Sunday, December 8, 2013

Pleased and flipped 9: Memories of the Artists’ Quarter: Debbie Duncan, Eric Kamau Grávátt, Lew Tabackin

Ninth 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.

Debbie Duncan, vocalist

Debbie Duncan by John Whiting
I saw the Artists’ Quarter at all three locations. I only went to the one on 26th and Nicollet a few times, but I remember being shocked when I walked in. It was so little! It wasn’t what I expected. Then I thought – well, it does have that dingy jazz feel.

I used to go to the AQ on Jackson quite a bit. I loved seeing Mose Allison. He was two different people on stage and off. I talked to him a bit off stage, and he was almost shy.

Bobby Peterson(1) scared the crap out of me. I absolutely loved him, but I will sit back and say that when I first heard him, he scared me to death. Bill Carrothers, too. I remember telling Bill, “I want you to think of me as the squarest jazz person you’ve ever played with.” Both of them played so outside. As much as I love outside jazz, my ear was not ready for me to sing that way – at least, I thought it wasn’t.

The first song I ever did with Bobby was “Sophisticated Lady.” I loved Sarah Vaughan’s version. Bobby got to playing and it was absolutely wonderful, but my brain was going, “Somewhere in there is my starting note.” Holy Jesus! This was on stage, so I couldn’t very well say to Bobby, “Could you just stop?” He kept playing, and by the grace of God I somehow managed to hear the note. After that, anytime I could get Bobby I wanted to play with him, because he so challenged my brain. The same with Bill Carrothers. Playing with them opened my ear, and I got to where I wanted more of that. Whenever I played at the AQ, that’s where my head would go. I wanted things to be played more outside.

Anthony Cox was another one who scared me at first. Now I love working with Anthony, with his crazy stuff. He’s fun crazy. Wacky. Until you get to know him, you wouldn’t know that about him. I remember telling him, “I could never figure out why you would want to play with me.” He sat back and said, “I was always really nervous being around you!” He put a thing together – little Bryan Nichols, Michael Lewis on sax, JT Bates, and him, Anthony. I forgot what he called it, but we played the AQ. I felt really privileged that he wanted me to be part of that. Pretty much everything we did was kind of outside for me. But it was joyous and very cool. I remember being on stage and we were doing “All the Things You Are” and I started scatting, and meanwhile I’m thinking, “Remember where the melody is!” And then, “Don’t think of that! Stay with the song!” It was stupid fun for me. I don’t think they considered it outside – it was just what they did – but it was outside for me, which is one of the reasons I wanted to do it. I wanted to do more stuff with people who had a different approach to the everyday standards. For me, all of that happened at the AQ. That was also the first time I had ever seen Anthony talk on stage. He was kind of long-winded, but I loved that. I thought – check out the Cox! Check out the Anthony!

Whenever I would walk into the AQ, whether I was singing or just going in, the place said to me, “This is a jazz club.” I’d feel like I was in New York, in the Village, going into a club and thinking, “This s*** is real.” The Kenny man, that’s my bud. I love me some [AQ owner] Kenny Horst. Love him, love him, love him. There were some times I walked out of there at three in the morning after just hanging, sitting around, talking, listening to Kenny’s stories or whoever else. It was a wonderful hang. The man knows everybody. Gracious Lord! He’s worked with so many people. It was as much fun listening to Kenny’s stories as it was working in the room.

I was one of the few vocalists who worked there. Outside of Carole Martin,(2) I was the only other singer for a while, and then he started hiring Lucia [Newell]. For a long time, we were the only vocalists who sang there. He told me he liked me, and I said, “I sure do appreciate that.”

I get a warm, fuzzy feeling when I’m in the AQ. It’s kind of like it’s home. I haven’t accepted in my mind that it’s closing. To me, it’s the only true jazz club in the Twin Cities. I’m going to miss it. It’s like taking one of my feet away from me. I’m still not convinced that it’s going to close. Somebody needs to jump in there and not let that happen. The AQ is one of the reasons the streets in St. Paul don’t completely roll up at night. So where’s the city? Where’s McNally Smith [College of Music]? The reason Kenny’s rent doubled is somebody died. We need to find the person who raised the rent and kick his ass.

Eric Kamau Grávátt, drummer 

Eric Kamau Gravatt by John Whiting
Several MCFLL co-workers come to hear “The Lieutenant’s Band.”

Someone bootlegs a video of Source Code playing “Teo” and uploads it to YouTube.

