Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Pleased and flipped 4: Memories of the Artists’ Quarter: Chris Bates, Steve Kenny, Andrés Prado

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.

Chris Bates, bassist

Chris Bates by John Whiting
First, a quick list of memorable performances I have seen at the AQ:

• Dean Magraw / Anthony Cox duet weekends
• Harry “Sweets” Edison and Irv Williams
• Dewey Redman
• Roy Haynes
• Lew Tabackin
• Tom Harrell
• David Freidman / Anthony Cox
• Billy Holloman organ nights!
• A very early Happy Apple show (with Cully Swanson on bass, Mike Lewis and Anton Denner on saxes) and their incredible run of SRO weekends on Jackson St.
• John Patitucci / Billy Peterson Two Bass Hit
• Jazz Festival jam sessions

My memories of the Artists’ Quarter begin on Jackson St. at the fabled jam sessions that [AQ owner] Kenny [Horst] led on Saturdays. This would have been around 1995-96 or so. I met folks like Greg Schutte and Bryan Nichols, who have remained close musical allies for many years, and I must have made a good impression on Kenny, because through those sessions he asked for my number and then called me to play at the club on some gigs with Dave Karr and Gary Berg and a couple of weekends with Bill Carrothers. I was in WAY over my head is all I really remember, but I guess I hung in there well enough to be asked back over the years. When the AQ moved to the Hamm building, I started playing there a bit more and really developed a pretty solid musical relationship with Kenny. There is a special hook-up between bass players and drummers that is based on a mutual trust in time feel and dynamics. It’s through Kenny’s trust in me that I’ve been lucky enough to play with legends of this music – Ira Sullivan, Eric Alexander, Mose Allison, Greg Skaff, Jim Snidero, and perhaps the most incredible, Lee Konitz.

The Jackson St. location was also the place where the Motion Poets were given a chance to play and develop our sound. It was not easy at first to get Kenny to book us, and rightfully so. He runs a 21+ BAR so why would he book a bunch of twenty-somethings who could pack a coffeehouse with underage kids?!?! There was definitely a feeling of having to earn your way in to play, but that’s not a bad thing; it forces you to step up musically and bring your A-game to prove that you can hang. Motion Poets were part of a small group (along with Happy Apple and Moveable Feast) of young, independent jazz musicians who were developing our craft on the road and at countless tip gigs and sessions. So it was a big deal to get a chance to play our own music at a club that encouraged originality and respected the art. Kenny certainly didn’t have to give me ANY opportunities, but he did, and I and several others are now regular contributors to the music [in the Twin Cities]. Without Kenny taking that chance, I would not be where I am today as a musician. Kenny has since gone on to really encourage and allow younger musicians the opportunity to develop by scheduling the early weeknight shows at 7 p.m. for no cover. These nights have afforded lots of young players chances to play and experience the music as a continuum.

From 2006 to the present, I played at the AQ a whopping 245 different times. Forty-nine with How Birds Work, 31 with Atlantis Quartet, 19 with Red Planet, 16 with Dave Karr, 14 with Framework, and 11 with Brad Bellows. Amongst those gigs, Atlantis, Red Planet, Framework, Kelly Rossum, and Red 5 have held eight CD release weekends there. Also of note are the one-off gigs that proved groundbreaking or musically significant in nature, even if sparsely attended: Volcano Insurance (a trio with Luke Polipnick and Joey Van Phillips), Ernie Coleman (trio with Chris Thomson and JT Bates), Adam Niewood Quartet, a one-off filling in for Billy Peterson with Ben Sidran and Bob Rockwell, the only known public performance of Dean Magraw and the Bates Brothers, and a band I hope gets to play again sometime soon with Bryan Nichols and the Bates Bros. Last but not least were three other significant events for me at the AQ. One: in 2005 I was playing in trio with Laura Caviani and Michael Pilhofer. We were finishing up a version of “In Your Own Sweet Way” and there was a sudden burst of activity in the audience as JOE LOVANO stepped up, blowing his horn, and proceeded to take a solo and bring the band to another level. Joe played several songs with us, and his wife, singer Judi Silvano, sat in as well. Two: playing in trio with Bill Carrothers and Ari Hoenig – just mind-bendingly attentive and receptive music-making of the highest level. Three: having the opportunity to hold the CD release for my solo album “New Hope” at the AQ and then, two to three months later, Kenny CALLING ME to book the band again. A clear sign that he believed in me and my music. Validation for all the hard work.

