Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Pleased and flipped 19: Memories of the Artists’ Quarter: Brian Courage, Lucia Newell, Bart Schneider

Nineteenth 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.

Brian Courage, bassist

Brian Courage by John Whiting
Having moved to the Twin Cities less than two years ago, I never experienced the glory days of the Artists’ Quarter at either of its previous locations. Even with that in mind, I can confidently say that the AQ in its current location has been the most important focal point of my Minnesota experience, both as a performer and a spectator.

On my very first night as a resident of the Cities, I went to the AQ to see my friend Adam Meckler play with Graydon Peterson’s quartet. Adam had spoken very highly of this group, and I was hooked from the first tune. I left that gig already feeling better about moving here.

I played at the AQ a handful of times during my first few months in town, but I spent a significantly greater portion of my time there as a listener. I sat in a few times on gigs that Kenny was playing on, and he started to call me to play on a few Tuesdays and Wednesdays. As the spring came around, I found myself playing there more and more frequently. Even on the nights when I felt like I wasn’t playing up to my own standards, Kenny was very encouraging and continued to call.

In the process, I was lucky enough to play with a multitude of excellent local musicians, many of whom I can now call friends, as well as the occasional national artist. The final vote of confidence was Kenny asking me to play with Lew Tabackin in November. If I had gone straight to New York from school, Lew and I might never have met on stage, and certainly not within my first two years. Kenny was singlehandedly responsible for providing me with these opportunities, and I would be hard pressed to take that for granted.

I soon found myself feeling like a part of the AQ extended family. Davis (where else in the world could I have met someone like Davis Wilson?), Dan, David, Dawn, Jen, Vanessa, Kelle and Will have all been extremely kind and welcoming. I knew that whenever I came to the club, even if I didn’t run into other musicians I knew (which usually happens), I would at least see a familiar face behind the bar.

For the past few months, Kenny has enjoyed telling employees and concertgoers alike that I have a bed set up in the green room and don’t have any reason to leave the club anymore. I can think of many worse ways to live.

Thank you, Kenny, for keeping the club open long enough for a long-haired young upstart to experience the wonderful music that these Cities have to offer.

Lucia Newell, vocalist

Courtesy Andrea Canter
I’m not a storyteller as such, but I have a large swash of colors and memories blended into a long mural of jazz and the AQ in my head. It is as much a feeling for me as a place filled with countless moments and love of people.

First of all, I have said for years, the Artists’ Quarter is my home away from home. Meaning, when I am there, I am as comfortable and happy as I am in my own home.

The images that come to mind as I think back over the evolution of the AQ are: playground, sandbox, laughter and tears, camaraderie, relaxed social exchange, long-time friends, deep listening, learning, high stimulation, bebop, giant talents, spontaneous creativity, hearing players reach deep into their souls who have the courage and skills to say what they need to, pure unmitigated freedom of expression, safety, kindness, feeling loved and welcomed, learning to listen more deeply, late-night hangs, excellent players’ gossip, being part of a community that is like a family …

As a place, the AQ has been a haven where we could hear our friends grow as musicians and experience already well-established players teaching with every note and fiber of their beings, a most exquisite in-the-here-and-now way to learn. It has been my favorite and best school, providing an education about life as well as music. There, Kenny has provided an ongoing invitation to try new things and to share my own creative impetus in the form of songs and improvisation.

At the AQ we have found understanding, acceptance, and support from other players and mentors. It’s a place to blow it all out, and to get centered when feeling off-balance. I have fallen in love again and again with the amazing musicians I get to listen to and make music with, on and off stage. The making of the music is the greatest gift of all. The AQ is the place we go for solace, where we’ve felt the pain of loss of our friends and families, and have shared it together, and where we truly celebrate life. It has been the gift that keeps on giving.

The AQ has been the only place since I was 18 years old at Churchill’s Bar in New York City where, when I walk in the joint, the bartender knows what I want, and has my ouzo ready for me by the time I reach the bar, or if I’m chatting with Davis, will send it out to me at the door. Like I said, Home Away from Home.

I can never thank enough all the dear and fabulous people who have worked at the AQ and passed through and been a part of the extended AQ family, but will always love and remember those who have kept it going and ticking all these years (including those behind the scenes doing websites and pictures and PR and writing!), and especially, but not only, Davis, Jen, Dan, Will, David, and most of all my dear friends Dawn and Kenny.

As I write, I can only hope there is a way to continue this treasure and legacy you have left us by the sweat of your brows and the best in your huge hearts. So much love. Thank you, thank you, thank you with all my heart and love.

Bart Schneider, publisher, novelist, amateur saxophonist, jazz fan

Courtesy Bart Schneider
I first saw Pepper Adams at a sprawling outdoor venue in Northern California, the Russian River Jazz Festival. It was the summer of 1997, and I was wading knee-high in the river to get as close to the band as I could. Pepper was playing as part of the Conte Candoli Big Band. He was on the far side of the stage so I didn’t get a good look at him, but I gloried in the two uncannily swift and robust solos he took. How could a man play an enormous instrument, with fingers spread so wide, with such facility?

Following the band’s performance, Conte Candoli made a curious request: “Our baritone saxophone player Pepper Adams needs a gig. So if anyone has work for one of the greatest baritone sax players in the world, come see him.” I thought of the absurdity of Pepper Adams, the veteran of all those great Detroit bands with Donald Byrd and Tommy Flanagan, marooned on the west coast without a gig. It was the tragedy of jazz itself in this country.

Pepper Adams had a sound so far from West Coast cool that you didn’t want the poor man to succumb to a gig playing ballads at the Trident in Sausalito. Thankfully, the man escaped that fate.

I saw Pepper the next and last time at the old Artists’ Quarter in Minneapolis.(1) A cold winter’s night, as far removed from the sun and sand and flowing Russian River as possible. The old AQ was a marvelously intimate space, a mellow living room, a true oasis in the middle of a cold winter night.

There weren’t more than a dozen folks in the club that night, but Pepper blew chorus after chorus with the local rhythm section as if he were back in Detroit in the glory days, his ferocious street brawler style always on the attack.

I loved sitting a table-length from the fierce furnace of Pepper’s sound, but found it a bit disconcerting that a man so slight of build, and as innocuous looking as a janitor in a parochial school, could produce so magnificent a sound.

I didn’t realize the night that I heard Pepper at the Artists’ Quarter that he was already riddled with cancer and on a final solo tour across the country. The dozen of us in that Minneapolis oasis were luckier than we knew.



(1) Bart Schneider grew up in San Francisco and now lives in Berkeley, where he runs a publishing house called Kelly’s Cove Press, but he put in time in the Twin Cities in between. He was the founding editor of “Hungry Mind Review,” a national book and culture magazine, served as literary director of the Loft Literary Center, and founded the literary-culture magazine “Speakeasy.” He is the author of several novels including “Blue Bossa,” loosely modeled on Chet Baker, which was a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

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