old Pla Mor Ballroom in the late 1950s: The Pla Mor, with mirrored ball, large dance floor, and that wonderful orchestra, was intoxicating. My date and I felt like we were in the movies. The Pla Mor had been the most popular ballroom in the heyday of Kansas City jazz during the 1920s, '30s, and early '40s. Prohibition was the law of the land, but not in Kansas City; at that time, Tom Pendergast was the political boss who allowed (encouraged) alcohol, music, gambling, etc. There was an unbelievable number of clubs, joints, and ballrooms with quality jazz, blues, and swing music, open 24 hours a day. It was a haven for musicians unlike any place in the country. I have read that Edward R. Murrow once wrote, "If you want to see some sin, forget Paris and go to Kansas City." The name "Paris on the Plains" stuck. A couple of years ago, Geri and I had a "Paris on the Plains" theme party with bathtub gin and all. It was a hoot!

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