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.
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.