When he left Minneapolis to study jazz in New York and New Jersey in the mid-1980s, Peter Schimke happily discovered he “could hang with serious musicians.” By the time he wound up back home a decade later, the pianist and drummer became one of those musicians sought out by other players around the Twin Cities.
“He raised the bar for everyone he played with,” said singer Patty Peterson, who has been mourning Schimke’s death this past week along with much of the Twin Cities jazz community. “He would dig so deeply when he played, it was like you were communicating with him spiritually.”
Schimke, 59, took his own life on Feb. 24 after many years of struggling with mental illness. A memorial for him is scheduled for March 22 at the Dakota Jazz Club led by his longtime bandmate and ex-girlfriend, Estaire Godinez.
The accomplished performer and arranger was a regular at the Dakota, often playing in a duo with veteran saxophonist Irv Williams, who died in December at age 100.
“Peter and Irv were perfect together, both very accomplished but also both very natural,” said trumpeter Steve Kenny.
The Dakota’s co-owner, Lowell Pickett, echoed that praise: “Irv liked playing with people who could push him, and Peter was one of the best at it,” he said.
Schimke also played with Billy Preston, Sam Moore, Pete Escovedo (Sheila E’s dad), Peruvian guitarist Andres Prado, Mark Murphy, the Petersons, such groups as How Birds Work and What Would Monk Do, as well as Godinez.
He often performed locally with his own ensembles, too, including regular gigs at the Artists’ Quarter, Jazz Central, Black Dog Cafe and the Lexington in St. Paul, where he pioneered the Jazz at the Lexington series and was still playing up until last year with trumpeter Omar Abdulkarim.
Schimke’s performances became more infrequent over the past year, as he entered a hospital and diligently sought treatment for bipolar disorder and depression, said Kenny, who played a show with him at Jazz Central on Valentine’s Day and called it “one of the top two times I’ve ever played with him, he was so good.”
As he tried to help Schimke based on his own struggles with mental health, Kenny said, “He was working hard to get healthy, so much so I thought he was going to pull through. He really put up a heroic fight.”
Schimke grew up near Lake Harriet in a musical family with five siblings and a father, Robert, who drummed and sang for the Children’s Theatre and other productions.
Also a jock in both soccer and hockey while at Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School, Schimke started performing as a pianist at age 8 and drummed in a rock band in his teens, the New Psychenauts, which also featured Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon.
He got more serious about music in his early 20s, studying it at the University of Minnesota before enrolling in a jazz program at William Paterson University in New Jersey run by bassist Rufus Reid. While living in New York in 1991, though, he was in a car accident that severely damaged a middle finger and sparked a move to Hawaii to recuperate.
On Maui, he started performing with known players at a club called Blackie’s and met Godinez. The couple relocated to California, then landed in the Twin Cities in 1998, when Schimke began cementing his local reputation. “He had brilliant, masterful technique, but he also had really creative ideas and pushed the envelope,” Pickett said.
Stephen Rueff, an art professor and childhood friend who put together a tribute to Schimke for Jazz 88 (88.5 FM), said, “He was most at peace and at his greatest joy when he was playing music. People knew that and wanted him to be a part of their projects.”