Monday, December 16, 2013

Pleased and flipped 13: Memories of the Artists’ Quarter: Michele Jansen, Gordon Johnson, Leigh Kamman

Thirteenth 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 a jazz era, we’re 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.

Michele Jansen, general manager, Jazz88FM (KBEM 88.5 FM)

Courtesy Michele Jansen
The first time I went to the Artists’ Quarter, it was still in Minneapolis, just off Nicollet Avenue. I saw Mose Allison. I glommed on to Mose’s music a few years earlier, and I was thrilled to see him in such an intimate setting.

The AQ moved, I got married, had children, and established a career of sorts. There was no time for music, so for many years I never went to any clubs and didn’t see much live music.

Then the Hot Summer Jazz Festival came along,(1) and it was such a great opportunity to see so many great acts in one place for free. When I became involved with KBEM as a fill-in announcer, I felt like I had been invited to the cool kids’ table. I started seeing more live music at the Dakota and the Times.(2)

I can’t remember the first time I went to the Artists’ Quarter in its current location in the Hamm Building. I only know that over time, it came to feel more and more like home to me. I often go alone, but I always know I’ll see familiar faces. It’s sorta like “Cheers,” where everybody knows your name! It didn’t matter to me who played there. When the lights would go down and the music started, I felt a warm blanket surrounding me. I would lose myself listening to the music.

My fondest memories are of going to the AQ after the Twin Cities Jazz Festival in Mears Park, hoping that the night’s headliners would show up and jam with the locals. And they often did. Stride piano nights with Butch Thompson and Jon Weber(3) are highlights, too. Last year, there was only one piano in the club. It didn’t matter. Butch and Jon played side-by-side, often switching places while their fingers never left the keyboard! That’s more than just a parlor trick; two virtuosos rarely share the stage so magnanimously. I stayed until the lights came up, and even then hung out a little longer, talking with folks and reminiscing about the night’s events well past closing time.

One of my dreams came true last year when KBEM produced a live radio drama. The “Jazz Noir” series started with the play “Charles and Avon,” broadcast live from the AQ. It was one of the most gratifying moments in my career, and I was so proud of my staff for pulling it off so professionally. I cried when the first notes of the program began to play and Kevin Barnes introduced the show. The basement jazz club was the perfect venue for a play about a young woman just learning about her gift of playing jazz on the piano. I honestly never thought I could be involved in such an exciting project. And I was especially pleased that so many KBEM listeners finally visited the AQ for the first time.

Other memorable moments: Red Planet giving new meaning to the genre of jazz fusion: Dean Magraw, Chris Bates, and Jay Epstein playing “Little Wing.” Watching Dave King do his stand-up (sit-down?) routine on the evils of Toby Keith and “the best f*****g potato boats you’ve ever tasted.” Hearing Davis ask people to use their “inside voices.” We all knew this was a true listening club.

I pray that another iteration of a true listening club will appear. But there will never be another Artists’ Quarter.

Gordon Johnson, bassist

Gordon Johnson by John Whiting
I spent the first 20 years of my adult musical life away from the Twin Cities, so I missed quite a bit of the early AQ years. Basically, I missed the ’70s and the ’80s. After my touring years with [Gene] Bertoncini, [Maynard] Ferguson, [Paul] Winter, [Roy] Buchanan, and [Chuck] Mangione, I made my move back to be near my folks, AND because I missed the Twin Cities!

Right away, I started my apprenticeship in piano tuning with my dad.(4) [AQ owner] Kenny [Horst] first asked me to do some tuning at the 26th Street club [in Minneapolis]. I can't remember much about what was there for a piano, but I recall my dad tuning occasionally way back then, and eventually I got good enough to be the one to do it.

I began tuning regularly at Fifth and Jackson [in St. Paul], on the old Schimmel, which belonged to Jeanne and Billy Peterson. Then Schmitt Music provided a Boston Grand for a while, which was really nice, until the disastrous leak in the ceiling! The bass section had to be restrung, and eventually that piano was pulled out of the place and Kenny acquired Lee Blaske’s excellent Yamaha C7, which has been there ever since.(5) Considering the mileage, it’s held up pretty well! I replaced the hammers just before Nichola Miller recorded “Thou Swingeth” at the AQ on Nov. 22, 2009. I gotta say it sure sounded nice that night, with fresh felt and Rick Carlson at the helm!

Ultimately, I have spent MORE time at the AQ working on the piano than I have playing bass! I am so thankful to Kenny for choosing me to do the piano work, and it’s been a really great gig for me.  

On the top of my Music Memories List is playing with an iconic saxophonist, the late, great Dewey Redman. What an exciting and inspiring body of powerful music I got thrown into there! From really outside to really inside, Dewey played the entire spectrum with energy, love, and thoughtfulness. I thank my dear friend Phil Hey for recommending me. Fortunately, I got to play a few more times with Dewey before his untimely departure.(6) I certainly do miss him.

Speaking of Dewey, the pianist on those shows was the continually amazing Bill Carrothers. Many of my most exciting moments on ANY bandstand, but I’d say mostly at the AQ, have been in the presence of this wonderful musician. I cannot say enough about Bill’s incredibly unique approach to music! He is a true original in every sense, and I have had some of the most ALL-OUT FUN bouncing around the harmonic and rhythmic landscape with this brilliant man.

Here’s a wacky memory. Back at the Fifth and Jackson venue, I played a night or two with drummer Dave King and pianist Ethan Iverson. I guess I can say that for a very short time, I was the bass player in what became the Bad Plus. Congratulations, fellas. I had a really good time playing with you!

