Friday, December 6, 2013

Pleased and flipped 6: Memories of the Artists’ Quarter: Matt Peterson, Greg Skaff, Brandon Wozniak

Sixth 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.

Matt Peterson, bassist

Courtesy Andrea Canter
I’ve been to the Artists’ Quarter as an audience member and a performer many times over the last 15 years and as a result have many fond memories of the place. The first one I’d like to share dates back to the older AQ location on Fifth and Jackson. It was 1998, I was a junior in high school, and I had only recently begun to get into jazz music. My high school band director, Don Bates, was a passionate jazz fan and really started the ball rolling for my career and life as a professional musician. His sons JT and Chris frequented our big band rehearsals and always told us to come see their band, the Motion Poets. Finally, when I had a driver’s license I headed out with some friends to see this band at the AQ. That was probably my first experience seeing live jazz, and from that night on I was hooked. I knew that music and jazz especially was going to be an integral part of the rest of my life.

Upon graduating from high school, I went to college at the University of Minnesota Duluth to study music. I would still frequent the Artists’ Quarter whenever I was in town for the weekend. Sometime during my freshman year, I started hearing about a new band called Happy Apple. I remember the first time I saw them at the old AQ at Fifth and Jackson. I was blown away by the uniqueness of the band. From that day on, I always made the trek down from Duluth any time Happy Apple played at the AQ. I have very fond memories of blasting jazz music all the way down highway 35 in anticipation of setting foot inside the AQ for another great Happy Apple show.

Fast forward ten years or so to last June. It was the final night of the Twin Cities Jazz Festival and I was gigging for a wedding in a western suburb. My gig went late and I debated whether I should make the long drive out to the AQ for the potential to see some of the big-name artists from the Festival sit in. Attending these nights during past jazz fests had always been a special experience for me, so I decided it would be worth it to make the trek. Upon arriving, I watched several tunes by Jon Weber and other local musicians. I was eager for when Walter Smith III, Matt Slocum, or Cyrus Chestnut might show up to play. At some point, I ended up on stage playing a few tunes with some other local players. Then eventually I found myself playing with both Walter Smith III and Matt Slocum. I was absolutely blown away by the experience of getting to play with these master musicians. Later in the evening, I was also fortunate to play a few tunes with another master, Cyrus Chestnut.

The Artists’ Quarter has truly had a huge influence on my life. When I think of what got me to where I am as a professional musician, I obviously think of influential teachers. I think of the master jazz artists I’ve studied. I also think of places like the Artists’ Quarter. Without having a place so dedicated to the art form of jazz, I don’t think my life would be in the same place it is right now. For that I am eternally grateful for having been there to experience it.

Greg Skaff, guitarist

Greg Skaff by John Whiting
In 1997, I took a gig on the road with a musical that was scheduled to stop first in St. Paul, Minnesota for three months. I had decided that whatever cities I visited while doing the gig, I would do my best to check out the local music, particularly jazz. Housing for those three months had been arranged beforehand, and when we arrived in St. Paul I checked in at the apartment complex where I was staying. Not expecting much (after all, I was from New York City), I asked the person in charge if by any chance they knew of any jazz clubs in St. Paul, and they told me that there happened to be a jazz club in the basement of the very building that I was staying in.

I’m pretty sure I visited the Artists’ Quarter every night that it was open during those three months. I didn’t have to worry about getting home, because all I had to do was get on the elevator. The eye-opener was discovering how much musicianship and artistry exists in the Twin Cities. Besides national artists, I remember hearing, in 1997, Happy Apple, Bill Carrothers, Jack McDuff, Dean Granros, Craig Taborn, various members of the Peterson family, and too many others to mention. If you’re reading this, I think you know what I mean. I heard Jeanne Arland Peterson (1) lead a trio with her son Paul on bass. I remember how stunned I was when, at one point, Paul switched from bass to drums, and I realized that he could really deal on both instruments.

