Monday, December 16, 2013

Pleased and flipped 15: Memories of the Artists’ Quarter: Phil Aaron, Dean Granros, Mac Santiago

Fifteenth 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.

Phil Aaron, pianist

Phil Aaron by John Whiting
There have been so many great moments and memories that it’s really hard to just pick three.

1. Three nights with Lee Konitz (with Kenny and Chris Bates). Lee brought a focus to the quartet that was unbelievable. EVERY note he played was an important event. His phrasing (wow), time, lines … I could go on and on. Plus, he refused to use a microphone. We were acoustic. It was a quiet yet deep burn – like a laser. This was both a moving experience and a powerful lesson.

2. Tie (I can’t help myself):

All of those nights with the Phil Hey Quartet. The music was always a challenge and the group was always fearless. We’ve played at least once a month for countless years. Cleansing! I’m forever grateful to Kenny for this (and to Phil, too).

And … all of those New Year’s Eves as Carole Martin’s accompanist.  Best New Year’s gig ever! Once again, Thank You, Kenny (and Thank You, Carole).

3. On a humorous note, there was the episode with THE BENCH! I think Kenny was on the gig. The piano bench [at the AQ] is often precariously close to the edge of the stage. After a few beers and slight seating adjustments, I was suddenly airborne and flying backwards, head over heels in a state of shock. The beers came to my rescue, though. I bounced back up, moved the seat back in place, and continued to play – and felt nothing! I think the whole event took about 16 bars. I later heard that Bill Carrothers played his next AQ gig with a helmet on.

Dean Granros, guitarist

Dean Granros by John Whiting
The significance of the Artists’ Quarter JAZZ Club and its meaning within the Twin Cities Jazz musician community cannot be adequately conveyed by my writing abilities. As well, it is improbable that I can express how much gratitude I feel personally toward Kenny Horst, the person and musician, as well as the entrepreneur who has kept this essential venue operating for so long. So anyway …

The AQ

To me, the Artists’ Quarter has been very much a “club.” There’s always been a tacit sense of membership for all who embrace the music and the vibe, whether as musician or listener. And the only price of membership has been an enthusiasm for the music (and a modest cover). A place to gather to share this great art form, the AQ has been one of the last holdouts of a music culture that is rapidly passing.

The AQ offered the jazz players in the area a place to listen, learn, perform, and develop our abilities in front of a live, and knowledgeable, audience. The very presence of the AQ has had an effect on the total music community, because it has been there providing a forum and venue for musical ideas, and creating contextual meaning for the entire music community, even outside of jazz. It’s been a reference point, a place to play, perhaps for some an aspiration. Its existence has given meaning and relevance to all of our efforts by saying “That’s worth doing, so do it here, it matters here.”

I read an interview with Pat Martino recently where he was commenting on a release of very early Wes Montgomery recordings and saying that the music could only have come from the culture as it was then, and that that culture has all but gone. The Artists’ Quarter has been a representation of that very culture and has hung on, somehow pulling it even into the 21st century. With the demise of the AQ, a victim of our values being reduced to the nearest penny, our music won’t die, but it certainly will change.

I played from time to time at the old AQ on 26th and Nicollet in Minneapolis during the late ’70s, when we lived a couple blocks away. And I got to hear some greats there.  Howard Roberts, Tal Farlow, Joe Pass. All heroes to me.  During the ’80s I continued to work hard on my music, but performance opportunities were fairly lean. One day I decided to go down and sit in at the AQ (it had moved to Jackson Street in St. Paul by then). Organist Billy Holloman was doing the organ night at the time. I hadn’t seen Kenny for a long time, and I remember feeling very welcomed by him and Davis Wilson and the other players. We played for the joy of it, no pretensions, and I had a blast. I started playing more frequently at the AQ in trios, on organ night Tuesdays, and in How Birds Work, a great quartet which we continued to the present. Thinking back, I can’t overstate how important being able to play once or twice a month at the AQ with all these fantastic musicians has been for me.

Kenny Horst

One can’t write about the AQ without writing about Kenny Horst, and all that is said about the club also reflects its proprietor‘s passion for the music and lifestyle of jazz. However, for me, Kenny looms large with or without the Artists’ Quarter and always will.  First of all, Kenny Horst is a GREAT drummer with a knowledge of dynamics and style gleaned from years of experience working with some serious musical heavyweights. He has always been willing to share his knowledge and advice. When I was coming up, Kenny was already a part of the scene, playing with local masters the likes of Bobby Lyle, Frank Edwards, and Jimmy Hamilton, and basically a who’s who of Twin Cities jazz.  Kenny always supported my playing, hired me for gigs with him, and recommended me to others, introducing me to many of the best musicians in town at that time. I learned how to play from these opportunities, and I owe many of them to Kenny. 

Mac Santiago, drummer

Mac Santiago by John Whiting
My favorite story comes from the summer day in 1982 when I met Laurie Trach for the first time at the AQ.

She was singing with Dean Magraw (guitar), Bernie Edstrom (trumpet), Eric Hanson (drums), and Paul Madsen (bass). I was genuinely smitten by the AQ and this 5'1" songbird of Bop.

So I married her and raised two of her children with her in a Jazz home.

The AQ was my matchmaker.

We’re still together 30 years later.


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