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A Web & Radio Guide to the Arts, hosted by Chris Roberts

State of the Arts: Jazz
by Chris Roberts
Minnesota Public Radio
October 30, 2002


There has been jazz in the Twin Cities, almost as long as there's been jazz in America. Its history runs from 1920s and '30s-era speakeasies and clubs such as the Streets of Paris in St. Paul, through post-World War II ballrooms, to places such as Freddy's in Minneapolis in the '50s and '60s, right up to the present.

Will Shapira hooked into the scene in the early 1950s with the advent of modern jazz, and has been a close observer ever since. Shapira writes about traditional jazz for a publication called the Mississippi Rag, and has done public relations work for several musicians.

  Jazz drummer Phil Hey of Minnetonka says he wishes there was a bona fide jazz hotspot in Minneapolis.

Photo by Howard Gitelson

"Right now -- having been involved in the Minnesota jazz scene for 50 years -- it's by far the healthiest that I've ever seen it," says Shapira. "You can hear any style of jazz that exists, from the earliest ragtime to the avant garde, on almost any given night ... at a number of venues in the Twin Cities."

The two most important jazz venues today happen to be in St. Paul. Downbeat Magazine chose The Dakota Bar and Grill as one of the top jazz clubs in the country. It features local, national, and international acts. The Artists Quarter, a musician-run club, also features national jazz masters which embellish its ever growing stable of local players.

In addition, there's the Times Bar and Cafe and Jazzmines in Minneapolis, numerous hotels and resturants offering jazz, and a growing number of rock clubs turning one night over a week to jazz, such as the Turf Club. Freelance jazz writer and critic Tom Surowicz, who contributes to the Star Tribune, says that's healthy.

"If you take a city the size of this place ... Kansas City for instance, or Milwaukee for instance, they can't seem to keep one club alive more than year. So this is a town that has at least kept its jazz haunts going," Surowicz says.

Augmenting the club scene, says Surowicz, is the University of Minnesota's Northrup jazz series, the eclectic experimental jazz imported by the Walker Art Center, and a full time public radio station devoted to jazz in KBEM.

There's also The Jazz Image on Minnesota Public Radio every Saturday night, where 80-year old broadcasting legend Leigh Kammen shares his ultra-smooth tones and unsurpassed knowledge with the entire region. Surowicz says all of this has made the Twin Cities attractive for the jazz fan, and the musician.

  Leigh Kamman hosts MPR's The Jazz Image, one of the few regular radio programs in the Twin Cities devoted to jazz.

MPR Photo

"If you have enough activity, if you can stay afloat -- again, you're not going to get rich -- but if you can play regularly and play the music you love and maybe complement that with teaching, it's as good to be here as any place else," says Surowicz. "We have various musicians who have left town and returned, and we have some famous musicians who have moved here and seem quite content with the scene."

Those include internationally known bassist and Coon Rapids native Anthony Cox, who went to New York and came back. There's traditional jazz pianist Butch Thompson, and former Blue Note recording artist and bassist Herb Lewis, who recently moved here. Talentwise, it's a rich scene. But one local jazz impressario doesn't think enough people know about it.

Lowell Pickett is owner and founder of the Dakota Bar and Grill in St. Paul. The Dakota is the crown jewel of the Twin Cities jazz scene. Some say it's the fulcrum. Since opening 18 years ago, it's hosted jazz greats from all over the world. Yet even in good times, the establishment's existence is somewhat precarious.

Pickett says few jazz clubs have enough money to do a lot of marketing, so they rely on the media. And the media, he says, haven't shown enough interest.

"I think we need media coverage," Pickett says. "If something exists without people knowing about it, they're not going to have an opportunity to enjoy it."

Pickett is disheartened by the fact that neither of the two metro daily newspapers, the Pioneer Press and the Star Tribune, have full-time jazz writers. He also doesn't understand why apart from Leigh Kammen's The Jazz Image, Minnesota Public Radio hasn't devoted more air time to jazz. And writer Will Shapira complains Twin Cities public television barely throws jazz a bone these days.

