As a teenager, Dave Karr hung around the nightclubs on 52nd Street in Manhattan. Back then, people called it “The Street.”

He’d sneak into places like the Three Deuces and “bathe in the whole milieu” into the wee hours of the morning, he said. Sometimes, he’d catch a glimpse of musical greats like Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and Lester Young. That was in the late 1940s and early ’50s.

It’s a scene that’s disappeared, but for Karr, it had a lifelong impact. The St. Louis Park resident has made a living as musician since 1949. “That’s where I got my education. Nobody taught jazz in school,” he said.

Karr said jazz continues to be a big part of his life. “Some people ­meditate. I go for my saxophone,” he said. “My horns are good for my head and my soul.”

He’s always striving to be better. Even when he practices alone, he can feel how his “musical language” is evolving as he tries out new ways of “getting from one chord to another. I keep wanting to discover things. It keeps you going.”

Pete Whitman of Minneapolis, a fellow saxophonist, said Karr is an inspiration to him and many others. “Whoever plays with him is deeply impacted by him and what a great artist he is,” he said.

Karr has an insatiable curiosity; he’s always looking at things anew and experimenting with different approaches to improvisation, Whitman said.

He’s fun to be around, too. On the bandstand, he is always making jokes, sticking a trumpet mouthpiece on a saxophone or even making musical jokes, like a bugle call at just the right moment. “It adds to the vibe. It makes it real loose and fun,” Whitman said.

A full career

Karr, who is also accomplished on the piano, flute and piccolo, said a solo by Vito Musso from the Stan Kenton Orchestra’s recording of “Come Back to Sorrento” first inspired him to take up the saxophone.

The sound was “big and warm, full of emotion, with a good swinging feel,” he said. The improvised parts sounded so free, it “moved me. What else can I say? I was 14 years old and I wanted to be Vito Musso.”

His dad, Harry Karr, was a virtuoso saxophonist himself and taught his son a lot. What does it take to become a proficient player? “You have to do a lot of listening. You have to learn as much as you can about your instrument. You have to be able to take whatever is in your head and bring it out in any key,” said Karr, who counts Parker, Young and Lee Konitz among his influences.

The fundamentals have to be so ingrained “that you can invent variations and be creative,” he said.

After high school, Karr began his career on tour with the Sonny Dunham Orchestra. He loved the adventure of “being on my own, playing the solo sax chair with a good big band of the day,” and making friends, he said.

In fact, in a group photo, he had such a big grin on his face that his mentor told him to “be more cool, more serious.” After that, he “wised up,” and even stopped parting his hair and started combing it straight back, he said.

Karr was drafted into the Army during the Korean War. He landed in the 324th Army Band stationed in Aberdeen, Md. Later, he took classes at the Manhattan School of Music and the University of Minnesota.

He got married and started a family, and at that point, he turned to freelancing, doing any gig he could get. He might play at a wedding one day and work with Henry Mancini the next. He had to be ready at a moment’s notice. “I keep my saxophone by the door,” he said.

One of his favorite jobs was being a staff musician at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater. He was there when it opened in 1963. In the 1970s, Karr started writing jingles for radio, TV and film commercials. In 1986, he won a Clio advertising industry award for a jingle he wrote for the state zoo that had jazzy sounds coming from different animals. More recently, a 2007 McKnight Fellowship for performance excellence gave him a boost, as well.

Through the years, he’s kept “a corner of my mind open for the music I liked,” meaning that he’s found ways to nurture his own musical interests, he said.

Until recently, the Artists’ Quarter in St. Paul was a great outlet for that, he said. Nowadays, there are fewer places to play jazz: Live orchestras aren’t used as much in commercials and other media, either. Meanwhile, jazz has gotten more sophisticated and more artistic, he said.

An inspiration to others

Dave Graf, a graphic designer and freelance trombonist who lives in Shoreview, met Karr in the 1970s. Since then, they’ve played together all over town as a part of groups like JazzMN and Mulligan Stew and for various shows.

Karr is able to make his music stand out in the moment, “rather than it sounding like he’s played it a thousand times before,” Graf said. “He has something to say and the ability to make a decision to go in a different direction at any moment.”

Karr “always brings his ‘A’ game to a gig. … He never plays an indifferent solo.”

Karr regularly performs with Connie Evingson, a Minneapolis-based jazz singer. Evingson calls him a consummate professional and true artist.

“You can hear influences in his playing of all the great players that came before him,” she said. At the same time, she added, he’s “developed his own voice, and his tone is very recognizable.”

 

Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at annaprattjournalist@gmail.com.