Editor’s note: With the news that the Artists’ Quarter in St. Paul will shut its doors at the end of the year, we asked trumpeter Steve Kenny, a member of the acclaimed Twin Cities ensemble The Illicit Sextet to reflect on the club’s legacy and its troubles — and what its closing means for jazz and the downtown area. Here’s his take, in his own words:
By Steve Kenny
I’ve always considered it a huge privilege to have been able to play the Artists’ Quarter as frequently as I do, both in my continuing weekly Wednesday 7 p.m. early shows, and in higher-profile weekend performances with The Illicit Sextet and groups like “What Would Monk Do?”
Quite a while ago, I was made aware of how the business parameters had changed at The Artists’ Quarter, and how for quite a while now, [owner] Kenny Horst has been working and playing there without taking a salary. I knew that, on the one hand, if there was ever a guy who had a big enough heart to shoulder that burden on-and-on, it would be Kenny Horst, and yet, I also knew that unless something changed drastically, the club was destined to be nearing its conclusion as a viable business.
Musicians all chipped in and have been working for the door on weeknights, and have been conciliatory when it came to negotiating the rates for weekend performances. We all had a stake in wanting the club to continue to succeed. Audience, musicians and the community at large were all part of the process of having a viable, bona fide, 6 nights-a-week actual jazz club, and all the musical activity that is nourished in and around a functioning club like The Artists’ Quarter.
It fit a model whereby, many national and international touring jazz legends would come to the club and play a series of performances using local musicians to back them up or to round out their touring groups. This bolstered the resumes and careers of countless local musicians, and helped keep the Twin Cities in the conversation nationally as a place with a vibrant local scene.
I know for a fact the concept of a downtown location where extemporaneous instrumental jazz consistently can be heard night after night has been used successfully to lure conventions to the city, and has been used as a talking point for executive recruitment to business people on-the-fence about relocating to our community.
I wonder if those same corporate interests will step up now and realize this seemingly organic existence of such musical culture can only happen by virtue of the strength the exact kind of venue that the Artists’ Quarter is. I wonder what ‘they’ will print in their pamphlets after our club is a banquet room for yet another brewpub with piped in, canned classic rock.
It won’t be the same downtown scene.