Ode to the Artist's Quarter

[Kenny, Billy, some guy, and Davis.]
The Artists’ Quarter (AQ) had two strikes against it from the beginning. Strike one: it's a jazz club, and jazz is unpopular and difficult. Strike two: it's in downtown Saint Paul, where people are rare, and business ideas go to die.

To tell the truth, the AQ probably has a few more strikes against it too, hosting the (never lucrative) slam poetry scene, and having a distinct tendency to attract “Saint Paul weirdos.” (Guilty!)  Like record stores, book stores, and art galleries, most jazz clubs eventually go out of business.

That said, the recent announcement by Kenny Horst, owner of the AQ, that he's closing the doors at the end of the year is a shame. Worse yet, it comes on the heels of recent closings of other dingy and irreplaceable Saint Paul nooks, most notably Porky's and Station 4. Saint Paul seems to be losing its dusty quirk.

[The AQ bar.]
The word from the underground is that the landlord of the Hamm Building, which houses the AQ along with a long list of other eclectic shops and restaurants, didn't particularly like jazz, and doubled their rent on the basement space. It was the last straw for Kenny, who has been struggling to make ends meet for many years, often claiming that "the smoking ban killed us" with a defeated look in his eye. (Protip: Almost nobody misses the smoking-in-bars days.)

I'd always thought that the AQ was immune to gentrification because the club was in an awkwardly shaped dark hole in an inaccessible basement. To get there, you must enter through an largely-unmarked entrance, wander down a hallway and staircase that resemble an upscale Motel 6, and somehow find the strange nook marked with a whiteboard sign on an easel. To me, the space seems entirely useless for anything else, and the landlord's claim that he can make more rent by using it as "banquet space" seems petty at best. I guess I'm wrong about a lot of things...

AQ Memories 

[The AQ's CD rack.]
My first show at the Artist's Quarter was seeing Happy Apple play sometime back around 1997. (The AQ has moved locations twice; the first spot was on Nicollet and 26th, then Jackson Street in downtown Saint Paul.) I've been playing jazz piano with varying levels of adequacy ever since I was fifteen, and that Happy Apple show was one of my first exposures to free-form jazz. I remember the room being pretty full, and the thrill of being there at a young age.

I kept playing jazz in college, taking lessons, gigging with small groups, and gradually learning the language of jazz: diminished sevenths, sharp fives, flat nines, heads and bridges and bossas and a bunch of "standards" (the couple hundred famous songs that any self-respecting jazz musician knows by heart). I moved to New York for a few years after school, and when I could afford it, I'd go down to a few of the clubs that are still there. (The Village Vanguard and the Blue Note are the famous ones, but they're expensive. My favorite was Small's, where, at the time, you could BYOB and see ten hours of jazz for ten dollars.)

When I moved back to Saint Paul, I'd stop in at the AQ if I found myself downtown, poking my head around the corner to see who was playing and whether or not I could stand it. (I'm into good piano players or horns, from all forms of bop to out-there free jazz to semi-electronic stuff, but I get really bored with elaborate ballads, any kind of "chart", or larger groups.) Half the time, the music wasn't my thing; the other half of the time, I'd see some quality improvisation in a room where the band sometimes outnumbered its audience, perched on creaky chairs in a dark black basement with exposed pillars, candles flickering on small tables and a decent bar clinking in the background. The piano was often criminally out-of-tune, and on some nights a weary A/C system would clunk and whirr like a comic sci-fi robot, but that's the dumpy beauty of Saint Paul in a nutshell.

[Carrothers playing with Billy Peterson and Kenny. Note: Beer in the shoe.]
For a few years, some friends and I came down often for organ night when Billy Holloman was still there, watching his feet spring about on the pedals while he jammed on "Ants go Marching" gradually getting drunk. I was always on the lookout for my favorite local pianists, Chris Lomheim, Peter Schimke, and Bryan Nichols, the guitarists Dean Granros and Todd Clouser, or anything involving Mike Lewis or the Bates brothers. For the last few years, I've been going to see Bill Carrothers play there every chance I get. Carrothers is a pianist up there with Keith Jarrett, Brad Meldhau, and Benny Green (the best pianists I've ever seen live), and I like him better than any of those guys; he's melancholic gleeful song weaver who keeps his beer in his shoes.

A few months ago, I was hanging out at the AQ with a musician friend, and ended up staying late after they closed  up talking with Lucia Newell, Phil Aaron, and emcee/doorman Davis Wilson about the nicest pianos in the world. Davis himself is a master of the beat vernacular, the only person I know who uses the term "cats" without a hint of irony. A typical quote from his introduction to this weekend's show: "Be cool, keep your personal volume down, and just dig it."

The AQ Manifesto

[The photo of the first AQ location, since hella changed.]

The Dakota notwithstanding, the closing of the AQ leaves the Twin Cities without a true jazz club. While I'm hopeful that another jazz club will open up somewhere in town, a place hopefully in a low-rent neighborhood that can last for a decade without fear of the gentry, it'll take a fool and his money to make that happen.

Here are the things that a true jazz club needs:
  • It needs to be cheap (sorry Dakota.)
  • It needs to have young people, onstage and in the audience. (This was a common failing of the AQ.)
  • It needs to be open late (a difficult proposition in the notoriously sleepy Twin Cities).
  • It needs to have the music at its center, not the food or the scene (sorry Icehouse).
  • It needs to have jam sessions, where brave aspiring musicians can play with old pros. 
  • Dark basement preferred.

There's a difference between a true jazz club and the places that treat jazz as embalmed genius or a novelty sideshow. I've often tried to talk friends into going to see jazz, and I wrestle with how to make the music accessible to outsiders, people who know very little or nothing about the music itself. How do you make jazz appealing to folks that don't know John Coltrane from John Tesh? What percentage of people recognize Body and Soul when they hear it? How to make a space that can accommodates both hard-core fans folks and curious n00bs who "don't get it"?

Maybe these questions are impossible to reconcile. Maybe jazz was of a particular time and place. Like poetry, classical music, opera, or the theater, jazz is a medium that thrived in a particular era. Being worried about its future is nothing new. One of the main problems with jazz in the 21st century is that the music itself is so difficult to play. Jazz is quite literally a language, solos filled with quotes and musical jokes, but it's one that fewer and fewer people can speak. There are the continual debates about jazz's relationship to pop music, the need for reverence, about its status as high- or low-art...

[The AQ entrance.]
Or maybe there's nothing deep, nothing we need to strain to understand. Maybe there's just music.

The other night, the bartender was wearing his black Artist's Quarter tee-shirt as he served drinks to the standing-room-only murmuring crowd. Underneath the AQ's famous mural logo was a Keith Jarrett quote:
Jazz is there and gone. You have to be present for it. That simple.

PS. See other odes and calls to arms here and here and here.

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