Sax man of downtown St. Paul draws music fans

  • Article by: JAMES WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 9, 2008 - 12:25 AM

The sax man of downtown St. Paul draws music fans -- and clothing customers -- to Heimie's Haberdashery at St. Peter and Sixth Streets.

On a beautiful blue sky Tuesday, when the wind was down, you could hear Jimmy Wallace's saxophone cry from at least a couple blocks away.

Wallace, 60 and teenager trim, sat on a bistro chair outside Heimie's Haberdashery in downtown St. Paul, tooting his own horn as he has most pretty days since last summer. He knocked on the door at Heimie's a year ago, seeking to sell shoes. Instead, he helps the area around St. Peter and 6th streets echo with a soulful sound of blues, jazz and maybe a little television theme music thrown in for fun.

He said he appreciates the dollar bills dropped into his red velvet-lined case. But Wallace simply loves to play, anywhere, anytime.

"Oh yeah," he said. "I'm always looking for a gig."

Anthony Andler, the owner of Heimie's -- the kind of place that sells upscale men's clothes, shoes and hats and offers an old-fashioned shave -- considers Wallace a sound advertising investment. When he plays, people stop. To listen. To talk. Sometimes, to shop.

"It's a lot like in old days gone by, they had door greeters," Andler said. "Sometimes, when the weather's bad, he'll even set up and play softly in the barber shop.

"He kind of does his own thing. For him, it's a lifestyle."

The way Andler tells it, Wallace was a long-time shoe salesman looking to join the staff at Heimie's. The way Wallace remembers it, he was working at a nearby restaurant when, while taking a cigarette break, he saw the hats in Heimie's window.

"I said I've got to get me a hat," Wallace said. "I talked to the guy and told him I played the saxophone and they hired me."

Occasionally, Wallace said, he will pitch in and help in the store.

"I try to do that, but those guys in there are veterans, seasoned veterans," he said. "I mostly stick to playing."

He sits, wearing a Geoffrey Beene tailored suit he bought in 1972 and a Scala straw fedora he bought some years later, and he plays. From memory. There is not a sheet of music to be seen.

"I don't know, hundreds, maybe thousands," Wallace says, when asked how many songs he knows. "Hey, a music stand would defeat the purpose. I gotta look good here."

As he plays "For Adults Only," he stops occasionally to say hello to passers-by. He likes to stay busy, Wallace said. And Heimie's is not his only gig.

He plays at the Nick & Eddie restaurant in Loring Park from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Sunday, Wallace said. On Fridays, he's at the Loring Pasta Bar in Dinkytown, helping out Cornbread Harris and Friends from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. He plays from time to time with the Capri Big Band in north Minneapolis. And his James Wallace Quartet is always looking for another job. He's been playing since 1962.

In 1968, Wallace took a four-year break from music to serve in the Air Force, including a short stint in Vietnam. Now, his 19-year-old son wants to enlist in the service. He's in a Job Corps program in Indiana.

"I said, 'You got two choices: the penitentiary or the Navy.' Nah, he's a good boy, but I want him to go into the Navy."

Why not the Air Force? "You can see more of the world in the Navy."

Nowadays, Wallace is simply happy with his view of the world from this seat, with his sax in his hands. And, just before he begins to play again, he makes one more pitch.

"Hey, we'll go anywhere," he said. "We're waiting for somebody to give us a gig. I have got to get on the stick."

James Walsh • 651-298-1541

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