Source Code’s last two 2013 engagements finally play to two full houses!(3)

Lew Tabackin, saxophonist and flutist

Courtesy Andrea Canter
My first Artists’ Quarter gig was a million years ago. I pretty much opened the place, and I guess I almost closed it.(4)

I’ve been through all the various venues, starting in the old one [on 26th and Nicollet]. I couldn’t believe that place. It was like a bar for low-life alcoholic clientele in the daytime, in an old, funky neighborhood. It would be time for the band to play, the club would charge some money, and everybody who had been there would have to leave. Sometimes it was difficult to get rid of someone attached to a barstool.

The first weekend I played there, the place was sold out for two nights, but there was no piano – just a bad electric piano, and I hate those things. Bobby Peterson was the piano player. I said, “You’d better get a real piano or I won’t play.” It got really deep. I could have been more cool, but I was offended. I said, “You can play solos, but I don’t want to hear that thing behind me [while I’m playing].” The next night, Bobby didn’t even show up. That was his prerogative. So the second night was a trio with bass and Kenny. I don’t remember the name of the bass player, but he was not the strongest bass player. He disappeared after the first set, and we found him in his car, totally gone. Stoned or drunk. So Kenny and I played a duet.

That was my first experience at the Artists’ Quarter. It was amazing. I kept going back, and things improved, but that first time was kind of shocking. Anything that could go wrong did go wrong. But I was young and strong and I didn’t really care. I could have played by myself, if I had to. Sometimes I still do.

[In 1995], Kenny called me and told me about his new place in St. Paul.(5) He described it as a sort of co-op thing, with him and Billy Peterson and other people. The first thing that came to my mind was, “The lunatics are running the asylum.” Kenny thought that was a great line and used it all the time. I came in shortly after.

Maybe ten years ago, there was a saxophone congress in Minneapolis. I had a project with a classical saxophone quartet, and [Tabackin’s wife] Toshiko [Akiyoshi] wrote a piece for my trio and classical saxophone quartet. We played at the saxophone congress and also at the Artists’ Quarter. Because everyone was in town, this enabled me to play at the club with my own trio, bassist Boriz Kozloff and drummer Mark Taylor. I invited the classical saxophone quartet to come to the club. My trio was playing, and all of a sudden I told the saxophone guys to come up and we played our little piece. Four sax players came up on the bandstand unannounced. The audience was in shock. That was a highlight for me.(6)

I always looked forward to the people who would come when I played the club. The saxophonists, like Irv Williams, Gary Berg, Joe Smith … some of them are colorful people. We would talk and hang out. [Broadcasting legend] Leigh Kamman would usually show up for the second set. We’d do an interview from the club, in a very formal way. His style on the air was very formal. When he came by, I would always play “Serenade for Sweden,” his theme song [from Kamman’s MPR jazz show “The Jazz Image”]. I’d make sure the group was prepared to play it, and we’d play it for him. Afterward, we’d hang out, and I would hear Oscar Pettiford stories, Coleman Hawkins stories. [Kamman] had been around, and he would hold court after the gig. That was very special.

A bassoon player from the Minnesota Orchestra would always come. He was there the last time I played. They’re all locked out.(7) And young girl flute players, a student named Rebecca Kiel and her friend. We used to engage in flute talk. It became not just a gig, but a social interaction with fellow musicians and the audience. Howard Gitelson would always take great pictures. Tom Surowicz would come and write articles. It was a special thing. Many of the same people would be there. It was like a family situation. And even if I felt, “Man, I didn’t play so good tonight,” they would say, “That was so great!” It was a special, warm feeling. [The closing of the club] is a loss in being able to communicate musically and personally with all those people. It’s really a very appreciative community.

Courtesy Andrea Canter
I have to tell at least one Kenny and Dawn story. I used to like to come in a day early and rehearse. I don’t like to rehearse the same day I play, and I don’t like to get up on the bandstand and just play the same old tunes everybody plays. I remember one rehearsal way back at Kenny’s place. They offered me a glass of wine, and they went into the refrigerator and pulled out a box. I said, “Kenny, is there a liquor store in the neighborhood? I don’t want to be a snob, but I don’t really want to drink that.” So we went to a store and I bought a bottle. I corrupted Dawn. From that time on, she started to get more fussy. Even Kenny. Every time we talk about having some wine, that story comes up.