"I don't think it's enough for them to just be a conduit for Ken Burns or other occasional specials that are produced by PBS or independent broadcasters," Shapira says. "There's plenty of local jazz that deserves television exposure, and to me public TV should be a natural outlet for this. I hope it happens."

When musicians are asked for ways to strengthen the Twin Cities jazz scene, they often look inward, at themselves or at club owners. For example, revered drummer Phil Hey of Minnetonka wonders aloud why there isn't a bona fide jazz hotspot in Minneapolis. Hey also hesitantly offers up this critique.

"I know this is going to get me in trouble, but it seems to me that singers are running the show ... how can I put this? I don't want to lose work," he says.

Hey says at the prominent clubs, jazz singers tend to get more stage time than instrumentalists, primarily because vocal music is easier for an audience to grasp.

Drummer J.T. Bates plays with an experimental ensemble called Fat Kid Wednesdays, an ambient jazz outfit known as Ourmine, and alongside Anthony Cox in a group called the Regional Trio. He also started Jazz Implosion, an eclectic jazz showcase every Monday night in the Clown Lounge of the Turf Club.

Bates says most clubs feature one act an evening, especially if it's a national act. He would prefer they bring back double bills, where local groups open for big name acts.

"It's good for letting the guys from out of town know that there's some guys here who can really play," Bates says. "It's good for the bands -- for the exposure -- and it's good for the audiences too, because there's definitely a chunk of jazz fans in this town that don't see anything that's not from out of town."

And that point, about local fans who only come out to see jazz if it's from New York, or Chicago, or anywhere else but here, really bothers Dave King, founder of the Minneapolis jazz trio Happy Apple.

"You could have a group of musicians from the Twin Cities who are playing just as incredibly and vital as anywhere in the world," King says. "And it's just one will take the time to go out and check it out because, 'Oh, they're from here -- how good can they be?"

Happy Apple, which puts out a unique brand of rock and hip hop-inspired experimental jazz, is indisputably the best known, most highly traveled ensemble in the Twin Cities right now. It performs all over the world, packs houses wherever it plays. The New York Times has written glowing reviews. Dave King says it got there not only because of its innovative sound, but its willingness to play anywhere it could, and do whatever it takes to build audience.

King's main complaint with the local jazz scene is that it's not unified enough, and other players, especially the veterans, aren't working hard enough to make things happen.

"You'll hear a lot of the excuse of, 'Well you know, it's all about my music, and if people don't want to come out..'" King says. "At the end of the day you've got to come and bring them into the church."

Lest you think that's a young upstart not respecting his elders, Kenny Horst, owner of the Artists Quarter in St. Paul, and a drummer in his 50s, concurs.

"I've got really good friends -- I won't mention their names -- but I say, 'Hey, put a band together, rehearse, get some stuff together,'" Horst says. "Don't just expect to show up down here with your name on the calendar, and you come in and you play the same songs you've been playing for 25 years. Put something new together, and work on it. But perhaps, because they're frustrated, they know they're not going to make any money out of it -- but still, if you want to do it, do it right."

Several musicians say there's too much unnecessary competition in the scene, and they need to come together, not just as fellow union members. Pianist Laura Cavianni says the Twin Cities has a volunteer-run jazz society, which has been a big help as a clearinghouse for information, but maybe musicians also need a group of their own.

"One thought would be to organize a group of jazz musicians who wanted to brainstorm together," Cavianni says. "Maybe like a think tank -- maybe that's the concept I'm for, possibly to create new performance venues, to function as a mentoring system for up and coming musicians, to provide information."

Musicians and club owners may struggle with those issues, but are generally pleased with the level of activity and interest in Twin Cities jazz. So is writer Tom Surowicz.

"We have as much going here as they do in Toronto, for instance, and that's the capital of Canada. We have more going on than they do in Milwaukee -- I know that for a fact. And ... we have more going on than they do in Kansas City, and that's a fairly fabled city for jazz," Surowicz says.

"This is not New Orleans, this is not Chicago, this is not New York, and this is not L.A., but take away those beacons and it's a pretty hip town. There's enough to keep somebody like myself, who's a music hound, pretty satisfied."

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