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Jazz in Flyover Land – The Vibrant Minneapolis-St. Paul Scene

By Bob Protzman

Bone-rattling cold. Heaps of wind-whipped snow. That seems to be the image most Americans have of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota (aka the Twin Cities, or “TC”), thanks to the cities’ frequent appearances on network news weather reports. But if you can, forget winter altogether while we tell you about these highly cultural upper Midwest neighbors and one special antidote to those brutal winters.

It’s jazz!

C’mon, admit it. You’re surprised as heck to learn that jazz, which has its troubles coast to coast attracting artists and audiences, is thriving in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest or what some call “flyover land.” Something most of us overlooked that applies to jazz in the TC is this: the source of the Mississippi River is just north of the Twin Cities. At the other end of the great river sits New Orleans, generally accepted as jazz’s birthplace. In the 33 years this writer spent in the cities, there always was at least one band playing New Orleans or “classic” jazz and the “real thing,” the wonderful Preservation Hall Jazz Band from New Orleans, performed several times.

Another reason it shouldn’t be surprising that jazz abounds in the cities is that they are known for their high literacy rate, and many jazz fans, if asked, generally would say they fit that description.

Tia Fuller

The cities are cold, frequently below zero, sometimes as low as a teeth-chattering minus 50.

And yes, the oft-accompanying snow piles reach toward the heavens, though there’s nothing heavenly about dealing with the white stuff. But jazz, jazz musicians, jazz presenters, and jazz lovers are not deterred. So enough already with the weather.

The Twin Cities aren’t any Big Apple or that “Toddlin’ Town,” but in the number and caliber of local and nationally known jazz artists, the Twin Cities equal or perhaps surpass many other major U.S. cities.

How timely, in fact, as this revelation to many is being written, the details of the 20th Twin Cities Jazz Festival were announced. The three-day event was held June 21-23 entirely in St. Paul (the smaller and older of the Twins) at numerous indoor and outdoor venues. The main stage was in a lovely park in the city’s downtown. Noting the usual (friendly) competitive nature of the cities, Minneapolitans likely are envious, but they’ll be happy to join St. Paulites to hear nationally known artists such as vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater and noted saxophonists veteran Houston Person and Tia Fuller [this issue’s cover-subject – Ed.]. Not only a jazz player, Tia also is a collaborator with none other than the fab Beyoncé. She also has a new, highly-rated CD, Diamond Cut (Mack Avenue). The performance roster included just about every jazz artist living and performing regularly in both cities.

The organizers estimated a turnout of 30,000. That’s for jazz, folks. It must be said, though, that jazz just might be king of festivals in the U.S., around the world, and even on cruise ships. As the TC’s four major league sports teams still do, doubtless the festival attracted attention beyond locals.

Believe it or not, The Cities also hold a winter jazz festival! While many cities offer theater, art, and classical music, the TC may be different in that each of these artistic groups has embraced jazz throughout their existence, presenting both individual concerts and/or a seasonal series of as many as five shows. The arts groups and performance spaces include The Minnesota Orchestra (Orchestra Hall), St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (Ordway Music Theater), Walker Center (an intimate 450 seats), Fitzgerald Theater (home of NPR’s former super popular “Prairie Home Companion”), and the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Auditorium. All these venues have also provided a home for jazz, and you can add several smaller area colleges as jazz supporters and occasional presenters. To be a legit jazz city, you must have a first-class jazz club that regularly presents the nationally known award-winning and critically acclaimed artists. Also required is a good number of club, bars, and restaurants populated by local jazz musicians and fans.

The cities have both.

The Big Man in the Twin Cities

Lowell Pickett’s Dakota Jazz Bar and Restaurant in the heart of downtown Minneapolis has earned rave reviews in jazz publications and other outside sources as one of the best jazz clubs in the U.S.

The club features easy access from the street, and in inclement weather, access from the city’s elevated, enclosed skyway system, as well as comfortable seating, good sightlines and acoustics, terrific food, and some of today’s greatest musicians – bands and vocalists representing an extremely wide variety of genres and styles. Pickett opened the Dakota in 1985 in St. Paul (four years after the famous Blue Note club opened in New York) as a medium-sized restaurant with an emphasis on original home-grown cuisine and local jazz at the bar. It took him only three years to begin presenting national artists such as pianists McCoy Tyner and Ahmad Jamal. He was so successful that in 2003 he went “big time” to his present Minneapolis location. Since, he has booked not only a “who’s who” in what is defined as modern or “straight ahead” jazz, but also featured blues, R&B, funk, hip-hop, and more. In fact, in its 33-year existence, the Dakota has hosted an incredible and likely unmatched stylistic variety of artists.

Pickett deserves wide recognition from the larger jazz world for his notable contribution to the music. Of course, he had his critics who wanted jazz in only its “purist” form. But for every complaint there were two compliments and that helped Pickett carry on with his vision.

