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Whatever the address, the AQ remained ground zero for developing Twin Cities jazz musicians.
“Kenny was great for letting us learn our craft, and for raising the bar on the whole scene,” said bassist Chris Bates of the Atlantis Quartet and Red 5. “It was always run with integrity by a musician who treated other musicians with great respect.”
Purist jazz fans generally favored the AQ, too. Downbeat magazine named it one of 150 “best places to hear live jazz worldwide” in 2011. It was the one venue in town that booked jazz and only jazz and didn’t let anything get in the way.
As Bad Plus and Happy Apple drummer Dave King said in an essay on the AQ for City Pages, “There aren’t many places left where you’re not four feet from a Caesar salad while you’re playing this music.”
‘The guiding light’
From the podium at the front entrance where he has been entrenched for 15 years — like the AQ version of a lawn gnome — white-bearded doorman Davis Wilson turned wistful looking over at the giant photo of Bobby Peterson. The jazz piano great died in 2002.
“There were so many people at Bobby’s funeral, and I said, ‘Where were you when he played the AQ in front of five or 10 people?’ ” Wilson said. “That’s how I feel now when I see all these people coming in. It’s nice, but where were you?”
Two weekends ago, the club filled up for the final gig by the Tuesday Night Band, a funky organ group that was a savior for the venue for many years. It brought in patrons during the week, including a younger audience that paid more at the bar. But those crowds dwindled, as did other weeknight scenes, leaving Saturday shows like the one two weeks ago to pay the bills.
“Kenny has been beating himself up pretty good keeping this place afloat for a long time,” said guitarist Billy Franze of the Tuesday Night Band, featuring organist “Downtown” Bill Brown and Horst himself on drums. “The guy hasn’t even been taking a salary for himself. That’s no way to run a business, man.”
When he took the stage, Franze told the crowd, “You don’t have to be quiet, but it does help.” Listening intently to the band’s capital-C cool grooves — including a few by late organ legend Jack McDuff, who moved to the Twin Cities after meeting his wife at the AQ — Dale Swenson was one of many patrons eager to voice his disappointment over losing the club.
“The AQ is the reason I moved to St. Paul,” Swenson said. “Beyond being an essential place to hear really phenomenal jazz music, it’s also just a great place to hang out. It’s really the one cool place in downtown St. Paul for grown-ups to go at night.”
Watching from the bar, veteran KFAI-FM disc jockey Larry Englund was quick to silence the death knell that has been ringing around the local jazz scene since the AQ’s closing was announced.
“There is still an amazing amount of gifted musicians here, all the way down to the high schools, and a lot of venues are still hosting jazz, if only for one or two nights a week,” Englund said. “The jazz scene is going strong. But it is losing its guiding light.”
Behind the drum kit onstage, the guy who stood behind the AQ all these years looked content, still honing the craft that got him into the jazz business in the first place. It seems the stage lights are enough light for Horst from here on out.
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