I always wound up in Minnesota in the wintertime. I would complain to Kenny, “Why am I doing this?” That’s where I learned to appreciate skyways. One of the skyways in St. Paul led to a department store [Macy’s, formerly Dayton’s]. There was always a sale and no one in the place. I had nothing to do in the daytime, and it was usually too cold to go out, so I would do all of my shopping. The last time I came, [Macy's] was gone. I’m curious: how are these people [the owners of the Hamm Bldg.] raising their rent when there’s nothing happening in the street? There doesn’t seem to be any real logic behind it.

I have to say something about [AQ doorman and MC] Davis [Wilson]. He’s become a kind of intellectual Pee Wee Marquette, a guy who used to be at Birdland and announce people. If you didn’t give him a tip, he’d pronounce your name wrong. Pee Wee was part of Birdland, and Davis is a big part of the Artists’ Quarter. He's a signature, an important figure, introducing people in his own inimitable way. I have always appreciated that, and I want to mention his contribution. And he’s one of the reasons to hang out there.

***

Notes: (1) When pianist Bobby Peterson died in 2002, he was already a legend in the jazz community. A member of the Peterson family – brother to musicians Russ, Tom, and Carol, nephew to Jeanne Arland Peterson, cousin to Linda, Patty, Billy, Ricky, and Paul – he played with the Buddy Rich Big Band and the Twin Cities fusion group Natural Life. Most Twin Cities jazz fans know the story of his passing; Bobby had a heart attack right after playing at a fellow musician’s wedding in the small Minnesota town of Rogers. He was taken to Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park and died two days later at age 52.

(2) Carole Martin is Kenny’s mother-in-law and a wonderful vocalist – a true torch singer. In 1969, she released an album with Percy Hughes called “The Music That Makes Me Dance,” recorded live at the Point Supper Club in Golden Valley, which burned to the ground years ago. Jazz broadcasting legend Leigh Kamman, who hosted “The Jazz Image” on MPR from 1973-2007, wrote the back-of-the-album notes. A portion:
Carole Martin is the formidable product of a show business family. Her grandfather, Jay E. Gould, was a pioneer in the tent and open air circus. Her mother was an active performer along with her 8 brothers and sisters … You will discover something faintly reminiscent in her signing style but only distant influences, for Carole Martin is her own kind of singer. She has a way of communicating that reaches the inner ear and triggers the subconscious way down in the far corners of your memory.
The cover of Carole Martin's first album
A fixture on the local club scene, Carole retired from singing to raise her family, then returned in 2004 with “Pieces of Dreams,” followed the next year by “Songs from My Heart.” She went back to performing on a limited scale, making rare appearances at the Artists’ Quarter and reigning over its New Year’s Eve celebration.

Carole Martin
(3) Eric Kamau Grávátt is a man of few words in writing and on stage but a mighty orator on the drums. At 21, he was McCoy Tyner’s drummer. You can hear him on recordings with Tyner, Weather Report, Wayne Shorter, and Joe Henderson. He’s played with Charles Mingus, Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Fortune, Jackie McLean and many more. When he and Tyner parted ways in the mid-1970s, he took a job with the Minnesota Department of Corrections as Watch Commander/Duty Officer, where he achieved the rank of Lieutenant. (MCFLL stands for Minnesota Correctional Facility Lino Lakes.) He reunited with Tyner in 2004 and toured with Tyner and Charnett Moffett in the mid-2000s, performing at festivals in the US and overseas. Today he fronts his own band, Source Code, in the Twin Cities.

(4) Lew Tabackin is one of the out-of-towners and longtime favorites AQ owner Kenny Horst brought in during the club’s final months. Tabackin played there Nov. 15 and 16.

(5) Lew is referring to the original Lowertown location on Fifth and Jackson. The AQ moved to its current location in the Hamm Bldg. in 2002.

(6) The World Saxophone Congress was held in Minneapolis in July, 2003. Lew performed with New Century Saxophone Quartet, whose members are Michael Stephenson (soprano sax), Chris Hemingway (alto sax), Stephen Pollock (tenor sax), and Drew Hays (baritone sax).

(7) In what has become the longest labor dispute of its kind, the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra were locked out by management on Oct. 1, 2012. Artistic director  Osmo Vänskä resigned on Oct. 1, 2013. The musicians have played a series of concerts on their own in other venues around the Twin Cities, with publicized plans for concerts as far in the future as May 2014, but they have never set foot in the newly renovated Orchestra Hall.

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