Lights out at the Artists' Quarter

  • Article by: CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 27, 2013 - 11:04 AM

There’s talk of St. Paul’s Artists’ Quarter living on, but the musician who ran the jazz club for three decades is calling this week its finale.

 

It really is the kind of place where everybody knows your name — or at least your pseudonym.

The entire staff at the Artists’ Quarter was surprised and delighted to see the guy known as Johnny Cool cozy up to the bar two Saturdays ago. Granted, the staff is only made up of four people who, combined, have put in more than 60 years at St. Paul’s best music room and the Twin Cities’ oldest jazz club.

Each of them recognized Johnny as one of the guys who dates back to the “old AQ” of the 1980s in Minneapolis. They even dug out a bottle of Lambrusco wine that had been sitting in the cooler, waiting three years for his return.

“Where you been?” club owner Kenny Horst asked the real-life John Napue, 79, a question that went unanswered.

“I had to come back at least one last time, while it’s still here,” Napue said somberly.

Horst has been hearing that a lot since early October, when he choked back tears to tell us his plans to close the Artists’ Quarter at the end of the year. He blamed a rise in rent (still modest by downtown standards), a stagnant revenue stream (modest by any standard) and the fact that he marked his 70th birthday last January (modestly surprising when you see him; or at least he still looks young in the club’s candlelight).

Seated at the bar an hour before showtime a couple of weekends ago — where, in five minutes’ time, one patron asked about making a donation, and two more stopped to say how sorry they were — Horst was able to laugh a little about the pending closure. It’s actually been good for business, he wryly noted.

“There’s a mattress store on Robert Street near my house [in West St. Paul] that has been advertising a going-out-of-business sale for about five years now,” he cracked. “Maybe I should’ve announced this a long time ago.”

The outpouring of support, however, hasn’t been so good that it changed Kenny’s mind.

He might help new AQ owners with the booking, should they buy the club and the current location remains viable. That’s a big “if,” even with St. Paul’s mayor pushing for it. Either way, the AQ as we know it — with Kenny calling the shots, and paying the bills, and filling the bookings, and stocking the bar and changing the few light bulbs — will be a thing of the past come Jan. 1.

Damn him, he always was a man of his word.

‘Always run with integrity’

“Kenny is one of the great ones,” confirmed Lew Tabackin, the Philadelphia sax and flute great who has played with everyone from the Manhattan Transfer to Tom Waits and headlined the AQ untold times.

“The lunatics are taking over the asylum” is what Tabackin said years ago when he heard that Horst, Billy Peterson and some other Twin Cities jazz musicians were taking over the AQ.

The original AQ, located on 26th Street near Nicollet in south Minneapolis, became Horst’s excuse to quit the road and stay close to his wife, Dawn, and two sons. He had been a working drummer since the 1960s when he got into club booking, having played with the likes of Mose Allison and Bobby Lyle.

“Kenny was kind of left holding the bag” after his partners dropped out, Tabackin recalled. “But he held onto it for a long, long time and created something beautiful out of it.”

After a five-year hiatus, the club reopened in 1995 in a funky — perhaps too funky — basement space on Jackson Street in St. Paul’s Lowertown area, before Lowertown had any of the nightlife vitality it has today. Then in 2002, Horst landed a sweetheart deal on rent and a chance to be closer to the downtown action at the present location, in the basement of the Hamm Building underneath Great Waters Brewery.

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