My longest regular gig at the AQ was with the formidable 10-piece mini-big band, Pete Whitman’s X-tet. The monthly “last Thursday” gig was a showcase for this award-winning band’s writers and players, and was always a rewarding musical experience. I believe the band started its monthly appearances there in 2006. A great band, great book, great players, and many, many great moments!

Other memorable gigs for me were the annual Bill Evans tribute shows with pianist Chris Lomheim; Brad Bellows and Dave Graf’s trombone duo, “Valves Meet Slide”; Dave Karr, David Hazeltine, Lucia Newell, Jim Rotondi, Ira Sullivan; Jon Weber and numerous post-Jazz Fest jams; a Tommy O’Donnell Trio weekend (June 17 and 18, 2011); Brian Grivna, Jeff Rinear, Laura Caviani, Adam Niewood and Bill Goodwin … well, I’m certainly forgetting a few.

The memorable performances I got to see include one of my heroes, bassist Eddie Gomez. I was also present at the “Whereas” recording by Roy Haynes, which was one of the most powerful evenings of music I’ve ever witnessed. It was also wonderful to see one of my favorite trumpet players, Tom Harrell. He and I toured Europe in 1980 with the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band. What a marvelous musician!

The Artists’ Quarter is truly one of the greatest jazz listening rooms on the planet! I can say this because I have played many similar jazz venues all over the world. It has been a labor of love dedicated to the art form. The fact that it has existed for all these years is entirely due to the dedication of Kenny Horst, who has my full respect and admiration for his efforts to keep the place jumpin’. We love you for what you’ve done, Kenny! The Twin Cities will never be the same without the AQ.

One final cute story Phil Hey told me. One night, he was playing at the 26th Street club with Ed Berger. After a tune, this drunk comes up toward the stage and shouts, “Aw … you guys are just … MAKING THAT UP!”

Leigh Kamman, radio host, The Jazz Image™

Courtesy Andrea Canter
Through some seventy years I’ve been involved with Jazz Artists and their performances in clubs, concerts, and radio broadcasts by way of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth, Minnesota; Superior, Wisconsin; and (taped broadcast) KJAZ San Francisco – not to mention New York City, Harlem; the Palm, the Apollo, the Savoy Ballroom, the Bandbox, and Birdland via WOV radio.

As I write in December 2013 at the pending close of Kenny Horst’s Artists’ Quarter, many things come to mind …

Over a number of years, Kenny created, in the mid-continent – for America’s and Minnesota’s Jazz Artists, and for us here in the audience – a venue for great jazz!

Here’s what we could share in and enjoy:

Clear, clean sound reproduction of the performances, because Kenny Horst saw to it that the performances had a sightline and a stage carefully and acoustically constructed. A top-of-the-line grand piano, skillfully tuned, for every group and their needs – so they could perform for us.

He saw to it that the AQ audiences could enjoy prints, photographs, and historic memorabilia about the musicians (international, regional, and local), many of whom performed at the AQ.

Kenny saw to the booking of these artists (new faces and established jazz names), meeting their talent fees and paying them promptly. Many artists returned annually – Mose Allison, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Bill Carrothers, Lew Tabackin, Ira Sullivan, and many others.

I especially remember that Kenny recorded a memorable CD at the AQ with Roy Owen Haynes.(7)

All this over the years to savor!

In sum … an answer?

… like the Minnesota Orchestra???(8)

There is an answer. Is there an answer, here? What do you suggest?

Many thanks to Kenny Horst and his family, who have made the AQ possible.

And to all – all who have kept the music playing.

Leigh Kamman
with Kathy Vye (daughter)
THE JAZZ IMAGE™

***

Notes:

(1) The Hot Summer Jazz Festival, now the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, celebrated its 15th year in 2013. It began as a one-off – not a festival, just a way to present local jazz artists to the community – in 1999 on Peavey Plaza, which fronts Orchestra Hall. Three hundred people were expected; over 3,000 showed up. In 2000, the Hot Summer Jazz festival was created, and in 2001 it became a 501(c)(3) and a three-day festival. In 2004, it expanded into Mears Park in St. Paul and was renamed the Twin Cities Hot Summer Jazz Festival. In 2006, it was renamed the Twin Cities Jazz Festival. In October 2008, with the economy in a nosedive, funding disappeared and the board pulled the plug. In December 2008, St. Paul stepped up with an offer to help. No sponsors could be found in Minneapolis, so the festival relocated to Mears Park. Having now outgrown that site (the festival claims to attract “upwards of 30,000 people to the joy of jazz”), it’s looking to expand elsewhere within Lowertown in 2014. (Abbreviated from the history on the Festival’s website.)

(2) The Times Bar & Café, a jazz club and restaurant in northeast Minneapolis, closed in February 2009.

(3) Jon Weber has been the Twin Cities Jazz Festival’s resident pianist since 2000. The New York pianist and host of NPR’s “Piano Jazz Rising Stars” has become a great favorite here for his wit, his prodigious memory, his good humor, and his pianism.

(4) Gordy’s late father, Clifford, was bassist with the Minnesota Orchestra for 47 years.

(5) The Yamaha moved with the AQ when the club changed locations from Fifth and Jackson to the basement of the Hamm Building. 

(6) Phil Hey toured with Dewey Redman for 20 years. Redman played his last date at the AQ in 2004 and died Sept. 2, 2006. In December of that year, Gordy, Phil, Pete Whitman, and Bill Carrothers played a Dewey Redman tribute weekend at the club.

(7) Leigh is referring to “Whereas” by Roy Haynes and the Fountain of Youth Band, for which Haynes received a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Instrumental Solo.


(8) At the time of this writing, the Minnesota Orchestra has been locked out by management for more than 14 months due to a labor dispute. The lockout is considered one of the great tragedies of our arts and culture scene and has been closely followed nationally and internationally.

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