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House concerts make a comeback
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Jazz quartet performing in a Minneapolis living room. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
If you've got a living room and a few dozen friends with a few bucks, then you can turn your house into a jazz club. That's what a budding group of jazz fans and musicians are doing in the Twin Cities. These folks believe that art can become a bonding experience for a community -- people come in, they listen, they talk, and then somebody else says, "Let's do it at our house next month!"

Minneapolis, Minn. — As the band starts to play, people file past an array of wine and hors d'oeuvres on the dining room table. But before they take a seat -- with luck, one of the prime spots on a couch or floor pillow -- they've got to pass the overturned hat filling up with cash. It's a sign that this is something other than a typical cocktail party.

Young adults and grandparents wearing jeans and t-shirts drop in their money.

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Image Donations go to the musicians

They've all come to this Lake of the Isles home to listen to a quartet of jazz musicians assembled from the Twin Cities, Boston and Los Angeles.

A house party like this used to to be called a rent party. Back in the 1920s and '30s, musicians would play in homes and apartments in Harlem to raise enough money to pay the landlord when he came knocking for the rent.

But this jazz concert is far from Harlem. And the $20 suggested donation is not hard to come by for the dozens of people here.

Standup bass player Michael Gold says while house concerts can help musicians pay a few bills, the benefit for the audience is an intimacy that can't be experienced anywhere else.

"It's like viewing a painting in an artist's studio, compared to looking at it at a commercial art museum," says Gold. "You're almost in the artist's studio with this."

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Image House concert hosts

In this living room, jazz is the centerpiece, not a backdrop to a cocktail party. The living room belongs to Kathy Vessels. It's the fourth time she's hosted such a house concert. Vessels likes to think of herself as a collaborator. Where it's at for her is turning friends and neighbors on to live jazz.

"What I love about it is that the instruments talk to each other, and the audience talks to the instruments. And there's a kind of a communion there, it's kind of spiritual," says Vessels. "It's like the musicians wouldn't be playing what they're playing without the audience being who the audience is."

Vessels gets the word out with e-mail invitations and phone calls to friends and neighbors. And they come.

It's neighbor Jenni Kyllonen's second house concert in Vessels living room. She's sold on it.

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Image Bassist Michael Gold

"I just love it. I'd rather come here than a bar anytime. It's so wonderful. You can bring your kids. And they love it," Kyllonen says. "It's hard to put into words. It's a very -- intimate's an overused word, but it's very nice. You feel like you're one with the music."

Though still relatively unknown in the Twin Cities, house concerts have taken off over the past few years in places as distant as New York and Seattle.

There are a couple of Web sites devoted to house concerts, and a folk musician from Texas has written a how-to book for would-be house concert hosts.

While the concerts may be skirting the edge of legality in terms of residential zoning codes, city officials say they're not too concerned.

Jazz club owner Lowell Pickett also doesn't see the harm.

"This is something I wasn't really aware of happening here. I think it's a great idea."

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Image Jazz combo

Pickett owns the Dakota jazz club and restaurant in Minneapolis. He says in the best of worlds, house concerts would do nothing but expand the audience for jazz in the Twin Cities.

"If they're listening to live music in their homes, it will increase their awareness and appreciation of live music in settings like the Dakota," says Pickett. "So I think it sounds wonderful. I hope they spring up all over the place."

Moments after making these comments, Pickett runs into two of his best customers in the Dakota dining room. Turns out the couple is planning to host their second house concert at their St. Paul home.

All the money collected will go to the musician as he gets ready to go on tour. The suggested $50 donation for their party includes a gourmet meal. They say the intimacy and interaction between the musicians, friends and neighbors is priceless.

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