The Player

Tony Nelson

James Wallace is wired. The tenor saxophonist has just finished a brilliant set at Rossi's Blue Star Room, and now he's seeking affirmation. The afterglow of a live performance does not last long, and he intends to savor every moment. Affable by nature, Wallace moves from the stage to the bar and back again, using words of thanks and admiration to chat up everyone within his orbit.

For Wallace, tonight's gig has been a bit of a plum; the Blue Star is one of the more genteel jazz rooms in town. Soft lighting and dark woodwork prevail, and whether you're trying to light your cigarette or dry your hands in the loo, there's someone in a starched shirt to spare you the effort. Wallace, in his gray suit and oval-frame glasses, looks dapper enough to fit in. But as tonight's headliner takes the stage, it's clear that Wallace is not the main attraction. It's a familiar role for this dogged local musician.

Toshiko Akiyoshi leads her band through their opening number and Wallace, with his longtime collaborator Brock Thorson, joins me at the bar. Thorson, a bassist by trade, is rapt with the performance, but Wallace cannot sit still. He asks us to keep an eye on his horn as he descends upon jazz DJ Leigh Kammen in a nearby booth. Within moments, Wallace has an arm draped across Kammen's shoulder.

As a musician myself, I recognize what Wallace is doing: He's trying to prolong the big moment, to hold a little of the spotlight for himself. Only minutes before, he and Thorson had executed a gorgeous passage of music, but the sparse crowd and the ripple of applause seem to have sown some doubt. "Jimmie's a worrier," says Thorson. "He calls his mom every day--she's like 97--and she says, 'Whaddya want? Quit buggin' me!'"

Maternal issues aside, Wallace is a graceful host. It is well past two in the afternoon when I knock upon his door, quite obviously awakening him from a nap. No matter. He invites me into his tiny Loring Park apartment and offers cream soda. "The glass is clean," he says. "You want a shot of rum with that?" I admire his Gorbachev/Bush I lighter and he retorts, "I am not a Republican!" In the next 90 minutes, Wallace offers the story of his life and an impromptu saxophone lesson, which, for my part, consists of a series of duck calls and halting melodies.

"I met John Coltrane when my parents couldn't find a babysitter," says Wallace. "They took me to the Key Club to hear Miles." Wallace was perhaps 13 at the time, but a lifelong affinity had been born. "My father was a jazz drummer. He said there was more money in playing drums--you could get a lot more work. But I was hardheaded. I wanted to play saxophone."

Saxophone lessons began the following year.

Wallace is an expressive player who knows his limits. "I'm not a powerhouse saxophone player," he allows. "Rhythmically, I am. I hear drums all the time when I'm playing. Soulful expression? Yes." And while he has found a certain niche in the Twin Cities entertainment scene, he bemoans the star-making machinery of New York and Los Angeles. "People in the Twin Cities will not recognize a good player until they go to New York or L.A. and get that stamp of approval. Then, all of a sudden, they're good players. People need to recognize that there are lots of good players right here in their own backyard, and that these artists need places to perform."

Among Wallace's favorite places to perform was the Loring Café. Owner Jason McLean hired Wallace as a janitor and utility man in the 1980s. Soon enough, Wallace's talents came to the fore and he was holding down a steady gig, playing saxophone on the Loring stage. The gig--and the Loring--are now but a memory, but Wallace still hustles as many engagements as time will allow, sometimes playing four venues in a given day. It's his sole employment. "Nobody's gonna knock on my door," he explains. "I got to go and get it."

On the matter of his local reputation, Wallace is at once candid and oblique: "They might tell you I'm cantankerous, but I'm a nice guy. I always pay my musicians before they go onstage. Makes 'em play better. Whatever anyone tells you about me, it's either good or bad. I'm just one of the cats. They know who I am, and I know who they are. They know where I live [laughs]. We're all cool...I hope."

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