Thursday, December 19, 2013

Pleased and flipped 24: Memories of the Artists’ Quarter: John Whiting

Twenty-fourth 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.

John Whiting, photographer

Courtesy Andrea Canter
A few years back, Benny Green was in town visiting his then-girlfriend. She was working late, and we offered to Benny-sit. Tanner Taylor was playing an Oscar Peterson tribute at the AQ and we decided to bring Benny there. He’d never been to the AQ. 

We got a great table and the crowd was very attentive. Benny was bouncing to the beat. At the break, Tanner came over to say hello, and we introduced Benny and Tanner to each other. As Tanner was leaving our table, he leaned over and said, very softly, “You bastards.”

December, 2004. We met friends at the St. Paul Grill, then went to the Ordway to see a dance performance. It was the coldest day I had ever experienced, and I’ve lived in Minnesota all my life. Afterward, huddling together, moving very fast through sub-Arctic blasts of wind, we all made our way to the AQ for a jazz nightcap. I don’t even remember who or what we saw that night, just that the AQ was welcoming and warm. Five minutes inside felt like a sauna for the soul. We completely forgot about the misery outdoors and wanted to stay the night – many nights – and chisel the car out in the springtime.

September 3, 2008. Our wedding anniversary falls in the midst of the Republican National Convention, the closest St. Paul has ever come to being a police state. Pianist Jon Weber is at the AQ for one night only, playing with Gordy Johnson and Kenny. We decide to brave it. We arrive in St. Paul, driving past barriers and fences topped with barbed wire, and find parking in the Macy’s ramp. To get into the Hamm Bldg., we have to walk past armed guards. (We learn later that the Hamm Bldg. was locked down for much of the day because some idiot threw water balloons out of a window.) At the AQ, we’re treated to a bottle of bubbly (thanks, Steve Heckler) and a wonderful night of music with masters Weber, Johnson, and Horst. So few people are there it’s almost a private concert.

Here’s Pamela’s description of the evening:

“Penthouse Serenade.” “Very Early” by Bill Evans. Weber leans back from his bench and considers the possibility of a CD made entirely of Thelonious Monk ballads. “When you slow Monk down,” he says, “it’s almost normal speed … ‘Darn That Dream’ is a Monk tune if you speed it up.” He demonstrates. It is. Then he riffs on the strange but true fact that 4/4, 6/6, 8/8, 10/10, and 12/12 all fall on the same day of the week no matter what year it is. Who knew? He plays a Henry Mancini tune. He tells a Henry Mancini tale from when he (Weber) was 25 and gigging at the Hyatt in Milwaukee when Mancini came in and young Jon played the composer's music for him.

“Secret Love,” a Sammy Fain tune from 1954, written for the movie “Calamity Jane.” The bridge between choruses is very long. It’s the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. “Lulu’s Back in Town,” “When I Fall in Love” (with Kenny on brushes, caressing the drums). Around midnight, a few people wander in, dressed up, no doubt from the Convention; they have just stumbled into some of the best music they may ever hear.

Weber loves to play and he doesn’t want to quit. Fine with us; we’re enjoying everything about this evening. Appropriately (or ironically), “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” a Rodgers and Hart tune (from a musical called “Too Many Girls,” Weber explains, which is where Desi met Lucy). Finally, “Jitterbug Waltz” with touches of “Take Five” and the “Mission, Impossible” theme.

Still smiling, we climb the stairs into the night and walk down the pedestrian mall toward the parking ramp. A minivan pulls up to the light, stops, and two police officers in riot gear get out. They slam their doors and glare at us before turning away. Not as bad as being maced or pepper sprayed or handcuffed, but chilling. Usually when we come out of the AQ late we worry about too-aggressive panhandlers, not police.

And one more: There was the night in 2009 when author Ted Gioia(1) was in town on a book tour. Pamela was in touch with him – she had done some writing for, a website for which Ted was editor – and asked if he was free that night and wanted to visit a local basement jazz club. Just a small place, unpretentious, with good music and inexpensive drinks. He said yes. We met him at the bookstore where he was doing his reading, then took him to the AQ to see Roy Haynes and his Fountain of Youth Band.

Thanks, Kenny and Dawn, Davis and Dan and David and Jennifer, for welcoming us into the AQ family and allowing us to document the goings-on there over the years, in pictures and words. 



(1) Ted Gioia’s many books include "The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire," "The History of Jazz," "Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music," "West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960," and "The Birth (and Death) of the Cool."

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