As he stepped out from behind the drum kit and up to the microphone last weekend at Vieux Carré, Bobby Commodore echoed words said by many a Twin Cities jazz lover in recent weeks.
“It’s nice to be back over here in St. Paul,” the veteran drummer said. “It’s been a while.”
To be exact, it’s been a year and seven months since St. Paul lost the Artists’ Quarter, its locally beloved, nationally reputed but never very prosperous basement jazz haven. The club’s cozy, dark space at the bottom of downtown’s 100-year-old Hamm Building is thankfully breathing music once again.
Reopened three weeks ago as Vieux Carré — “view kar-ay,” meaning “old square,” another name for New Orleans’ famous French Quarter — the venue was taken over and re-imagined by the AQ’s well-entrenched crosstown competitor, the Dakota Jazz Club.
Not only is the Dakota crew bringing live jazz back to the historic space — with other genres of music sprinkled in — but it has also added New Orleans-style food to the mix.
“It made perfect sense given the historic building it’s in and the bond we have being on the other end of the Mississippi,” Dakota co-owner Lowell Pickett said of the NOLA-ization of the club. “Not to mention, so much of the music we present was born in New Orleans.”
The birthplace of jazz and still arguably the richest musical and cultural city in America, New Orleans has weighed heavily on Pickett’s mind since Aug. 29, 2005, the night Dr. John performed at the Dakota while Hurricane Katrina was breaking loose in his beloved hometown. “We’ve brought in at least one [Louisiana] act per month almost every month since then,” Pickett rightfully boasted.
That dedication spilled over and is literally all over the place at Vieux Carré, from the gumbo, muffulettas and sazeracs on the menu to the artwork on the walls and the music played between bands.
Late NOLA photographer Michael P. Smith’s stark images — a staple at New Orleans’ Jazz & Heritage Festival — fill the walls, from a close-up shot of Fats Domino’s fingers caressing the ivories to a moving portrait of Thomas Dorsey visiting the grave of Mahalia Jackson. You’re liable to hear music from those gospel pioneers and other Louisiana greats over the speakers as the club pipes in the Crescent City’s beloved roots music station WWOZ off the Web.
As for what else is new about the space, the Dakota team actually worked hard to spotlight what’s old about it. They ripped up the ’80s-era carpeting to expose the original cement floor (newly polished), as well as old tiling in one corner that dates back to when the space was a true speakeasy in the 1920s. They also retained the piano and one of the drum kits that Artists’ Quarter owner Kenny Horst kept in-house.
Among the truly new improvements, building the kitchen was the new owners’ main endeavor. They also added filament light fixtures, new tables and chairs and a more modern sound system. Overall, though, they maintained the same low-lit 2 a.m. vibe that defined the AQ.
“I think they’ve done a tremendous job,” guitarist Zacc Harris said after finishing up a happy hour set there last Friday with pianist Javier Santiago. “Just taking out the carpet helped improve the sound.”
A regular at the AQ with the Atlantis Quartet — which makes its Vieux Carré debut Aug. 7 — Harris said he never felt an allegiance to one club vs. another or prefers playing one city over another. However, he believes the Vieux Carré space makes for a better jazz club simply due to the economics of being in St. Paul.
“It’s hard enough for a jazz club to make it financially. The Dakota has to book a lot of touring acts and non-jazz just because it’s in a high-rent location in downtown Minneapolis. St. Paul is cheaper and thus better for a venue like this.”
Jazzed about the future
When AQ owner Horst announced plans to close, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s staff approached a number of different potential operators, including the Dakota owners, on taking over the site. Pickett and partner Richard Erickson earned a Neighborhood STAR grant from the city to support the improvements, but the decision was ultimately up to the owners of the Hamm Building, which abuts the 7th Place pedestrian mall and houses Great Waters Brewing Co. above Vieux Carré.
“From the property owners’ standpoint, there was a lot less risk bringing in [the Dakota team] given their proven track record,” said Joe Spencer, director of arts and culture in the mayor’s office, who applauded the end results.
“It’s such a quintessentially St. Paul spot. We’re thrilled it stayed a music venue, and one that shows great promise.”
Pointing to snowballing efforts to refurbish the neighboring Palace Theater into a 3,000-capacity music venue managed by First Avenue nightclub, Spencer added, “It’s an exciting time for 7th Place.”
Jiffy Kunik, a staffer at nearby Park Square Theatre, shared that excitement as she sat with her fellow St. Paul Lowertown resident Laura Kunze at the Vieux Carré bar last weekend — the same wraparound bar that was the AQ’s centerpiece.
“There’s no place like this in downtown St. Paul, where it’s quiet enough to have a conversation,” Kunik said. “The popularity of the [Twin Cities] Jazz Festival shows there’s plenty of people who want to hear music here.”
That’s certainly the hope of Bobby Commodore.
“St. Paul is a tough job [for musicians], but the folks here are trying real hard,” the drummer said before taking the stage with his singer wife, Ginger Commodore, and their quartet.
As for the changing of the guard into Vieux Carré, Bobby added, “The Dakota has always been good to musicians, and this space has been good for musicians. I don’t think they’ll have any trouble bringing in talent here.”