Monday, January 3, 2011

Changes at the Turf Club, no more Fat Kids at the Clown

The Turf Club on University Ave. in St. Paul closed its doors suddenly and without notice on Saturday, canceling a show scheduled for that night and hanging a handwritten "Closed for Repair" sign in the door. Former manager Dave Weigardt was let go and bartender Josh James was hired to take his place.

I don't actually care that much about the Turf Club, though I'm sorry to learn of almost any music venue closing. But I do care about a small, quirky, beat-up but enchanting little place in the basement of the Turf Club called the Clown Lounge.

Years before I headed down the stairs, I heard of the Clown, the regular Monday-night home of the jazz trio Fat Kid Wednesdays, often featuring guests from out of town. My first time there was in April 2008 to hear percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani. I've since returned several times, but not as often as I wanted, because I do supposedly have a day-ish job and leaving home at 10:30 on a Monday night for music that starts at 11 or later just isn't an option very often. Am I sorry that I missed John Betsch last Monday? Yes, I am, and sorry that I missed many other shows that were spoken of after in glowing terms.

In 2010, City Pages named the Clown "Best Jazz Club 2010," above the glamorous Minneapolis destination club the Dakota and the venerable St. Paul basement club the Artists' Quarter. CP praised the Clown for being a listening room instead of a chatterbox cafe. "If somebody's playing, everybody listens—not just out of respect, but because that's what they're there for."

What isn't mentioned--perhaps because CP, like the rest of us, didn't see the end of the Clown coming, not after all these years--is what it means these days for a great band to have a regular gig in a place that feels like home, even if it's a strange Unabomber cabin-doublewide hybrid of a home. To know that if you make yourself get into your car as the clock ticks toward midnight on a Monday in mid-January, you will hear good music, sometimes amazing music, and maybe, who knows, the best music you have ever heard, played under old lighted beer signs in front of a fake electric fireplace facing booths patched with duct tape.

The Clown was special. Fat Kids are special. Together they made a scene that was unique to the Twin Cities. I'm guessing the words "Jazz is dead" were never spoken there, or if they were, the speaker was dragged out the back door and beaten senseless and left to moan among the trash bins. Jazz at the Clown, played by Fat Kids and their confreres, was in the moment, beyond the moment, rooted in history, futuristic, colorful, unpredictable, sometimes scary and often exquisitely beautiful. I never left there disappointed. I usually left there too wide-awake to sleep for hours after.

Most of the speculation and outcry since Saturday have been about the Turf, without much mention of the Clown. Over at MPR, Euan Kerr didn't even ask about the Clown. Neither did Chris Riemenschneider at the Strib. Thanks to City Pages' Andrea Swensson, who did.

Earlier today, she wanted to know if the changes at the Turf would affect the Fat Kid Wednesdays residency. She quoted James as saying, "Yeah, those guys are actually coming in to meet with me in five minutes. JT Bates and Mike Lewis are good friends of mine, and I think they are a really, really important part of the culture of the bar, and I want them back. I want them back as soon as possible."

It seems the meeting did not go well, because in mid-afternoon JT posted on his FaceBook page, "Fat kids roll on with dave. No more mondays. We'll re-group for sure, stay tuned."

Let us not take lightly the fact that the Fat Kids are, at least for now, homeless. In an essay for, jazz pianist and composer Jeremy Walker wrote:
Take special note of the band Fat Kid Wednesdays (FKW) and its members, JT Bates (drums), Adam Linz (bass), and Mike Lewis (saxophones).... All three have cast wide shadows as individual artists, but it is the band itself I want to call your attention to here. They have been playing together in Fat Kid Wednesdays for over ten years--and that alone is enough to set them apart in jazz, a music dominated by one-off assemblages based on available jobs.... The musicians in the band have remained true to themselves, the music, and each other; more jazz musicians need to commit to each other and to a group sound. FKW has done so--and it is great to hear. So, go hear them.
The question now is--where?


  1. Thanks Pamela. If you don't mind, I'll repost here the same comment I made on Andrea's story at City Pages. Shame on those others for not even asking about the Clown.

    The loss of the Monday night series hosted by Fat Kid Wednesdays at the Turf is a major blow to the culture of jazz and improvised music in the Twin Cities. Well, it's a major blow to the culture of the Twin Cities period. The music presented in that space was the among the most vital we have had here, and the scene was well-known throughout the country if not the world. I'm glad FKW are looking for a new place, but the reality is that it's an incredibly difficult thing to build something like they did. It will not be replaced, of course, and I'm fearful as to whether it could be equalled. There are few other venues for music that is defined by its vitality and integrity such as the music that was presented there. It's really too bad.

  2. It was one of my all time favorite places to play.
    In fact, it and The Saint in NYC in the 80's are my top two. Anywhere and ever. Sigh...

  3. I'm commenting late here... but this reduction of venue (Clown Lounge) is most disheartening for our city. You are right about having to drag yourself out so late at night, but I never left there myself without feeling utterly illuminated, drifting home to Cannon Falls on dark highways lit up from the music. I thought often about how this underground mainstay was the jewel of Minneapolis. It will be sorely missed; the :up-north: cozy, barroom ambiance, the perfect Dave bartender, the clowns laughing/crying on the walls, and the Tinkle Gallery... we've just lost it all — other than our those nights we'll never forget. All of them.

  4. The Tinkle Gallery? How did I miss that? Now I'm ashamed of myself for complaining about driving from Minneapolis-St. Paul when you came up from Cannon Falls. I solemnly promise, I will no longer be a pussy.