Last fall, saxophonist Charles Lloyd and his wife and manager, visual artist Dorothy Darr, started hatching plans for the musician’s 80th birthday.
One of their first calls was to Lowell Pickett, co-owner of the Dakota Jazz Club in downtown Minneapolis.
Pickett knew that Lloyd could celebrate his birthday wherever he liked. He remembered how Lloyd’s first classic quartet, featuring pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette, was one of the few jazz acts embraced by rock-oriented youths during the countercultural turbulence of the late 1960s. As a student at St. Olaf in Northfield, Pickett was one of those youths, a music obsessive who later opened a record store in that college town.
Darr started floating concert dates and possible ensembles: Lloyd with Sangam, the band he formed in tribute to the late drummer Billy Higgins; Lloyd with the Marvels, his new band with guitarist Bill Frisell and singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams; Lloyd with his New Quartet, a veteran ensemble whose name is meant to distinguish it from the late ’60s group.
Pickett wanted them all.
“I told Dorothy, ‘Why don’t we just bring everybody and book as much as we can?’ ” Pickett said. “I mean, the first time [Lloyd] ever played the Dakota it felt like an extraordinary gift.”
That’s how the Dakota became the centerpiece for this milestone in Lloyd’s remarkable life. On his actual birthday (March 15), Lloyd will perform with guests in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he lives, demonstrating his commitment to a community recently besieged by fires and flooding. Otherwise, his only other birthday bookings take place next week over four nights at the Dakota, with seven shows featuring three ensembles.
“I rarely perform in clubs,” Lloyd wrote in a recent e-mail exchange, “but one of the exceptions that I have kept on my map is the Dakota.”
‘Home away from home’
Near the height of his fame in 1969, Lloyd dropped out and retreated to California’s Big Sur for a dozen years of quietude. “I was off my spiritual compass,” the saxophonist explained in “Arrows Into Infinity,” the 2012 Lloyd biopic directed by Darr.
He returned in 1981 but really regained his stride when he embarked upon a long relationship with the ECM recording label in 1989, building another sizable following by playing with a heartfelt lyricism that ranged from pristine serenity to hardscrabble blues.
Pickett staged local performances of Lloyd’s various groups at various times over the past 30 years, at the Dakota and St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater. Their working relationship blossomed into a lasting friendship.
The beauty of Lloyd’s “birthday residency” is that it allows him and his various bandmates to avoid constant motion.
“Our lives are so much about just going from one city to the next that it will be a luxury to spend three or four days in the same place,” said bassist Reuben Rogers, who will play with two ensembles during the residency. “The Dakota is like a home away from home for a lot of us musicians anyway.”
Pickett has long been celebrated among musicians for the quality and variety of food available between sets; for exuding respect and hospitality; and, most of all, for his unabashed enthusiasm for the music they play.
Starting when the Dakota was at St. Paul’s Bandana Square (the club moved to Minneapolis in 2003), Lowell was being thanked on the back of record covers and developing close friendships with musicians such as pianist McCoy Tyner and trumpeter Roy Hargrove.
Another reason Pickett is so beloved within the national music community is because he allows himself to get carried away.
Rogers said he saw Pickett recently “and he started talking about [Lloyd’s residency]. Just seeing that excitement for about 10 minutes got me all excited.”
The Lloyd birthday residency is not the first major shindig Pickett has staged. Prince played there for three nights in 2013. Lucinda Williams played there five nights, also in 2013. Pianist Chick Corea has a long-standing invite to visit the Dakota with whatever project (or ensemble) he has cooking.
Stream-of-consciousness-style, Pickett rattled off dozens more memorable bookings: an after-hours gig with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, drummer Elvin Jones and his group “making the room levitate with a 30-minute performance of ‘Afro Blue.’ ”
In the early days, Pickett was notorious for putting his heart before his wallet. The move to downtown Minneapolis, which helped with enlisting new business partners including Target, certainly keeps his passions more financially viable — even though it means tickets for Friday and Saturday’s shows run as high as $125.
When asked what he hopes to derive from his birthday celebrations, Lloyd replied, “I’m a dreamer, not a planner. I dream of taking flight, of creating beauty and harmony amid the chaos. When I dream of a peaceful world, I hear a rainbow of song.”
As for Lowell, Lloyd said, “I feel he is a dreamer, too.”
Britt Robson is a Minneapolis writer covering music and sports for national and local media outlets.