Just The Classics: One Man’s Journey In Jazz And Aviation In St. Louis

As St. Louis-area musician Rudy Emilio Torrini spent his final days in hospice care at his family home, only a few things were guaranteed to elicit a reaction through the haze of pain medications: listening to his favorite jazz standards; the company of his beloved wife; and mention of the soft-wing Phantom, his favorite sub-variant of the legendary Cold War jet fighter.

An F-4E Phantom kit with the tell-tale extended slats lay assembled close to his bed on a meticulously organized hobby table, awaiting a paint scheme he had prepared.

But early in the morning on June 7, 2020 Torrini finally succumbed to neuroendocrine  cancer at the absurdly young age of 31.

Among the many projects left tragically unfinished was the Phantom, part of his “Aerospace Imaginarium”, a model collection of classic aircraft he deemed closest to aesthetic perfection.

Even as he underwent barrages of chemotherapy during his nearly three-year struggle with cancer, Torrini made some of his finest performances with local traditional jazz bands including the The Gaslight Squares, The Arcadia Dance Orchestra and Annie and the Fur Trappers

Trained in classical composition, Torrini greatest contribution to the city’s jazz scene came from his ability to effortlessly croon away on high octaves of the clarinet while producing a sweet, luminous sound.

Just a few months prior to his death, he recorded his crowning musical achievement, The Rudy Torrini Swing Project, and finalized his plans for the Imaginarium.

St. Louis is a city steeped in the history of both music and aviation. The mid-western metropolis on the Mississippi River has been the home several genre-defining Black trumpeters such as Miles Davis. Between the 1930s and 1950s, jazz performers flourished in DeBaliviere Strip and Gas Light Square.

Meanwhile, a local Curtiss Wright factory churned out Helldiver bombers and C-46 Commando transport planes during World War II, and thousands of U.S. Navy pilots received flight training at Lambert Field. The mayor of St. Louis tragically died in 1943 during a CG-4 military glider demonstration. And Torrini’s grandfather, a sculptor and jazz clarinetist who performed 1938-1999, served in a ground crew at Lambert and survived a belly-landing in the backseat of an SNJ Texan trainer.

Later, St. Louis-based McDonnell (later McDonnell-Douglas; since 1997, absorbed into Boeing) developed a succession of legendary jet fighters including F-4 Phantom, the F-15 Eagle and FA-18 Hornet.

Torrini found in aircraft and aviation the same aesthetic qualities and sensation of freedom that he cherished in music. Since childhood, he frequented air shows, flying museums and aviation internet forums, and even the outskirts of Lambert Field to spot Eagles and Hornets on takeoff and landing runs. He collected ultra-realistic Microsoft Flight Simulator add-ons and vintage flight manuals. A few weeks before his death, he made a last flight with a friend in a Piper Cherokee Warrior. He liked to quote RAF fighter pilot Peter Townsend that “flying is church for atheists.”

He adored the music of flight too—the free-wheeling dogfights scored by John Williams, the energetic synth of antiquated aviation documentaries, the tension and vertigo of Ron Goodwin/William Walton’s score for The Battle of Britain.

Torrini unabashedly loved warbirds old and new despite being outspoken in criticizing their misuse in unnecessary or unjust wars. His expertise was such that my own writing career benefited greatly (we were cousins) as he drew my attention to topics that became the basis for several of my most popular articles.

The enigma of aeronautical engineering is that the collision between the unyielding laws of aerodynamics and the ruthless efficiency demanded by industrial engineering so often results in creations of striking beauty.

Torrini was one of those whose heart was stirred by that beauty. Though, sadly, he didn’t have the chance to complete his Imaginarium, we can still appreciate sensibilities reflected in the aircraft he selected for it, which were every bit as classical as his taste in music.

The “Soft-Wing” F-4E Phantom II

The St. Louis-born F-4 Phantom was a powerful two-seat jet fighter that could accelerate to over twice the speed of sound, carrier heavier weapons loads than a four-engine World War II heavy bomber, and engage enemies from miles away thanks to its radar and guided missiles. It even came in both land- and carrier-based variants. However, the Phantom’s shortcomings in close-range aerial combat became evident early in the Vietnam War.

These flaws were eventually corrected in later model Phantoms, including installing hydraulic slats protruding from the leading-edge of the wing (the “soft-wing”) that allowed the Phantom to maintain lift during tight turns and minimized spin-related accidents.

