Jazz Musicians Temporarily Fill Artists’ Quarter Void

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By Simone Cazares, Minnesota Public Radio

For the audio version, see here.

It’s a nondescript beige building on Central Avenue in Northeast Minneapolis. Nothing special. Enter two glass doors and walk down a hallway with green carpeting. Take a flight of stairs to the dark, carpeted basement — the place is alive with music.

It’s Friday and the house is packed at Jazz Central Studios — which means a few dozen people are gathered around small tables in the dim light, watching Zacc Harris and his band blaze their way through original tunes.

Harris is a jazz guitarist. He calls these performances “The Bridge Series.” He’s been organizing them for months, curating informal sets by his and other groups every Friday night, since St. Paul’s legendary Artists’ Quarter venue closed, leaving Twin Cities jazz musicians bereft of their longtime home.

“We had basically a month in January where I kind of realized there was almost no jazz happening on the weekends in town,” Harris said. “So, I was like, well, maybe we should try and do something at Jazz Central. And we did — and we called it The Bridge because the idea was trying to bridge the gap of losing our only dedicated jazz club in the Twin Cities.”

The Bridge Series has given some of the Artist Quarter’s regulars a place to perform, and some of its patrons a place to find jazz.

“We really tried to gear this toward people being able to conveniently come down,” Harris said. The timing, he said — 7:30 p.m. on Fridays — is deliberate. “That gives folks enough time to get home from work, eat some dinner and then come down here. But it’s not so late that they can’t come down and go do something else if they want afterward.”

Jazz Central is not a replacement for the Artists’ Quarter. It isn’t even a jazz club, said owner Mac Santiago. It’s a spot that was meant to be a performance and rehearsal space. But to Santiago, it’s the closest thing to a jazz club the Twin Cities has these days. Harris plans to continue organizing Bridge Series musicians until their community finds a permanent home — and Santiago said he’s happy to continue hosting. Still, he’d like to see a full-time jazz club open in the Twin Cities.

“But if that’ll ever happen,” he said, “we don’t know.”

In the days of the Artists’ Quarter, jazz fans could hear live music every night of the week. When the downtown St. Paul venue closed, it took that daily opportunity with it. But several Twin Cities venues — including St. Paul’s Studio Z and Black Dog Cafe and Minneapolis’ Icehouse restaurant — still feature jazz a few nights a week.

Minneapolis’ Dakota Jazz Club has announced plans to open a new venue in the former Artists’ Quarter space. But although owner Lowell Pickett said the club will focus more on local musicians, he hasn’t said if it will become a full-time jazz club.

The question that lingers — Will Twin Cities jazz find a new home? — doesn’t worry longtime Artists’ Quarter announcer Davis Wilson, who now volunteers at Jazz Central.

“Jazz has always been peripatetic,” he said. “It pops up here, it pops up there. Even in New Orleans it turns up in different places — some places regularly, some places once in a while. You never know.

“But it’s like that. It’s always been a folk art, in a way. It has people who are drawn to it, the musicians who are drawn to it and the audiences who are drawn to it, and they find ways to get together.”

Despite its current state of flux and its search for a landing spot, Harris said the Twin Cities jazz scene has the potential for growth. After his shows at Jazz Central, he can’t help but be pleased with the old faces — and the new — he sees at every show.

“All the pieces are there,” he said. “We just need the thing that can really connect them. And Jazz Central has been helping to do that. So hopefully another place or two can pop up and things can really thrive.”

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