Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Pleased and flipped 16: Memories of the Artists’ Quarter: Mary Louise Knutson, Billy Peterson, Patty Peterson

Sixteenth 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.

Mary Louise Knutson, pianist

My first jam session

In the fall of 1988, I moved to Minneapolis. I had just graduated from college with a classical piano degree, but through years of exposure to jazz in college, I knew in my heart that I wanted to switch gears and become a jazz pianist. A co-worker at my then new part-time job (at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts) mentioned that there was a weekly jam session at a jazz club around the corner … it was the Artists’ Quarter on 26th and Nicollet.  I started showing up there on occasion to check out the musicians, but I never had the guts to sit in.  I was a complete beginner and I just knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up.  But I also knew that I HAD to sit in at some point, even regularly, if I ever wanted to get any experience playing jazz.

Mary Louise Knutson by John Whiting
Daily, I studied chords and improv in my apartment and kept asking myself, “Am I ready to sit in today?” I put the jam session off for a long time. I was so afraid I’d make a fool of myself. Finally, I dragged myself over to the AQ one night. I found a room full of guys with their instruments sitting in the audience, waiting to be called up to the stage by the session leader. I reluctantly asked the leader to add my name to the list and then waited anxiously. I wondered if anyone else was as nervous as I was, but I tried to appear cool. Eventually, I heard my name called and I went to the stage along with a bunch of sax players whose names had also been called. In seconds, someone counted off an up-tempo bebop tune. I comped and comped and comped, chorus after chorus of saxophone solos, and then my fingers pretty much sputtered and tripped all the way through my own solo. It was clear that I wasn’t ready for that kind of soloing. But luckily I was allowed to stay for another tune, and this time it was a mid-tempo standard, which I handled respectably. On my way down from the stage, I was met by a few players who complimented me on my comping. I was ecstatic to hear anything positive, and I was elated to have made it through my first jam session.  

From that day forward, I continued to show up at jam sessions at the AQ from time to time. But, in my mind, that first one really marked the beginning of my life as a jazz musician. I wonder now how many other musicians got their start at the Artists’ Quarter. Where would we all be without the supportive environment the AQ has provided over the past 30-40 years? Thanks, Kenny, and all previous owners and co-owners, for providing a nurturing place for jazz musicians to develop and share their music.

Phil Hey

I’ve played with drummer Phil Hey in my own trio and in various groups over the past 25 years. Several years ago, I thought it would be fun to go hear Phil do his own thing with his quartet at the AQ. As I settled into my seat at the club, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I knew Phil as a dynamic, artistic, and tasty player. He was the perfect accompanist – supportive, interactive, and intuitive. But this night I heard something beyond all that. His playing was fiery and energized, out front and in your face, explosive, and daring. He was focused and had tapped into a very deep place within. What was different? He was leading his own group, this was HIS deal, his passion, his voice. I loved what I heard that night.

All this time, in the many groups in which I had played with Phil, he had generously been setting aside his ego to leave room for the “lead voice” – as great sidemen do. But that night at the AQ, and once a month for many years, he was the leader and could play the crap out of the drums if he wanted to. It was inspiring to hear Phil in his element. Where else could a drummer have the stand for an entire evening but at the AQ? The AQ has always been a champion for instrumentalists and a place where jazz musicians could express themselves authentically and freely – free from restaurant managers telling us to tone it down for the diners, free from patrons requesting Andrew Lloyd Weber tunes, free from restrictions on the style of jazz, or the type of instrument being featured. I’m extremely grateful to have experienced these freedoms and to have heard many of my peers perform as leaders at the AQ.

Favorite shows

Some of my favorite shows at the AQ were Roy Haynes, Bobby Peterson, and Bill Carrothers, and I enjoyed playing there many times with The Children of the Night, Locally Damaging Winds, Debbie Duncan, Connie Evingson, Doug Little, Eric Kamau Gravatt, my own trio, and more. I remember how generous Kenny was when I asked to host my own CD release party at his club a couple years ago. He answered the phone when I called, he offered me one of the best nights of the week, he put up no resistance when I asked to start a couple hours earlier than his regular start time, and he was generous with the door earnings. As far as club owner-to-musician interaction goes, Kenny’s attitude was the exception to the rule. It was like working with a friend – someone who had your best interests at heart.

Thank you, Kenny, for your support – not to mention the massive amount of time, energy, and heart that you’ve bestowed upon our Twin Cities jazz scene!

