At some point during the live recording of her performance at the Dakota Jazz Club on Thursday night, vocalist Debbie Duncan plans to unfurl a sassy talk-song number titled “(Pack Your) Suitcase Blues.” When that happens, the history of live recordings at the Dakota will have come full circle.
“(Pack Your) Suitcase Blues” is the final song on the first album ever made at the Dakota, recorded by Duncan back in October 1993, when the club was located in the sleepy confines of St. Paul’s Bandana Square.
“That scene at the Bandana Square Dakota felt like family to me,” Duncan said.
Nobody knows how many live recordings were made at the Dakota’s two locations since. They range from discs minted in small batches by local entrepreneurs to albums cut by recording conglomerates for an international audience. And they collectively showcase the vital presence of the Dakota — a venue that championed local acts even while establishing itself as one of the world’s premier jazz venues.
Music lovers can readily purchase at least two dozen albums recorded live at the Dakota. Some have appeared on the Dakota Live record label formed by Dakota co-owners Lowell Pickett and Richard Erickson along with Elliott Donnelley, grandson of the late, legendary Dakota patron Jane Matteson. Their first disc was a 2003 live recording by pianist Nachito Herrera, created just before the club moved to Minneapolis.
One of the most beloved Dakota Live CDs features Barbara Morrison, a favorite vocalist of Donnelley’s. Erickson had worked with soulful tenor saxophonist Houston Person on another recording project in the 1990s. So Person was invited to play the club with Morrison in a stellar band that also included pianist Junior Mance.
“Houston arrived on a flight from Paris just google-eyed, but he went right up on stage to play,” Erickson remembered of the 2005 session.
“Barbara started right in with ‘Don’t Go to Strangers,’ which, of course, is well-known for the version with Houston and [vocalist] Etta Jones. I wondered how Houston felt about that. But they just hit it off really well. It turned out great, and I know Barbara still sells that CD when she’s touring.”
One of the problems with subsequent Dakota Live recordings was an interruption in the deal with Navarre, an independent music distributor. Pickett especially bemoans how this affected one of his favorite projects, a duet record from 2008 featuring kinetic bop pianist Benny Green with fluid guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli.
“Benny always wanted a reason to come to the Twin Cities because he was dating one of our waitresses,” Pickett remembered. “There was an opening on our August schedule, and I thought it would be great to pair him with Bucky.
“Benny said he’d love to do it,” Pickett continued. “Bucky was less enthusiastic. But they were just magic together, so good that we had them back to record seven weeks later and they just killed it again.”
Green and Pizzarelli still sell the disc while they’re touring. And Pickett says he has “about a hundred copies available for sale at the Dakota.” But the CD remains obscure, despite rave reviews of the duo’s shows at other venues.
Then there are the Dakota recordings that became the stuff of legend — finished products that ran into legal problems and still languish in limbo.
Pickett still laments a live recording from the early 2000s done as a collaboration between organist Joey DeFrancesco and members of the Heating System, the longtime band of the late, great Twin Cities-based organist Jack McDuff.
“We kept asking Joey if he had clearance to do the record and he kept saying everything was OK,” Erickson said. “But when it was finished, Joey’s label, Concord Records, forbade its release and wouldn’t even buy the tapes to release it themselves.”
More than anything, live recordings serve as a testimonial to the goodwill fostered by the Dakota.
A few weeks after Duncan cut her 1993 live disc, the folks from Columbia Records descended on Bandana Square to capture Bobby Watson and his band Horizon for their “Midwest Shuffle” record. Horizon was a Bandana Square mainstay, playing at the club at least once or twice a year. But for Horizon trumpeter Terell Stafford, it was the hospitality of Pickett and his staff that set it apart.
That’s why Stafford chose to record his “Taking Chances” album at the Minneapolis Dakota in 2005 for the national MaxJazz label. In the liner notes, Stafford wrote that “the support and kindness” of Pickett and the staff “will never be forgotten.”
“Just a great vibe,” marveled pianist Bruce Barth, who played the Bandana Square Dakota with Terence Blanchard in the ’90s and was part of Stafford’s band for “Taking Chances” in 2005.
Speaking by phone from New Jersey, Barth added: “Lowell always assigns a waiter to be with the band all night. You don’t find such a high level of hospitality most places.”
And when it comes to local artists, the Minneapolis Dakota has cultivated an especially intimate vibe.
“Family” is the word Davina Sowers, of the jazz-blues group Davina and the Vagabonds, uses to explain why she titled her new Dakota live recording “Nicollet and Tenth,” a nod to the club’s downtown Minneapolis address.
“The Dakota gave us a chance at the beginning of our careers and just stuck with us through everything,” she said.
Herrera, who has recorded live albums at both Dakota locations, concurred with that sentiment: “The Dakota has always been my second house..”
The “Live at the Dakota” tradition doesn’t look to be abating anytime soon. Soul singer Sonny Knight recorded an album there last December, shortly before his death. National recording artist Terence Blanchard braved a blizzard the night of his January 2017 gig to record part of a live album honoring Black Lives Matter. Pickett and Erickson are trying to persuade Lisa Fischer — the singer made famous by the movie “20 Feet From Stardom,” who consistently sells out the Dakota — to record a live record at the club. And Herrera is set to record a solo piano album there this fall, an ambitious project that blends the work of George Gershwin with Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona.
“We are open to anybody who wants to record at the Dakota,” Erickson said. “We’re flattered that they respect us enough to want to record here.”
Britt Robson is a Minneapolis freelance writer.