Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Pleased and flipped 1: Memories of the Artists’ Quarter: JT Bates, Dave Kunath, Bryan Nichols

First in a series. After almost 20 years in St. Paul – first on Jackson Street in Lowertown, then in the Hamm Building near Rice Park – the esteemed and beloved Artists’ Quarter jazz club will close January 1. As we near the end of an era, I'm asking musicians (and a few others) whose lives have been shaped by experiences at the AQ to share their three favorite memories of the place, the people, and the music.

JT Bates, drummer

JT Bates by John Whiting
First and best was seeing [legendary drummer] Roy Haynes live for the first time. It was in the old Jackson Street location, next to a steak house and down in the basement. You’d open the door to a little landing and you had to go down a sizable amount of stairs to another little landing. The stairs turned to the left and then to the right. I remember opening the door – the club was way down there, but it was all open air down the staircase – and just standing there because I heard and felt Roy Haynes coming out in the world at me. It was just the fact that [AQ owner] Kenny [Horst] brought Roy Haynes here.

Second – and this was huge for my life – was the time [bassist] Adam Linz and I went down there and met [pianist] Bryan Nichols. Adam and I used to go to the jam sessions on Saturdays. We were just out of high school and Nichols was still in high school, and we met him at a jam session. Within a month, Adam and I went to his parents’ house and played with him there. It became a lifelong friendship, and those are the sorts of things that are hard to come by. If it hadn’t been for that jam session, we probably wouldn’t have met, because Bryan went to high school in Burnsville. He went to [college] in Iowa, but we had already established a connection, so whenever he was back from school we would play. We have always felt very musically connected, and that’s where it came from, and that’s really important to me. Those jam sessions were fun. Some days weren’t good, some days were great, but that’s how you learn and that’s how we learned. You had to come out of your shell, go down to the bar, put your name on a list, assert yourself and tell people you wanted to play.

Third – and this is still back at the Jackson Street club, a formative time in my life – I played with [bassist] Anthony Cox. We’d been playing a little bit with [saxophonist] Michael Lewis, but then David Friedman came to town, a percussionist [vibes and marimba] Anthony worked with a lot in a band called Rios, and I got to play with them. It was the first time I felt like I’d been invited to play with people who were outside of my circle and more prominent. It was exciting to play as a drummer with an unbelievable percussionist. It was a very positive experience in my growing-up time. I thought – maybe I do know what I’m doing. There’s validation when people like that call you [to play] and it actually goes well. It was a big step for me at the time.

About the AQ in general: It has a different proximity. You’re right there. There’s no getting away from the crowd. You go there to see someone and afterward there’s whoever you just saw, standing seven feet away from you. It’s a traditional jazz club. Not a corporatized f***** whatever. It’s just a hang. A f***** hang. You go to hear someone and you end up hanging out with them. That’s the way it works there. And that, to me, is the most frightening thing to lose.

Dave Kunath, music fan and taper

Courtesy Dave Kunath
My first real experience at the AQ was in late February of ’05 for Happy Apple. The month before that I’d seen them at the Cedar, which followed my first outing recording live jazz at the Dakota in late December, with The Bad Plus. I was basically following [drummer] Dave King. I was just kicking off an addiction to live music recording and Dave was very open and charitable towards the local taping community and to me, so I was looking for him and equating that with opportunities to record.

Seeing Happy Apple, or any group of players, at the AQ pretty much set the benchmark in the Twin Cities – for music, audience quality, and as a friendly live recording venue. A quick search of my show notes pulled up 153 unique references to “Artists’ Quarter.” And that includes the two years I lived in [northern Minnesota] … I got to know Kenny, [doorman] Davis [Wilson],(2) [bartender] Dan [Cunningham] and some of the regulars on a very casual and friendly level. We don’t hang out except at the AQ, and when we do it’s always with the music in mind.

I thought of one specific time at the AQ that I’d likely not be able to duplicate anywhere else. It was a date a couple or three years ago when [saxophonist and NEA Jazz Master] Lee Konitz played, and during the break he and Kenny and [bassist] Gordy Johnson were at a stand-up table back near the entrance chatting about Lee’s time in Miles Davis’s band and what that was like. Nowhere else in this city would I (or anyone) be able to feel comfortable standing at Kenny’s elbow, eavesdropping on a conversation which was painting a vivid first-hand picture of one of the few jazz icons I’ve come to appreciate.

That's the beauty of this club. It provides a focus point where so many people with a common interest can gather and feel at home with the players and their music, with the host and his staff and with other patrons.  You can't do that anywhere but the AQ, can you? And of course there’s Davis Wilson, our own national treasure. What can you say but that you are blessed when you darken the door and he looks up from his sudoko and smiles in recognition. You know you’re in a good place.

