Thinking Big

"You may say I'm a dreamer...": Saxophonist, bandleader, and jazz crusader Jeremy Walker
Darin Back

Jazz is Jeremy Walker's Jesus. Who knows what the Jazz Is Now! Nonet founder and former proprietor of Brilliant Corners' extra-musical faith is? It doesn't matter. In his belief system, good works are what counts, along with who commissions them, who writes them, and how well they're played--especially the latter. Walker is a perfectionist and, like almost every jazz musician, a collaborative artist, which can be a tricky combination.

"It's extremely difficult to get musicians to rehearse here," says the 33-year-old saxophonist, bandleader, and composer from a table outside the Nicollet Mall Dunn Bros. "The culture in Minneapolis is very comfortable. Our guest artists almost always comment on how much they love Minneapolis--the clubs, the scene. But they also comment on the lack of drive in local players. They're all like, 'I love it--but where's the fire behind these musicians?'

Walker has been stoking the community's creative coals with a quiet vengeance ever since February 13, 2003, when Brilliant Corners opened. During its short life, the downtown St. Paul coffee shop and all-ages jazz venue hosted performances by local mainstays and upstarts as well as national luminaries such as Greg Osby, Jason Moran, Itzhak Perlman, and Walker's longtime friend Wynton Marsalis. Even culture curmudgeon Stanley Crouch, Marsalis's mentor and Jazz at Lincoln Center cohort, hung out for five hours one night. "Crouch is a fascinating person," says Walker, "far more complex than you'd believe from his public self, a lot warmer. And he's always up for a fight."

As a fledgling entrepreneur, Walker had a few bouts of his own. Walker originally envisioned a subterranean facility not unlike Greenwich Village BYO boîte Small's, but he found himself scaling a wall of red tape when he got back to greater Frostbite Falls. "Zoning in St. Paul and Minneapolis is so stringent; you have to serve food to get a cabaret license," he recalls. "I had six meetings with the planning commission, I had to get my tax ID number. Brilliant Corners was far different than what I'd originally envisioned. But it still worked beautifully."

For a while. Keeping afloat a dry jazz club in a town with two established wet jazz clubs was challenging enough, but Walker also found himself running an often cold or hot dry bar. When the warm spell that accompanied Brilliant Corners' opening weeks ebbed, proprietor and patrons discovered that the venue wasn't exactly heated. A similar revelation accompanied the onset of summer, and Walker says the landlord was unresponsive about the building's climate-control woes. Brilliant Corners closed on March 15, 2004.


Walker started playing saxophone at age 10, and pursued his muse as vigorously as any Bloomington kid could, talking lessons at McPhail and later minoring in music at Normandale Community College. "I had a great education," he notes, "just not an impressive one." An early marriage, fatherhood, and a straight gig put Walker's horn on hold for six years. When the marriage dissolved, he dumped the 9 to 5 and began making up for lost time--going to New York and sitting in on jam sessions "just to see if I could survive," as he puts it. The natural-born networker also starting cultivating the big-name relationships that gave his coffee shop its glamour.

Walker's nonet, originally dubbed the Jazz Is Now! Orchestra, was conceived a few years before the venue, and did a long stint in the woodshed. Walker is a bit of a perfectionist. A rollickingly Mingus-like demo CD recorded a few weeks after the nonet's first rehearsal in 2003 reveals a fully developed organism. Still, the band's season premiere, in a nearly packed Illusion Theater, didn't come until April of this year. At that show, the first few bars of the Hank Mobley-penned opener "Hank's Other Bag" seemed a bit tentative, as players--all in casual black attire--adjusted to the unfamiliar setting. By the time virtuoso pianist Peter Schimke took his first spidery solo, they'd found their stride.

But the evening's guest players dominated the performance. Despite apparent fatigue--the result of playing all night in New York, then hopping a red eye for rehearsal here--former St. Paul teen trumpet titan Greg Paulus (now 21 and attending the Manhattan School of Muisc) comported himself admirably, attacking solos with a ferocity that belied his exhaustion. By way of contrast, saxophonist and longtime Wynton Marsalis associate Wessell "Warm Daddy" Anderson seemed perfectly rested as he came out in a dark, impeccably tailored suit, smiling warmly. A shiver of excitement ran through the audience. Suddenly, drummer Donald Washington wasn't the only black guy on stage! Pulses quickened further when Anderson took his first solo, seamlessly marrying modernist adventurousness, Illinois Jacquet-style grit, Afro-Cuban heat, and its Brazilian opposite with the nonchalance of someone opening a letter.

"We wanted someone who'd whip us into shape," says Walker, who also brought saxophonist Ted Nash out for a collaboration with Zenon Dance Company. "We're trying to grow into a really high-level band; sometimes you've just got to play with a real badass to do that."

The leader plans to escalate his bootstrapping program in the fall. "Season two determines whether there's gonna be a season three. Season one was the honeymoon. The band sounded good. People liked it." But, the perfectionist adds, "I'm not happy. We're working with a booking consortium, doing this small-town, small-theater tour--LaCrosse, Red Wing, a combination of exurbia and Wisconsin. We'll end up either looking like asses or the real thing. We're looking at Matt Wilson for a guest spot. Joe Lovano is a possibility, which I'm very much in favor of. But money is an issue, along with how the band is sounding. We've all got to elevate ourselves--no one more than me."

On Tuesday, July 12, Jazz Is Now! Nonet will present an informal and free season preview and clinic at McPhail Center for the Arts; 612.719.1141

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