He may have topped himself this past July when in a bold (perhaps unprecedented in a jazz club) move he presented a four-night residency with tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd, celebrating Lloyd’s 80th birthday and his new album, Vanished Gardens by Charles Lloyd and the Marvels + Lucinda Williams.

Lloyd led a different band each night, so of course, the music also was differed.

Jazz Joints

Dakota Jazz Bar and Restaurant

We’ve given the “Big Man in the Twin Cities” jazz community his due, so let’s turn to the bread and butter of any city’s jazz scene – the bars, clubs, restaurants, and “joints” that offer a place for what is a large contingent of local artists (including a rare all-female band) and the jazz fans who feel there’s nothing quite as special as listening to live jazz.

Through the years, the cities have always had a number of popular jazz places. For many years, the Artists Quarter in St. Paul, operated by drummer Kenny Horst, was the hang. The local access TV channel even did a 10-part documentary on the place. It closed in 2014 after a 34-year run.

Just when we believed we had a complete list of local spots, we discovered the Dunsmore Room, a strong challenger to the Dakota.

The Dunsmore is part of the long-established Crooners Lounge and Supper Club in suburban Minneapolis. Someone decided to knock down the bar and create some listening space. The result is an 85-seat room boasting a nine-foot Steinway. It’s glass-enclosed, looking out at a lake – truly a classy place, where there’s a mix of big names with locals, primarily pianists and vocalists.

As sort of a cap-off of the jazz festival, the room staged “Stars of Bebop,” featuring a strong lineup of trumpeter Jim Rotundi, pianist David Hazeltine, tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, and the NEA Jazz Master (2012) and bop legend 89-year old vocalist Sheila Jordan.

Here’s the rest of the club list in no particular order: Vieux Carre, Hell’s Kitchen, Jazz Central (run by drummer Mac Santiago), The Black Dog (operated by trumpeter Steve Kenny), Riverview Wine Club, Icehouse, and The Lexington Cafe.

Not bad for a region not widely known, if known at all, as a place to hear jazz.

Another plus in the Twin Cities is a solid musicians union – not common in the era of declining unionism. And word is musicians are satisfied with their pay.

Hometown Heroes and Legends

Another measure of a city’s jazz scene – and a source of pride for Twin Citians – is the number of home-towners who make a mark nationally.

Karrin Allyson

Such a list must begin with five-time Grammy winning vocalist Karrin (Kahr-in) Allyson.

Though not a TC native, Allyson began her journey to critical acclaim in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Pianist Bobby Lyle, born in Memphis, grew up in Minneapolis, and was a young phenom. He jumped early on the “smooth jazz” wagon, and has ridden it to a terrific career that includes an Emmy as music director for vocalist, and wild and woolly comic entertainer Bette Midler.

Now self-described as a ‘’jazz, soul jazz and smooth jazz” artist, he’s led a trio and played and recorded prolifically with some of the biggest names in all his chosen idioms.

The late pianist Bobby Peterson was known for his high-energy approach, and met his match during his days on the road and in recording studios in the dynamic, show-stopping drummer Buddy Rich’s big band. Bobby is on two early ‘70s Rich albums, No Jive and Different Drummer.

Bobby suffered a sudden, dramatic death in 2002 at 52 when after soloing at an Artists Quarter gig, he stood to rousing applause then collapsed, the victim of cardiomyopathy.

Drummer Eric Kamau Gravatt is what some might call a “monster” on his chosen instrument. He was in demand early and often in his career and remains so by names most readers will recognize: pianist McCoy Tyner, tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, the great jazz fusion group Weather Report (1972-74) and from Rio de Janeiro, drummer/percussionist Dom Um Romao.

Then there’s drummer Dave King and The Bad Plus, the unpredictable, nearly impossible to categorize trio that began nearly 20 years ago in the cities as Happy Apple. Check out King, bassist Reid Anderson, and new pianist Orrin Evans, on their new album, Never Stop II.

Indicative of their substantial following, the trio will be touring the rest of the year from coast to coast, ending on Christmas day at – you guessed it – the Dakota Jazz Bar and Restaurant in hometown Minneapolis.

The lineup of exceptional TC musicians continues with prolific Minneapolis native, bassist Anthony Cox. Talk about being respected and sought after by many well-known colleagues – Cox was asked by, and said yes to, the late pianist Geri Allen, saxophonists Dewey Redman and Joe Lovano, trumpeter Dave Douglas, guitarist John Scofield, and as the cliché goes, too many others to mention.

Alto saxophonist Dick Oatts may have been overlooked if yours truly hadn’t checked out the Readers Poll edition of our fellow jazz mag DownBeat. Oatts was voted No. 11 among 20 players.

An interesting aspect of local musicians going national is that, despite the necessary travel most, if not all, continue to live in the Twin Cities. It’s the livability, they say – a good place to raise a family.