All of these memories are just my own. There are many other musicians who play the club regularly, and they all have stories and tales of Kenny Horst and the Artists’ Quarter. The impact this place has had on my musical life is incalculable, and I’m truly overwhelmed by its closing. Without the AQ, the Twin Cities music scene stands to suffer greatly, as the club has afforded so many the opportunity to experience a real jazz club environment where the music feeds the musicians and the audience alike in a mutually beneficial way. The art of improvisation thrives on this feedback loop, and I can only hope that somehow, somewhere, in some way this type of space can be created again, and SOON. It is true that the music can happen anywhere at anytime, but Kenny Horst and the Artists’ Quarter have ensured the art by sustaining the environment most conducive to this music. That is the true loss here. Thank you Kenny, Dawn, David, Davis, Jennifer, Dan, and Byron, too!

Steve Kenny, trumpeter

Steve Kenny courtesy Andrea Canter
One night at the original Artists’ Quarter on Nicollet, I saw [drummer] Tony Williams play with a small group that included [trumpeter] Wallace Roney. In those days, I was obsessed with a tune called “Sister Cheryl.” I was doing this total immersion thing where I would ONLY listen to one tune, sometimes for months at a time. I had recently concluded doing that with a studio recording of “Sister Cheryl” [from Wynton Marsalis’s self-titled 1981 debut album on Columbia]. I associated that tune with Wynton and was not really on-the-ball to the fact that it was a Tony Williams tune and he might play it live. During the AQ performance, the band busted into “Sister Cheryl.” With my brain being so fertilized from all the obsession, it just did magical things to me. And I was so close to the power of that drumming. It really blew my mind. That was my first time at the Artists’ Quarter.

When the AQ was on Jackson Street in St. Paul, most of my significant memories were made onstage while performing with Dave Karr, Kenny Horst, Mikkel Romstad, and Tom Lewis in a killing group called The Five, and with the Illicit Sextet. But I also recall one day when a very young Michael Lewis showed up for the Saturday jam session. Someone suggested we all play “Cherokee” and counted it off at a tempo that was inappropriately fast for a friendly session. I played first, strutting and fretting my time, eking out a barely adequate solo, and worried about the possible psychological damage to Michael, thinking he might be eaten alive by the tune at that tempo and not knowing what he was already capable of. He started and played chorus after chorus – deconstructing it, owning it, toying with it, playing so beautifully and so brazenly. This is all stuff audiences worldwide are well aware of now,(1) but I remember the magic of standing there as it happened at the AQ.

At the current AQ location [in the Hamm Building], I remember playing with [the quartet] What Would Monk Do? in front of one of those magical weekend packed houses and simply being floored by the power and artistry of Peter Schimke, Kenny Horst, and Billy Peterson. It was an all-is-truly-right-in-the-world moment that typified the role this club has played for me and so many musicians. The existence of a place like the Artists’ Quarter gives credence to the belief that jazz as an art form matters. That despite the overall genre fracturing and obscurantism of music in our popular culture, there can still be a touchstone for what is authentic and essential.

Andrés Prado, guitarist

Andres Prado courtesy Andrea Canter
The AQ.

The best jazz club in the world!

A true love for music and musicians.

I am grateful to have lived to play there.


Note: (1) In addition to playing in several bands including Fat Kid Wednesdays and Happy Apple, Gayngs, Alpha Consumer, Red Start, and Dosh, saxophonist (and bass guitarist) Michael Lewis has landed gigs with international touring bands including Bon Iver and Andrew Bird. He’s played with the Canadian band Arcade Fire on “Saturday Night Live” and appeared on Letterman and Leno. These days, you can sometimes catch him at Icehouse Minneapolis on Monday nights, which are curated by his FKW bandmate, drummer JT Bates.

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