If the doors do indeed close, I’ll be left with a gaping hole in my life. This hobby is just about the only thing that provides me interest anymore. Losing the AQ will be like … well, it will be hard for me. Without Kenny’s good will allowing me and others to “play” in such a perfect environment, I’d never have met so many great talents. For that I thank my lucky stars, the Taping Gods, and the AQ.

Bryan Nichols, pianist

Bryan Nichols by John Whiting
First memory: showing up for a Saturday afternoon jam session in – 1996, maybe? I was still in high school. Unbeknownst to all of us, and this was pre-Internet, the jam session had been cancelled for that afternoon.(1) When [drummer] Greg Schutte and I both showed up, Kenny was cool enough to let us in. Like, “You’re here, I can open for a moment.” We played two songs as a duo – I had just met Greg – and then he kicked us out. It was very cool to be a 16-year-old and have a club owner accommodate you in that way. Greg and I have talked about that a number of times since. It was a cool thing.

Second was a [trumpeter] Tom Harrell gig. I used to hang out with José James, now Blue Note recording artist José James. We’d play in a band and go see shows together. We saw a lot of shows in high school. One night he called me and said, “Hey, what are you doing tonight? I’m going to a Christmas party, and one of my family members is married to the VP of marketing at Blue Note.” This was back in 1996, way pre-José-on-Blue-Note. So we went to this party and met the guy – Tom Everett was his name – and we played a couple songs for him and I talked to him. I was such a Blue Note records geek I could name all the old records and all the current artists. At some point he said, “What’s going on in town? I want to see some music.” We told him that Tom Harrell was at the AQ and he said “Let’s go!” We went down and it was sold out, but he flashed who he was and got us in. The band was Tom Harrell and a house rhythm section – [pianist/keyboard player] Craig Taborn, Anthony Cox, and Kenny. There was a leak in the roof, and the piano had a plastic tarp over it to keep water from falling on it, but everyone sounded so beautiful, It was my first time hearing Craig live. It was an incredible night. Hanging out with a Blue Note records dude and hearing Tom Harrell … During the set break, Tom Harrell wandered off.(3) José and I went looking for him and found him in Mears Park … These are vivid memories. Going to the show, getting in, hanging out with VIPs, seeing those musicians play, and finding Tom Harrell. Magical.

Third memory: my first weekend playing with Dave King in the band Melodious Thugs.(4) We played music by Thelonious Monk. That was my first weekend playing at the AQ. The first time being paid to play there. An incredible band, incredible music. I was 19, and I invited everyone I knew. Family members, friends, everyone came out. It felt like a big deal. Dave was pre-Bad Plus. We were all in varying stages of musical infancy, and it felt really amazing to be able to play there. I’ll always remember that as one of my very first big gigs.



(1) I had to laugh when Bryan said “this was pre-Internet.” It wouldn’t have mattered if his story had happened yesterday. Kenny Horst has been and always will be pre-Internet. He doesn’t use the web or email; he doesn’t have a cell phone. If you need to reach him, call him at home, but never before noon.

(2) You’ll read the name “Davis” often in these stories. The warm, gregarious Davis Wilson is an AQ fixture. He’s the one who takes your money at the door and (if you’re new) tells you where the bathrooms are. He’s the one you’ll talk to when you want to take a break from the music and hang out on the sofa in the entryway, and you’ll soon realize that your break has lasted a lot longer than you intended because he’s so interesting to talk to. A voracious reader, Davis knows everything and everyone. He can channel Lord Buckley, a man Bob Dylan once described as the “hipster bebop preacher who defied all labels.” Occasionally (too rarely) he has taken the stage at the AQ as Lord Buckley and done his own thing. More often (every night) he introduces the musicians to the crowd, starting something like this: “My lords and ladies, we are pleased and flipped that you are here tonight ...” He doesn’t hesitate to suggest that the audience keep their personal noise down and pay attention to the music. Would that more clubs did the same. That this series is titled “Pleased and flipped” is due entirely to Davis, whom we gratefully acknowledge for his years of service and raconteurship.

Davis as Lord Buckley in "Rants of Winter," March 2007
"My Lords and Ladies ..."
Davis doing business
(3) Tom Harrell, who has been called the greatest trumpeter of his generation, has severe schizophrenia. When he’s on stage but not playing, he stands stooped and silent, head bowed, sometimes leaning on a wall. He has a difficult time with social interactions. But when he plays, there’s no one like him.

(4) The other members of Melodious Thugs were Mike Lewis and Adam Linz.

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