He’s a longtime jazz musician, club owner and business proprietor in downtown St. Paul — all things that demonstrate good taste but require great will and determination.
Kenny Horst is a survivor, that’s for sure. He’s into his fifth decade as a drummer and his 18th year of running the Artists’ Quarter, the dimly lit, coolly untrendy basement-level bar in the historic Hamm Building. Although not as high-profile as the Dakota, the club just made DownBeat magazine’s list of the “150 best places to hear live jazz worldwide,” and it maintains a faithful contingent of musicians and fans. Horst himself is a big reason why.
A secretive “who’s who” list of AQ regulars — even Horst supposedly doesn’t know exactly who — has been assembled to pay homage to him on his 70th birthday Friday at the club. An affable, good-humored, no-nonsense and above all trusted music-biz vet and father of two from St. Paul’s West Side, Horst played drums for such greats as Mose Allison, Bobby Lyle, Al Hirt and the AQ’s resident godfather, Irv Williams. He played in black jazz clubs in the ’60s when not many white musicians would. He started booking national jazz acts in Minneapolis at the old Downtowner (a k a Davey Jones Locker) in the early ’70s.
Also a booker at the original AQ on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis, which closed in 1990, Horst became the club’s co-owner and manager when it reopened five years later in St. Paul’s Lowertown, long before it was a happening area. Priced out of his lease there, he relocated in 2002 to its present spot, where it has gotten by, if not thrived (his assessment).
Here, in his own words, are some of the ways Horst has gotten by in all of his challenging pursuits.
It’s a group effort
“As far as the club is concerned, I’ve had so many people who’ve helped me. That’s why I’ve been very reluctant to do this birthday celebration. I couldn’t have done this without all the people who’ve stepped up and helped out for 18 years. That starts with my family, of course, and includes so many great friends.
“The people who work here are not the best-paid people in the world, but they’ve stood by the place because they love the music. My oldest son, David, has worked here since we opened, and so has one of the waitresses. Davis [Wilson], the door guy, just started hanging out, so I hired him, and he’s been here 15 years. There’s been a lot of that.”
But it’s a small group
“One of the advantages when we got to this location: We got to design it ourselves. If you look around, you’ll see it was laid out so it can be run by one person, if need be. The sound booth is right there, the ice machine is there, the liquor room is over there, all close. When business has been bad, you might’ve seen me or someone else here doing all these things by ourselves.”
Know your audience
“I got a rude awakening when I worked at the Downtowner. Especially in the jazz business, you can’t always count on a crowd turning out. Also, jazz crowds aren’t big drinking crowds. That was true even back in the ’70s: You sell a lot less alcohol than a rock or blues club.
“We only got a taste of those kind of drinking crowds when we had the Tuesday organ nights all those years [they ended their 16-year run in 2011]. Those shows drew people outside the jazz crowd, and there’d be three times as much drinking as our normal club, but the smoking ban pretty well killed that. Now, we basically survive on our weekend business. You’d be surprised, though, how much of our crowd is actually young people. That’s maybe one thing to be optimistic about.”
Be open to anything
“Sometimes for a musician, a gig is a gig, and you take what you can get. When I first started getting into jazz, the good gigs for musicians were mostly in the strip clubs along Hennepin Avenue. There were six or seven strip clubs in a two-block radius, and they all hired jazz musicians. You could play there six nights a week.
“I didn’t like the environment, though. It was kind of sleazy, door guys trying to swindle everybody, that sort of stuff. After a while, you’d get tired of playing ‘Night Train,’ because all the girls wanted to dance to it. They’d fight over it: ‘It’s my turn for ‘Night Train’ tonight!’ A lot of great musicians worked in them, though: Bobby Lyle, Eddie Berger, Bob Rockwell, you name it. You have to start somewhere.”
“I’ve never bounced a check. I’ve never been overdue on our rent. Those things matter, and the only way I’ve been able to get away with that is by sometimes not paying myself, and by my cutting into my own personal finances. I couldn’t have done it — any of this — without my wife’s support. She [Dawn Horst, daughter of singer Carole Martin] has always had a steady job. She’s an office manager. For someone in my line of work, it’s almost essential to have that kind of foundation at home, along with everything else she has done for me.”
And do it for yourself
“It helps to be a little bit fanatical, a little bit nuts [laughs]. When I really think about it, I feel so lucky. With this birthday thing coming up, 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.”