Another thing I noticed was the camaraderie among the musicians who went to the AQ and the warmth I felt from most people I met there. It was a very inspiring time for me, and I made some lifelong friends.

One thing that made the AQ unique was that it was owned and run by musicians. The house band consisted of [AQ owner] Kenny [Horst] and Billy Peterson, and I heard them back such artists as Lew Tabackin, Ira Sullivan, and Mose Allison. I remember what a great vibe there was on the Tuesday organ night. Besides the music, there was the added attraction of a buffet. Sometimes, during hunting season, the buffet included game that Billy Peterson had caught and prepared. On those nights there was food for the spirit, soul, and body. When I made my own appearances at the AQ, I always hoped that Billy would be cooking.

After one two-night engagement I had at the Artists’ Quarter, I made a recording at Steve Wiese’s studio in Minneapolis with Kenny and Billy Peterson. We really hit it off and I dug the recording, but it was never released. I had a lot of memorable musical moments at the AQ and I had the honor of playing there with amazing musicians such as Chris Bates, Bill Brown, Billy Peterson, and Kenny Horst. One memorable night, Joey DeFrancesco and Byron Landham sat in with me.

Here is a curious story. On the first night of one of my weekend engagements at the AQ, there was a guy sitting in the front row with a recording setup. I could tell he was all set to record, but I didn’t know him. So I introduced myself and he introduced himself as Brian Dyke. He asked if it was all right if he recorded the two nights and I told him “Yes, as long as you make sure that I get copies of everything you record.” He assured me that he would do that. At the end of the two nights we exchanged contact information. I hounded him for about two years, but he never did follow up on his promise to get me the recordings. I would still like to hear that. It would make a nice memento of my time at the Artists’ Quarter.

Brandon Wozniak, saxophonist

Brandon Wozniak by John Whiting
1. Hearing Happy Apple for the first time at the AQ. I moved to NYC for close to seven years soon after that performance, but I never forgot it, and always hoped one day I'd get to hang with those guys. I left NYC to work in Germany and then China, and when I was finished, I decided not to blow all the money I had saved working abroad on NYC rent and decided to come back to Minnesota, where my parents have lived for over 20 years. The real reason I came back and stayed is because I wanted to work with Dave King. I heard so much amazing music during my time in NYC, but I could never get over the way Happy Apple sounded, and I used to play the couple records I had for my friends all the time. Now I work with all the Happy Apple guys in different configurations and look forward to all the music we’re going to make together in the coming years.

2. Atlantis Quartet’s many performances over the last three to four years at the AQ, where we learned how to play together, write music for each other, and progress to the point we’re at now, which is light years from where we began. Kenny never asked us to turn it down or sell more food. He’s one of us, and he let us do what we needed to do for the music.

3. I work with a lot of bands that play the AQ regularly, and every time I perform with one of them – whether it’s the Bryan Nichols Quintet, Atlantis Quartet, Dave King Trucking Co., Chris Bates’ Red 5, or others – it’s always memorable and the musicians always take it seriously when we’re playing that space. We know there’s nothing else like it and it will be missed. I’ve gotten to know Kenny pretty well the last couple years, and one of the biggest things I’ll miss is hanging with him on a gig or after one, shooting the you-know-what with him, Davis, and other musicians at the end of the night. Kenny made me laugh a lot, he made me feel like my music had a home, and he never asked me to change. That’s what I’ll remember the most. That’s f****** art.


Note: (1) Pianist and singer Jeanne Arland Peterson was the matriarch of Minnesota jazz. All five of her children – Paul, Linda, Patty, Billy, and Ricky – became professional musicians. She lived to a grand old age and celebrated several of her birthdays at the AQ, often with another octogenarian jazzer, Irv Williams. Jeanne died on June 23 of this year (2013), just before turning 92. We’ll be hearing from Petersons later in this series. (Matt Peterson, included above, is not related.)

Jeanne Arland Peterson courtesy Andrea Canter

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