Blue note from St. Paul: Artists' Quarter to close

St. Paul’s revered jazz haven fell victim to higher rents in a downtown that it helped revive.

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“This place is important in the lives of a lot of people, not just mine,” said Kenny Horst, owner of the Artists’ Quarter, which will close its doors at the end of the year.

Photo: File photo by ELIZABETH FLORES • eflores@startribune.com,

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St. Paul’s longest-lived downtown nightclub and a mainstay for jazz purists three decades running, the Artists’ Quarter will shut its doors for good at the end of 2013.

Choking back tears that no doubt will be shared by the AQ’s regular musicians and customers, owner Kenny Horst said, “This place is important in the lives of a lot of people, not just mine.”

Horst’s candlelit basement venue has enjoyed a faithful if not lucrative customer base since it relocated from Lowertown to the Hamm Building near Rice Park in 2002. However, Horst said his rent has “literally doubled” in recent years after his former landlord died.

“I cut my salary to where there’s nothing left, and I still can’t make the numbers work,” Horst said. “I still have great nights here, but one great night a week doesn’t cut it. People say, ‘The place was packed when I was there.’ The problem is everyone is there on the same night.”

A drummer by trade, one who played with the likes of Mose Allison, Al Hirt and Bobby Lyle, Horst took the reins of the AQ in 1995 after more than a decade of handling talent booking there. He helped introduce jazz in the early 1980s at the original AQ location at 26th Street and Nicollet Avenue S. in Minneapolis, which was then owned by William’s Pub proprietor Bill Wanner.

Although not as high-profile as the Dakota Jazz Club — which moved from St. Paul to Minneapolis a decade ago — the AQ has a revered reputation among hard-core jazz fans. Last year, it made Downbeat magazine’s list of “150 best places to hear live jazz worldwide.” It was especially well-liked by musicians, who appreciated that Horst was a musician himself.

“If there’s only one legacy cited there, it’s maybe that it was always run with integrity by a musician who treated other musicians with great respect,” said bassist Chris Bates, who played the AQ last weekend with his own AQ — the Atlantis Quartet, one of countless acts to cut its teeth at the club.

Others included Happy Apple, the Bad Plus, Bill Carrothers, the Pete Whitman Xtet, Alicia Wiley and the Cory Wong Quartet. That’s in addition to many revered Twin Cities veterans who found a home there, including sax great Irv Williams, singer Carole Martin and keyboard guru Billy Holloman.

Holloman’s B3 Organ Nights on Tuesdays were a popular fixture at the club for over a decade up until 2011. Another club regular, drum great Roy Haynes, recorded a 2007 live album there (“Whereas”) that earned a Grammy nomination.

Even though it originated in Minneapolis, the AQ became a beloved part of St. Paul’s identity, helping spark the Twin Cities Jazz Festival and influencing countless young musicians from nearby McNally Smith College of Music.

In January, Mayor Chris Coleman read a proclamation at the club saluting Horst for “planting seeds … that have led to an incredible revitalization of the cultural scene in this town.”

The proclamation was timed to Horst’s 70th birthday fete. In an interview that month, Horst said, “People have been asking me if and when I plan to retire. Why would I retire? I’ve been doing the things I’ve wanted to do my whole life.”

He hasn’t changed his tune, either: “I’m still fully capable and still hope to continue working in music somehow,” he said Monday.

The AQ will continue as is through the end of the year. Horst plans to turn the final weekend of December and New Year’s Eve into “big blowouts” with performers from the club’s storied past.

 

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658

 

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