Why we need to keep the Artists' Quarter open

Why we need to keep the Artists' Quarter open
Photo by Andrea Canter

Dave King is the drummer and composer for the Bad Plus, Happy Apple, Dave King Trucking Company, and Halloween, Alaska. This essay is based upon Dave's conversation with City Pages music editor Reed Fischer.

As an old-school jazz club, the Artists' Quarter is a model that's dying in America. There aren't many places left where you're not four feet from a caesar salad while you're playing this music. Outside of New York's Village Vanguard and the Green Mill in Chicago, the Twin Cities has the Artists' Quarter.

It's the rare jazz club run by jazz musicians. Who could understand more about what the environment needs to be than somebody from that environment? You're entering something special here. It's subterranean and black inside, with black walls, no windows, and a bar at the back. Also, it's a condensed listening experience where it's not really tolerated to talk loudly during the music -- or to talk at all.

See Also: The Artists' Quarter is closing

In a lot of places, you have servers blocking the view, clanking dishes, and other things that occur when you're in a room where people are eating. When we're in rock venues, there's an incessant amount of "hang" going on. Every rock show I've been to, big or small, I can hear a lot of the crowd over the music. The Artists' Quarter provided the environment to hear and play that music without those interruptions.

The Artists' Quarter has been the center of some very formative experiences in my life. When I was growing up, the old space was over by the current location of Little Tijuana's -- just off Nicollet in Minneapolis. I went to my first show when I was 15. My parents got me in to see Tony Williams play.

Later on, the club was one of the first places I tried to get a gig for Happy Apple, the band I formed in 1996 with saxophonist Mike Lewis. I thought we could make a run for some sort of jazz career here. Of course, the Artists' Quarter was already one of the great jazz clubs in America. Everybody knew that.

We were still relatively unknown. I approached owner Kenny Horst, and he was like, "Oh, this guy." Just like anyone would be. But he knew Mike, because he grew up in the Twin Cities, and he was already known as a local wunderkind. Plus, his father, Greg Lewis, was a known trumpeter in the Twin Cities jazz scene, so he was like, "Okay, I can give you a Wednesday night."

We had built a pretty steady following playing rock rooms like the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater and 7th St. Entry, opening for rock bands, playing this crazy jazz shit. With that following, we rolled into the Artists' Quarter on a Wednesday night and we drew a huge crowd. This was like 1997.

Kenny was like, "Whoa, what is this music?" From then on, we grew the band working the Artists' Quarter a couple of weekends a year, and Kenny would give us any night we wanted. It became our home. We would only play the Cedar Cultural Center and the Artists' Quarter and trade off between the two. We did really well there, and it did well for the club. We were seen by major record label people at the Artists' Quarter. The joke for years was that half of the Happy Apple crowd was these water-drinking kids getting into the music. There's nothing more important to the longevity of the form than that there are young people checking it out.

Since then, I've played there a minimum of five weekends a year, with Happy Apple, Dave King Trucking Company, and other groups. The first Bad Plus gigs in history were at the Artists' Quarter in May 2000. I've played so many Thursday nights with my band FKG, I can't even count. In total, I've played hundreds of times at both the Lowertown location and then when they moved to the Hamm Building.

Throughout its history, the Artists' Quarter always made sure that the musicians felt like they were doing something special. Bands got free drinks and you could hang late afterward. They never kicked anybody out. I sometimes stayed and played piano for two hours after shows. It really had that feeling that you were involved with a scene when you were there. Happy Apple was a major part of that scene. Plus, touring bands have been working there since its inception. They were able to draw and make a little money.


It would be a terrible, sad thing for a venue totally dedicated to improvised and noncommercial music to close because of a rent issue. Whenever a place for art outside the commercial paradigm is lost, it becomes harder to sustain the more progressive stuff found off the straight-and-narrow. Now, it's really up to the audience to show whatever support they can, and I'm glad the city of St. Paul is sticking up for the Artists' Quarter.

I'm telling you straight up, losing this club would affect the economics of a lot of musicians in the Twin Cities. A lot of people, including myself, have depended on the Artists' Quarter as a creative music venue to draw people to. It has helped us make a living and contribute to the arts fabric of the Twin Cities.

It's not just a club that would be lost. You'd lose a venue that supports some of the more creative musicians of the Twin Cities, and international acts coming in who don't want to play in an environment -- or can't play in environments -- that involve a restaurant atmosphere. People go there to have a live music experience that's one-of-a-kind. It's not just a hang, it's one of the great clubs in the world.

Note: Earlier this year, St. Paul jazz venue the Artists' Quarter announced it would end its three-decade run on January 1, 2014. However, according to a late-October speech by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, "We're going to make sure the Artists' Quarter stays open." Stay tuned.


Why we need to keep the Artists' Quarter open

This fall marked the release of Dave King Trucking Company's second album, Adopted Highway. It's an unhinged listen that cross-pollinates American roots and free jazz. King, guitarist Erik Fratzke, bassist Adam Linz, and saxophonists Chris Speed and Brandon Wozniak didn't use it as a vehicle for long solos. Rather, the album features four personalities devoting their impressive chops to oft-minimalist statements with sophistication stirring underneath.

Within this language are both the incidental, atonal "Do You Live in a Star City?" and the hummable "Ice Princess," which employs a more rock-oriented approach. The album's vinyl pressing was funded by an amusing Kickstarter scheme, which had King teaching drum lessons via Skype and booking recording sessions with new e-friends, among other rewards. (No one sprung for his gold tooth, though.)

Songs from both Adopted Highway and 2011's Good Old Light, as well as new material, will figure into the Trucking Company's weekend residency at the Artists' Quarter on Friday and Saturday. King returns the first weekend in December when Happy Apple, who are going to make a new record, spend a weekend at the venue too.

"The music has to speak on a simple level, and then if you dig deeper, there are interesting twists and turns that can stimulate other parts of you," King says. "We try to blur the lines between the intellectual and shit just feeling good." --Reed Fischer

play album-release shows on 
Friday, November 1, and Saturday, November 2, 
and HAPPY APPLE play on
 Friday, December 6, and Saturday, December 7, at the Artists' Quarter; 

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