Jazz saxophonist Dave Karr continues to take the stage with joy, even though he’s playing to the choir — a small audience of fans devoted to bebop, the muscular and unpredictable sound that sparked a musical revolution in the 1940s.
At 82, Karr knows that those not immersed in the church of bebop might not like the music because they think the musicians who specialize in it are playing over their heads.
He hasn’t forgotten his long-ago discussions about the music with his father, a saxophone virtuoso from Canada who played for the BBC in London before moving the family two New York as World War II erupted. Back then, the swing bands of the big band era were still the favorites of many fans, and musicians.
“I remember talking to my dad about some people that didn’t like it, didn’t like Charlie Parker and didn’t like Miles Davis,” Karr recalled of their conversation about two of bebop’s biggest stars. “Friends of his who were musicians, they’d say things like, ‘well he doesn’t have that tone. He doesn’t have that Harry James sound.’
“Of course they’re going on what they grew up with and what they loved. And [bebop] didn’t fit. But now, of course looking back, Miles had a great sound and great arrangements. He was a great trumpet player.”
For Karr, who came of age in the bebop era, bebop was the sound of change. He loves how its purveyors revolutionized jazz and then continued to evolve themselves — qualities he has tried to embrace in some way.
“Everything that changes and is different appeals to me,” said Karr, who plays this weekend at Jazz At Studio Z in St. Paul. “I don’t want to listen to myself play except for certain analysis. Or I don’t want to listen to guys that play like me. I can already do that. I want to listen to guys that play different and sort of make me go, ‘wow, what the heck is he doing?’ That’s very stimulating for me. And naturally you do that and you start hearing some stuff and it begins to assimilate itself into your playing.”
Karr hopes to share some of that feeling Saturday in a workshop with younger musicians sponsored by the Twin Cities Jazz Society. Organizers have asked him to expand on the theme “developing a bebop vocabulary and sound.”
Jazz At Studio Z aims to provide another venue for Twin Cities jazz artists, while also providing a family friendly venue for jazz fans to attend and expose their children to the music.
“Dave Karr is a natural pick for the series for many reasons,” guitarist Zacc Harris said. “He is a brilliant saxophonist who really understands bebop first hand and because he is not really involved in jazz academia, having him in this setting is a unique opportunity to hear about this music from someone who lives it.”
Joining Karr on stage will be trombonist Dave Graf, bassist Adam Linz and drummer Phil Hey. The piano-less quartet, the saxophonist said, allows the musicians to play with more freedom on stage.
“You’re not confined by any harmonic thing that’s going on underneath you besides what the bass is maybe outlining,” he said.
Born in Canada, Karr arrived in New York from London in late 1939. He began playing the saxophone after hearing a Stan Kenton recording that featured tenor saxophonist Vido Musso, who had an aggressive style.
But it wasn’t he heard saxophonist Lester Young that Karr discovered “pure music.”
Although Karr had heard Young’s playing from the late 1940s, he didn’t understand Young’s mastery of his instrument until alto saxphone player Lee Konitz introduced him to the recordings of Count Basie’s band made a decade earlier.
“He went in the back and came out with a 78 recording of ‘Twelfth Street Rag’ with Count Basie’s band from 1938,” Karr said of Konitz, with whom he studied. “[He] put it on the turntable and I had another one of those moments where I felt the hair on the back of my head stand up kind of when I heard Lester Young’s solo on ‘Twelfth Street Rag’ and suddenly I realized I had missed out on early Lester Young. He was the only one playing any of that. And he was the guy who really changed saxophone playing.
“Jazz music was on its way to really becoming art through those people, people like that,” Karr said. “And they made music instead of just stuff for folks to dance to.”
After serving in the Korean War, Karr studied at the Manhattan School of Music in New York, and played with bands there.
A visit with relatives in Minnesota in 1954 led him to move to the Twin Cities and enroll in music classes at the University of Minnesota.
In the decades that followed, Karr made a living composing and arranging music for film, radio and television commercials. He’s also played weddings, wakes, dance jobs and other gigs that still left plenty of time to play the music he loves.
Karr’s “Mulligan Stew” quartet has played at “Hot Summer Jazz” events and at St. Paul’s Artists’ Quarter. He has been the lead tenor sax player for Doug Snapps’ JazzMinn Orchestra since its founding in 2000.
In 2007, he won a McKnight fellowship for performance excellence.
For him, it all goes back to bebop.
“What you did when you first started to really get going becomes pretty ingrained in your technique,” he said. “I do listen to the free jazz players when I get a chance and I’m struck by the fact that it’s really pure improvisation because they don’t have any chords to hang on to. There’s no tune, they’re not improvising on I Got Rhythm or any standard tune. They’re just sort of playing what they feel like at the moment and how their technique drives them. To me it’s almost a purer form of improvisation. I can’t do it. I’d like to be able to. Maybe I will one day but I’m pretty chained to the harmonic progression. That’s what I grew up with.”
For fans of bebop, what Karr grew up with is still pretty cool.
At Jazz At Studio Z, he and the other musicians will largely stick to the standard jazz repertoire, favorite tunes like “Relaxing at Camarillo,” the blues that Parker wrote in the 1940s.
“I’m picking tunes that we’ll all be able to swing on all have a good time,” he said. “I think it will be just everybody trying to improvise, swing and have a good time. I’m going to try to make it fun for everybody.”
Jazz At Studio Z place on the second Saturday of each month at Studio Z, located on the second floor of the Northwestern Building at 275 E 4th Street in St. Paul.
Each artist performs a free workshop at five p.m. and two sets starting at 7 p.m.
On Dec. 8 the venue will host the Babatunde Lea Quartet and a workshop on “the traponga,” a unique blend of trap drums and congas.