It’s Saturday night and The Black Dog Café is full of people, most of them are crowded around small tables to the left of the wide-open room. On stage is the Pat Moriarty and Ellen Lease Quartet. Unlike a lot of other venues — where people tend to talk over the music — it’s clear that this audience came to see these musicians and were excited to hear them play.
The recent performance was one of many that have drawn a good-sized crowd to Lowertown every weekend for the Saturday Night Jazz series at The Black Dog. Started in 2014 by jazz trumpeter Steve Kenny, the series will celebrate its 200th consecutive weekend on Saturday, March 24.
Kenny came up with the series after the Artist Quarter, the city’s longtime jazz venue, closed. He was among a handful of musicians who started a performance series to keep jazz going in the Twin Cities. With funding by a Metropolitan Regional Arts Council grant, he began hosting the All Originals Jazz Series that summer at Studio Z, also in Lowertown. During that first year, he learned a lot about the economics of presenting a jazz series — and what he needed to do to keep the performances going.
“At Studio Z, the jazz was being presented every summer almost like the way classical music is being presented, in a private performance space, and usually they rent that space because it’s a multi purpose venue,” Kenny recalled. “They pay for catering, they sell tickets, they pay the ensemble, they pay to have the piano and the harpsichord tuned, they rent the space and they produce this event and usually they have a grant underneath it to help defray all those costs.”
Kenny soon realized that if he could schedule regular concerts in an existing venue where he wouldn’t have to rent space or pay for food and drinks, he could keep the costs low.
“In a way, it was like I could do the classical music model but outsource the venue,” he said.
For Kenny, it was also important that the series be completely self supported, but even then it was hard to find a space run by someone who would see the value that he saw in the series. After Kenny reached out to eight different venues, the Black Dog Cafe agreed to give him a chance.
“My pitch to these eight places was actually they would not have to pay for this show, which was mind boggling to a lot of people,” Kenny said. “Saturday Night Jazz at the Black Dog is its own entity. I am not an employee of the Black Dog, the series is not an owned property of the Black Dog, the Black Dog doesn’t pay for it, and we don’t pay the Black Dog. We have our own audience, our own fundraising and our own means of collecting revenue directly from the audience, and it’s been working.”
Even then, the series still had a rough start. At times, Kenny paid the musicians with his own money. When CHS Field first opened around the corner, people were afraid they wouldn’t be able to find parking in Lowertown, and many stopped coming for a while. But things got better.
Although there may never be a true replacement for the Artist Quarter, Saturday Night Jazz at The Black Dog and other regular jazz events have helped connect Twin Cities jazz musicians and fans.
The series also has been good for its host.
“Us not having to worry about how I’m going to pay these guys two or four hundred dollars, I just have to focus on the experience for people, and for us it works fantastic,” said Sara Remke, who owns the Black Dog. “I think Steve’s found a really nice sweet spot where he can be adventurous and also a little more accessible with what he books, and I think it’s fantastic that all these guys are getting paid. It’s great for our business and we really appreciate what Steve has done for us. It’s a win, win, win.”
Trombonist JC Sanford moved to the Twin Cities a few years after the Artist Quarter closed in 2016. Although he didn’t experience the same loss that many other local musicians had, he said it’s clear that Kenny’s work has filled a void.
“If Steve just for some reason left the Twin Cities or something and went somewhere else, it would be a gaping hole left in the community,” Sanford said. “It’s not just him being the promoter, it’s just part of what he does. He is an advocate for all of us, for all the musicians in the scene just to give us a great place to play and share all the cool stuff that’s happening with an audience that’s ready for it.”
Jazz musicians still miss the Artists Quarter, the basement club long run by drummer Kenny Horst.
“I was one of three bass players that played there all the time for the last 10 years and then it was over,” musician Chris Bates said of the Artists Quarter. “I was lucky, but also I got to do a lot of different things there because of it. Kenny trusted me and he would hire me for all sorts of stuff, national acts and then all sorts of stuff I was doing. It was logical to have my CD-release parties there because that’s where I knew the people liked what I did.”
Chris Bates, who plays in leading jazz ensembles like the Atlantis Quartet and Red Planet, said those good vibes have extended to the Black Dog. He credits Kenny with keeping the music going in downtown.
“People know that they can trust what group Steve is putting up there every week,” Bates said. “They know it’s going to be high quality, and on a certain level, that’s really all you need. You want to be interested in checking out different types of music, right?
“If you’re a jazz and improvised music fan, you can trust that what’s happening here on most Saturday Nights is super happening with that music.”
Simone Cazares is a student at Saint Paul College. Originally from Miami, Fla., she survives Minnesota’s cruel winters by immersing herself in the Twin Cities music scene.