By Paul Schankman
T.J. Müller is 27 years old, but his favorite music comes from an era almost 100 years old.
Müller has been fascinated by the boozy sounds of jazz music from the 1920s ever since he was a boy growing up in England.
“I can remember my mom singing the tune ‘Babyface’ to me,” Müller said.
As a kid he began playing music when he was five, and by the age of eight had already decided he wanted to be a professional musician. His father, a vicar with a penchant for jazz, bought him a used trumpet for £2.00.
Later, he would gain experience as a member of his family’s band. But it was at the age of 20 that he got his big break.
Pokey LaFarge and his St. Louis-based band was touring the U.K while Müller was in college. Müller connected with him and when he heard LaFarge was looking for a trumpet player, Müller got the job, touring with the band for three years.
That connection to St. Louis inspired his interest in music and musicians from the Gateway City.
“There is something about the underdog which is always interesting, and I think St. Louis has always been an underdog in terms of the narrative of music history,” Müller said.
Müller moved to St. Louis, eventually starting his own band called “The Gaslight Squares,” an obvious nod to the city’s musical past.
Then, two years ago, he decided to try something even more musically ambitious.
“I felt it would be incredibly fun to try and put together a group that could, as authentically as possible, recreate (the music of the 1920s) having an 11-piece orchestra playing regularly in St. Louis, playing the exact same sort of music and repertoire you could expect to hear in St. Louis if you were to travel back in time.”
Müller called his new group “The Arcadia Dance Orchestra,” named for the long-gone Arcadia Ballroom that once stood in Midtown St. Louis.
At the orchestra’s performances, Müller frequently talks about the history of music in St. Louis during the 1920s as part of his patter between songs.
“There is something about the music in the 1920s. I feel like we were moving out of the old world and into the new, so everything is exciting and challenging and urgent,” Müller said.
Though Müller had very little formal music training, he met, and has been mentored by local jazz legend Bill Mason, still playing his coronet at age 90.
Müller found an old book about how to arrange music from the 1920s, and he uses it to create the charts the Arcadia Dance Orchestra plays. He also transcribes music from old recordings and has built a few instruments of his own to make the arrangements sound more authentic to the period.
“I am trying to make that music more and more specific to St. Louis. I am trying add tunes which I have strong evidence that St. Louis bands were regularly performing and playing and furthermore trying to find tunes composed by St. Louisans,” Müller said.
The Arcadia Dance Orchestra plays concerts six to eight concerts at year. It has also recently added a monthly rehearsal open to the public for a small cover charge at The Focal Point in Maplewood, at which members of the audience can dance.
“It just has to be gradual,” Müller added.
“I’ll see how far I can push it before I fly to close to the sun.”