Musicians hope local jazz is no warm-up act as Dakota enters Artists' Quarter space

Red Planet
Red Planet, an innovative Twin Cities band, plays at the Artists' Quarter in this file photo. Red Planet includes guitarist Dean Magraw, bassist Chris Bates and drummer Jay Epstein.
Photo courtesy Howard Gitelson

Local jazz musicians and fans mourned when St. Paul's Artists' Quarter closed in December.

Many applauded last week when the famed Dakota Jazz Club confirmed that it plans to take over the space.

As the applause ebbs and the Dakota prepares to lease the Artists' Quarter space, some musicians say they want to hear more about what music the Dakota will promote - and who'll get to play there.

Some fear the club won't focus enough on jazz or give local musicians enough attention and pay. The Dakota's owner contends the concerns are unfounded. Those who revere the old Artists' Quarter, however, worry that the club in the basement of St. Paul's Hamm building will lose the local vibe that made it beloved.

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"We do not need another corporate hang," said Todd Clouser, a guitarist who lives in Mexico but frequently comes home to Minnesota. He fondly recalls seeing inspiring local musicians at the Artists' Quarter when he was a teen and still has close ties with jazz musicians in the Twin Cities.

The Dakota has a chance to do something great at the Artists' Quarter space if draws frequently on local artists, Clouser said.

Steve Kenny
Trumpeter Steve Kenny photographed July 12, 2013 at MPR studios in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

"I'm hoping the new Dakota operates with a vision that honors the creative music community in Minnesota and beyond. This music can and will draw when respected, promoted, and given a chance to create community."

The space needs "diversity in musicians -- Minnesota musicians -- and to embrace projects grand in vision," he said. "Think Walker Art Center, not the TGI Friday's of jazz."

The Dakota presents an eclectic mix of music that plays to the tastes of its founder, Lowell Pickett. They range from acclaimed jazz musicians with national and international reputations, a dynamic regular presence in pianist Nachito Herrera, occasional visiting Latin or world music artists - and folk, bluegrass and country music artists whose music might intersect with jazz.

The Dakota also is very focused on offering an upscale environment for diners, one that can detract from performances in a way that a pure music venue would not.

In recent months the Dakota has presented an impressive array of jazz groups -- from Dave Holland's Prism, to vibraphonist Gary Burton, guitarist Stanley Jordan and singers Kurt Elling and Gregory Porter. It has also presented respected local jazz artists, among them the Atlantis Quartet, singer Charmin Michelle and drummer Kevin Washington.

But the club also recently booked Cowboy Junkies, a Canadian band that plays alternative country, blues, folk and rock; country rock artist JD Souther; and Bernie King and the Guilty Pleasures, a group that plays a blend of blues, bluegrass and acoustic music - and Prince. Over the weekend, the club presented R&B singers Lalah Hathaway and Ruben Studdard.

Picket is unapologetic about his choices; he said the club can't ignore the imperatives of running a business.

"The reason we do it at the Dakota is we have a large space," Pickett said of the club's varied bookings. "We want to be there. And the only way to do that is we want to reach the audience."

Todd Clouser
Jazz and rock guitarist Todd Clouser photographed Friday, Feb. 1, 2013 at MPR studios in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Booking a variety of acts likely has been a good business strategy for Pickett, who opened the Dakota in 1985 in St. Paul. The club moved to Minneapolis in 2003, where it has acquired a national reputation and attracted an affluent following.

Any assessment that the Dakota at times strays too far from jazz, doesn't sit well with Pickett, who said music is not bound by boundaries some would place on it. He said other forms of roots music have equal value and also defended his record presenting groups that rely on improvisation.

"We present more jazz, more touring jazz than everybody else in Minnesota combined," Pickett said. "It's all music."

Kenny Horst, who owned and operated the Artists' Quarter until it closed Dec. 31, said Pickett is certain to put his stamp on the place. Horst, a jazz drummer, thinks the Dakota's presence in St. Paul will be good as it fills a void -- even if its approach is different.

"I think that in this day and age that it's really a benefit that live music of some kind is going to be there and we all hope it is what we used to do at the Artists' Quarter," Horst said. "But at least it's some live music and that's been sort of an endangered species over the last few years."

Rising rents and his son David's absence from the club in its final months led Horst to close it. He's keeping the Artists' Quarter name in case David, who ran the club for years, wants to someday open a club.

Kenny Horst, 71, recalls fondly the days when jazz clubs were full.

"When I got into the music you could make a living," he said. "I know guys who bought houses when they were young playing in clubs. You could actually get credit. Sometimes those jobs would go for a couple of years or six months at a minimum. There was a lot of work."

These days, there isn't as much work for jazz musicians, particularly local ones.

That's why the Dakota's plan to establish a presence in St. Paul presents a paradox for local musicians.

However they feel about the Dakota's philosophy and Pickett, most are approaching the issue with optimism, hopeful that they will have a chance to regularly book shows in the Artists' Quarter space.

"This is great news for St. Paul, and I am hopeful there will be some opportunities for the jazz ensembles I perform in to play there sometimes," trumpeter Steve Kenny said.

"This is great news for St. Paul fans of eclectic music. Those of us who are die-hard jazz fans are also happy with this news," he said. "This new club will perhaps be a new place where it is at least possible to hear live jazz."

"This new club will perhaps be a new place where it is at least possible to hear live jazz."

Kenny also points out that there are other jazz venues in the Twin Cities that deserve support, among them the Black Dog Cafe and Jazz at Studio Z in St. Paul, and the Icehouse restaurant and Jazz Central Studios in Minneapolis.

But the Dakota is clearly the elephant in the room. The big question is how its place in St. Paul will differ from the venue on Nicollet Mall. The two clubs long served different audiences, said Cory Wong, a guitarist who had a standing gig at the Artists' Quarter for six years and has played at the Dakota.

"The Artists' Quarter was a special place due to the fact that it really felt like a listening room. People came for the music, period," Wong said.

"The Dakota has amazing music all the time, but there's more to it than that. They have incredible food, and a restaurant atmosphere around dinner time," he added. "That's definitely something that will draw more people to the club. But I know that it affects the flow and feel of performers songs and set choices."

Wong said he imagines the shows will have a different vibe and feeling at the new location, and that it would appeal to a different crowd.

"From a business standpoint I would think that they wouldn't want to compete with themselves by having two of the same club."

The different venues can complement each other, Pickett said. "All of these live music venues only hold a few hundred people. It just increases the offerings."

As for the mix of music in St. Paul, Pickett said he's still trying to determine that, "but jazz will be certainly be a part of it."

"We're trying to figure out the best way to make the space work for everybody - for the community, for artists, for patrons," Pickett said.

"Certainly musicians or artists from the Twin Cities will be part of that."