I think Torrini’s championing of the Phantom—a jet still flown by Greece, Iran, South Korea and Turkey—sprung from a conviction that the old and powerful could remain new and vibrant with a little thoughtful evolution. That belief was surely reflected in his interpretations of many nearly century-old jazz standards.

P-40 Warhawk

Torrini’s favorite fighter was the P-40 Warhawk, with the iconic shark mouth painted over the radiator of its Allison inline engine. The Warhawk was the Army Air Force’s “starter” fighter in World War II. Lacking the turbocharger necessary for high altitude operations, it was soon superseded by P-47 and P-51 fighters, though the British and Soviets used it extensively in low-altitude roles.

Torrini often argued that the P-40’s inferior reputation was undeserved. Personally, I think his love for the P-40 stemmed from its use by the “Flying Tigers” unit of American volunteer pilots who heroically defended cities in southern China from Japanese bombers, with extraordinary success.

Spitfire Mark VIII

With its exquisite elliptical wings and dapper Rolls-Royce Merlin inline engine, the Supermarine Spitfire may be the most beautiful piston-engine fighter ever built. But more importantly, the high-performing British fighter had a legendary propensity for foiling the Nazis time after time throughout World War II, exploits immortalized in films like Malta Story and Dunkirk or the BBC series Piece of Cake.

Rudy’s favorite subvariant was the third-generation Mark VIII model, a superior but lesser-known cousin to the up-engined Mark IX used late in World War II.

F4U Corsair

The Corsair had the looks of a racer with its graceful curves of its gull-wings, it lean fuselage, and rear-seated bubble canopy. It was arguably the best piston-engine naval fighter to see extensive air-to-air combat, first with Marine Corps air wings deployed to Guadalcanal, and later on the decks of U.S. and Royal Navy carriers. Like all great fighter planes, the “Whistling Death” matched speed with maneuverability, and even distinguished itself as night fighter during the Korean War.

A6M2 Zero

To Torrini, the barrel-shaped radial engine on aircraft like the Corsair reached its aesthetic peak in the Mitsubish A6M Zero, which could outrun, out-climb and out maneuvers its Allied opponents in the early years of World War II. But like a hollow-boned bird, the Zero’s extraordinary performance and incredible 1,600-mile range was achieved by trimming away virtually all armor, contributing to fatally high attrition rates for Japanese pilots over time.

P-38 Lightning

One of the early famous works of Lockheed engineer Kelly Johnson, the P-38 Lightning was Torrini’s favorite twin piston-engine fighter. And who could deny the exquisite yet unconventional beauty of its art-deco lines and twin-boom tail? Dubbed the forked-tail devil by German pilots, the Lightning combined high speed, firepower and the ability to embark on long-range missions deep into enemy territory.

Johnson’s stylish touch can be seen in two other planes Torrini selected for the Imaginarium.

P-80 Shooting Star

The P-80 Shooting Star, retains the elegant modernist aesthetic of the P-38, and comes with a comic book origin story as a top secret project to combat new Nazi jet fighters. America’s first operational jet fighter entered service too late for World War II, but may have scored the first jet-on-jet kill ever in the Korean War dueling with higher-performing Soviet MiG-15 jets.

SR-71 Blackbird

Few aircraft are quite as aesthetically or technologically striking as the SR-71 Blackbird. It’s not just that the dagger-like titanium-skin spy plane could exceed three times the speed of sound, a feat matched by some Soviet interceptors—it could sustain high supersonic speeds for hours. For over three decades of operational service, Blackbirds simply outran numerous surface-to-air missile over the Middle East, North Korea and Vietnam.

FA-18 Hornet

The FA-18 Hornet may not be the highest-performing 4th generation jet when stacked up later designs like the Eurofighter Typhoon and Su-35. But Torrini favored the multi-role jet for its ability to attain very high angles of attack in a low-speed dogfight and the jaunty outward cant (dihedral) of its vertical tail stabilizers and its “cobra-hood” strakes. The enlarged and heavily evolved Boeing FA-18E/F Super Hornet variant remains in production today in St. Louis, alongside F-15 fighters and forthcoming T-7 Red Hawk jet trainers.

Torrini’s untimely passing marks a tragic loss to the jazz community in St. Louis, as as it was loss for those who loved him.

But fortunately one can continue to enjoy his keen eye for detail and aesthetics, both musical and aeronautical.

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