Billy Peterson, bassist

Billy Peterson by John Whiting
When you initially asked me to mention three stories that I most fondly remember about the AQ, I thought … wow … three … probably 3,000 things are worth mentioning. I wish I could boil down three stories that would sum up my time at the AQ since its inception. However, if I did, this would do a great injustice to all the musicians I didn’t mention who have shared their talents so graciously with the public at the AQ, for which I and the community will be forever grateful!!

I think my words are better spent on three things that have moved me beyond words at the AQ since I have been involved.

Number One … Beyond the shadow of a doubt … the reason why the AQ has survived through thick and thin is two words: KENNY HORST. Without his commitment to the day-to-day work to keep the doors swinging, the AQ would never have lasted this long.

Kenny has sacrificed beyond comprehension, both monetarily and physically, and his commitment to the AQ and the community has always been a labor of love.

Number Two … Beyond the shadow of a doubt … I am Kenny Horst’s biggest fan. If it were not for my brother Kenny, I never could be playing at the level that I have been so blessed to attain. Kenny kept me honest, so to speak. I would be physically gone from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area for months at a time, being an entertainer on the pop circuit (1) … and then I would return and of course, Kenny would have me hired with the greatest jazz players in the world right away after months of being on the road with the “Entertainment Commitee.” He always kicked me to the curb musically and challenged my commitment to Jazz in a very persuasive manner. Hiring me!!!!

All the Jazz musicians of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area owe a lot to Kenny Horst for however good they perceive their own playing to be, because he kept the doors swinging at the Artists’ Quarter and gave us a place to raise our own level of playing.

Number Three  … beyond the Shadow of a doubt.!!!!!! … Dawn Horst, Kenny’s beautiful wife. Without her commitment to her husband and to the AQ and Jazz, the AQ would be nonexistent … It’s as simple as that, friends and family of the AQ.

Thank you, beautiful musicians and patrons, for allowing this beautiful creative space to exist for as long as we have been blessed to have it … but most of all, I will forever be indebted to my best friend and closest musical comrade, Kenny Horst.

I love you.

Patty Peterson, vocalist, on-air host at Jazz88FM (KBEM 88.5 FM)

Courtesy Patty Peterson
Writing about the Artists’ Quarter is about as daunting as a task as I have had for a long time.  When you know that an institution for Jazz Artists is potentially not going to be available, it makes you wonder what you can personally do to save it.  Since I don’t have that answer right now, let me take a moment to say what it has meant to be able to perform my art there as a singer.

The Artists’ Quarter has always featured the most incredible artists – young and old, new and established. Not often has it boasted singers. Being a part of the Peterson Family, and someone who’s had the good fortune not only to perform but also record with several of the musicians who have played the AQ, helped me get my foot in the door there. Truth is, I had to prove myself. Led by my brother, Billy Peterson, and joined by folks like David Hazeltine, Kenny Horst, and Ira Sullivan, my debut CD, “The More I See You,” was born. That disc won several awards at the Minnesota Music Awards and received accolades in several national jazz trade magazines. This could not have happened without the Artists’ Quarter to perform in, and the chance to learn who I was as a jazz singer.

I remember the many times I sang with my cousin Bobby Peterson at the AQ. Having him back me on the Jazz Standards brought a whole new learning experience to my ability to sing around the changes. It happened naturally as he led me down a path I hadn’t traveled before as a singer. The end result was me trusting my own ear with his wonderful musical guidance. Add Billy Peterson and Kenny Horst, and an R&B singer became a jazz singer, minus the scat singing.

The Artists’ Quarter is also a place where celebrations have occurred for my family.  From birthdays to CD releases, we have celebrated a lot! What particularly comes to mind are the years we had our mother’s birthday parties there. One that sticks out in my mind is when Jeanne Arland Peterson released her CD “88 Grand” at the AQ on her 88th birthday. She was joined by Irv Williams and Cliff Brunzell for that concert. Jeanne continued to celebrate her birthday there until she was 91. Family and friends looked forward to gathering around her brilliance and having a chance to experience all things Jeanne. Those memories of her at that piano, smiling at her audience, are etched in my brain, and I am forever grateful.


(1) Billy Peterson has played with countless artists over the years, but his longest gig - and the one that kept him away from home for months at a time - was with the Steve Miller Band, with whom he played and toured for 23 years.

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