Music lover, scholar, father of drummer Mark St. Pierre
–By Bob Jacobson
“I play no instrument,” says Maurice St. Pierre, BJA member since 2013, yet music has clearly played a major role in his life. As a youth in British Guiana (which gained independence as Guyana in 1966), he saw a wide range of American artists – Johnny Mathis, Louis Armstrong, Chubby Checker, Cab Calloway, Marian Anderson – and calypsonians from the Caribbean, notably The Mighty Sparrow. While at graduate school in England and later in Jamaica, he was drawn to reggae. In Montreal for further graduate study in the late 1960s, he saw Miles Davis at a small club and took his son Mark, then riding a tricycle, to see Thelonious Monk and Nina Simone.
St. Pierre says that drums have always been important to him, citing Gene Krupa as an early favorite. He also listens to a wide range of pianists — Oscar Peterson, Errol Garner, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Monty Alexander (specifying the tune “Fly Me To The Moon”) and classical icon Andre Watts. St. Pierre’s LP collection includes a lot of Monk and Herbie Hancock, both of whom he describes as “critical in terms of composing.”
Not surprisingly, given his broad academic background in sociology, economics and history, plus his travel experiences (over30 countries), St. Pierre demonstrates a multi-faceted perspective on music. “I see music as an expression of originality,” he says, adding, “Improvisation is very important. You can express yourself.” St. Pierre is also steeped in musical lore, repeating stories of how Charlie Parker got the nickname “Yardbird” and its shorter version “Bird,” and how Michael Jackson developed the Moonwalk. He also describes how certain music has been critical in the fight against racism, citing The Mighty Sparrow’s role as a social critic.
St. Pierre’s son Mark is well known throughout the Baltimore area as a drummer and percussionist who plays in multiple genres — jazz with the Anthony Villa Trio, the Paul Soroka Trio, the Melting Pot Big Band, the BJA Big Band; rock with Carey Ziegler’s Expensive Hobby; R&B and pop with Marcella, and Damon Forman’s Blue Funk; wedding music with Meredith Seidel; and Latin music with Rumba Club. He teaches at Loch Raven Academy and directs Loyola University of Maryland’s jazz ensemble and jazz combo. Mark says that hearing his father’s jazz albums as a child in Canada “started the whole obsession with music.” His father, who he describes as “always a staunch supporter,” bought him a pair of bongos at age three or four. He was the top drummer in elementary school. “It really all started to come together in middle school,” says Mark, when his father encouraged him to try for a scholarship to Peabody Preparatory, which he won. That led to his becoming a student in a Baltimore County gifted and talented program, then solo and ensemble auditions. Those were judged by Professor Dale Rauschenberg, later Mark’s instructor at Towson University.
Maurice St. Pierre says that Mark provides a lot of inspiration. He recounts watching one of Mark’s performance videos. “He was massaging this box from Peru (a cajon) with his hands and heels. He was in another world almost. This is what jazz does to you,” says the elder St. Pierre. He also expresses pride in his grandsons’ musical accomplishments – Andrew on cello and Michael on drums.
In 2012 St. Pierre retired from Morgan State University, where he had taught in and chaired the Sociology and Anthropology Department since 1977. Already the author of two books on anti-colonialism in the Caribbean, St. Pierre has continued writing in retirement –
a recent article on historian Eric Williams in the Journal of Labor and Society, an article on the continuing relevance of Martin Luther King, Jr., and a 40,000-word essay about growing up in the Caribbean. He is an avid reader of biographies, including Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton, and viewer of documentaries, including films on Kobe Bryant, James Brown, and Michael Jackson. During retirement he has traveled to Brazil, Haiti and Cuba. St. Pierre says he keeps up with current events and is reading and thinking a lot about the philosophy of absurdism, chuckling about its relevance to current politics.
Bob Jacobson, former Vice President of the BJA, plays saxophone and clarinet and leads combos “Sounds Good” and “Swing ‘n’ Samba.” He has written numerous articles for the BJA newsletter.