Some musicians, concert producers, club owners, radio show hosts, and even writers who’ve made special contributions to jazz for a long period of time sometimes are described as legends.

At least several Twin Citians meet the legends standard. One is gone, one is 99, and three others who have kept jazz clubs going for more than 30 years have earned that kind of respect.

Leigh Kamman was a teen when he took his tape-recorder to Harlem and somehow managed to get an interview with a true legend, Duke Ellington. Certainly, Kamman was destined to become a jazz broadcaster. With a mellifluous voice, the knowledge of a jazz historian, a gifted storyteller, and imaginative scene re-creator that took listeners to jazz events and places, and a bundle of taped interviews with jazz royalty, Kamman delivered a fascinating four-hour show he called, “The Jazz Image” which aired from 11 pm to 3 am. Kamman was at the mic of a number of stations until settling in at the MPR (Minnesota Public Radio) station KSJN-FM where he hosted his show for 34 years. The voice of jazz in the Twin Cities and surroundings, he died a legend at 92.

Kamman is a good example of why we’re using the term “flyover” in writing about the Twin Cities. The Jazz Journalist Association (JJA) conducts the only critics poll that includes jazz show hosts. Well, despite this writer’s vote for Kamman and praising him directly to JJA president Howard Mandel, Kamman never had a chance. Likely no one from the New York-based and Northeast-dominated JJA ever heard Kammen. Humble as he was, it wouldn’t be an issue with him.

When admired and beloved tenor saxophonist Irv Williams turned 97 two years ago, the Twin Cities jazz community threw a blast of a party for him. Nobody had more fun or played better than Williams. In 2017 and ‘18 as Williams turned 99, it all happened again. Word is that his playing time has been reduced as he nears the century mark, but oh, what a ride he shared!

Irv had the warmest tone and his playing flowed so beautifully that this writer referred to him as “Mr. Smooth” in reviewing his very first recording. By the way, the name stuck.

Irv would be the first to acknowledge the other great Twin tenor player. Dave Karr is what some might call “the man” – a consistently superb musician in any setting. “In demand” is an understatement in describing Karr. He’s been a constant presence with myriad local ensembles and gone horn to horn with visiting national artists. Also a composer and arranger, Karr has contributed to film, radio, and TV commercials.

In his mid-80s, Karr also is a member of a very special ensemble – the JazzMN Orchestra, a 17-piece big band that plays a full yearly schedule. Local singers loved having Karr’s great playing behind them, and Karr became a regular with popular and prolific recording artist Connie Evingson.

A Family Affair

Here are a couple unique things about the Twin Cities music scene: First is an uncommon musical family… a large family that goes all the way out to cousins. Meet the Petersons, also known as Minnesota’s First Family of Music: Linda (pianist, vocalist, songwriter); Billy, bassist, producer, arranger; Patty, award-winning vocalist; Ricky, vocalist, in-demand keyboardist; Paul, discovered at 17 by Prince and appeared in the Prince film “Purple Rain” and Jason Peterson Delaire, the first grandchild with already an impressively long list of credits. Pianist/vocalist Jeanne Arland Peterson and hubby Willie who played organ at Minnesota Twins games, among other performances, started it all.

Any city would be happy to have a Fred Krohn as a resident. Though a non-musician, Krohn certainly was a lover of music and proved it in a 45-year career of presenting/promoting concerts in various venues in the Twin Cities. From 1972 until 2017 when he retired, his presenting list of artists reads like a mini Hall of Fame of jazz, rock, folk, and pop. But we’re talking jazz, so how’s this lineup? Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Sarah Vaughan, Dave Brubeck, Keith Jarrett, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Mel Torme, Joe Pass, Peggy Lee, Joe Henderson, Gato Barbieri, Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Tony Bennett, Pat Metheny Group, Diana Krall, Diane Reeves, Madeleine Peyroux, and Return to Forever.

Krohn’s choice as his greatest concert? Together – Ella, Oscar, and Joe Pass.

Looking Forward

What is the Twin Cities jazz future? It seems in good hands both for national and local musicians. Regarding the latter, they should benefit from what apparently is an excellent jazz studies program at the University of Minnesota under the guidance of trombonist/composer Dean Sorenson. The program includes two big bands directed by Sorenson, three combos led by drummer Phil Hey, courses in theory, improvisation, and composition. Ensembles and big bands give several performances each semester and even did a short tour this spring. The U’s students get to strut their stuff at a year-end festival.

Most such programs are competitive; musicians are judged and ranked, but good or bad, right or wrong. Sorenson has other ideas, saying, “The University of Minnesota is solely focused on education and does not include a competition of any kind.”

There you have it: jazz in Minneapolis-St.Paul. Please check out these albums by Twin Cities musicians: Dean Sorenson Sextet (Colors of the Soul), guitarist Joel Shapira (In Essence), and pianist Laura Caviani (Confluence).

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