Downtown: a jazz scene or a hard bop?

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October 27, 2003 // UPDATED 11:06 am - April 30, 2007
By: Michael Metzger
Michael Metzger

St. Paul's Dakota reopens on Nicollet Mall Monday, giving Downtown four clubs where once there were none. Will it be critical mass, or put existing clubs in critical condition?

The crown jewel of the St. Paul jazz world is moving across the Mississippi River to a flashier, more polished Downtown setting. When the Dakota Bar and Grill moves from St. Paul's Bandana Square to 1010 Nicollet Mall on Monday, it'll change more than addresses -- it will now be known as the Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant, reflecting a new emphasis on the musical facet of this renowned nightspot.

Owner Lowell Pickett had always insisted that the Dakota was a restaurant that happened to feature jazz. It just happened to feature some of the most happening jazz artists around. Since its 1985 opening, it has presented artists such as McCoy Tyner, Betty Carter, Ahmad Jamal, Wynton Marsalis, Carmen McRae, Chick Corea, Diana Krall and even a New Year's Eve performance by Harry Connick, Jr.

Now that worldwide reputation, with its accompanying star power, moves here. Suddenly, Minneapolis has a music scene again taking shape -- but for the first time, it's a jazz scene.

The last time the city thrummed with music that got attention beyond Edina and Eagan was in the 1980s, when Prince reigned over The Time and a sexy, purple-colored funk-pop world. Hsker D, The Replacements and Soul Asylum also carved out an alt-rock rep for Minneapolis that would only be eclipsed nationally when Nirvana and the Seattle grunge scene rose to fame.

No one around Downtown is claiming that the Dakota's arrival will trigger anything like a Prince-ian pop-culture eruption. Jazz -- proudly to many fans -- just doesn't have the same mass appeal.

Instead, believers dream a different kind of scene, one powered not by a single musical force, but by a constellation of gathering places for jazz-lovers. The hope among club owners and managers seems to be that the combined gravitational pull of the Dakota; Rossi's Blue Star Room, 80 S. 9th St.; Caf Luxx, 1101 LaSalle Ave.; and Jazzmine's, 123 3rd St. N., will yank jazz fans off of their couches and into Downtown.

Pickett is wary of the hype. "I don't think anyone can say, 'We're going to make this a [jazz] district.' I think those things happen naturally. You can try with planning and things like that but things tend to evolve regardless of specific plans that are made. What's happening now with Nicollet Mall is that there's really a lot of wonderful activity in this area."

Smiling with the enemy Jazz fans are known for their passion, not necessarily their number. Can Downtown -- which until recently had no or one jazz joint -- support four?

Craig Ritacco, general manager of Rossi's, sees the Dakota as more of a complement than competition for the jazz club and restaurant he runs. He said a buzz is building around the jazz available Downtown. "It's kind of nice to see," he said. "I don't know if anyone really designed it that way, but it's kind of becoming a jazz district of sorts with ourselves and the Dakota opening up at the end of the month. It's good and exciting for Downtown -- more live music venues for people to go to."

Some people might be skeptical when they see one club making nice-nice with another club. It's as if the folks at Target were to cheer if Wal-Mart moved its headquarters from Arkansas to Downtown. There would be smiles all around -- contorted, ugly, insincere smiles, to be sure -- as the mortal enemies played nice.

When you talk to club folk Downtown, however, the smiles don't appear to be completely phony.

Steve Venne, manager of Caf Luxx, is particularly convincing: "The more live entertainment, the better. Whether they're taking it in at the Dakota or whether they're taking it in here, it's only going to help Downtown as a whole.

"I'm not worried," he said. "I don't think there's going to be a rivalry. I think we're going to share the same client base. They might pull a little from us, but overall, the addition of another jazz venue Downtown is only going to help."

It's not hard to imagine the Dakota pulling "a little" from the Luxx. The Dakota's new digs are a lot better than its old digs. A large walnut floor curves around a walnut stage nestled in front of a towering, curved acoustical panel in the former Brasserie Zinc. The $1 million-plus renovation gives the venue a new mezzanine and a Midwestern brown-colored hipness that, coupled with big jazz names, might well serve as the foundation for a scene.

Curt Carter, owner of Jazzmine's, said the arrival of the jazz Mecca should complement his restaurant and club. "It may expose some of our audience to the more classic jazz side that they do very well, and expose some of their audience to our more contemporary jazz and even soul and R&B...It's not like this is impending doom."

Pickett plans to keep his successful blend of mostly local musicians, with national acts mixed in once or twice a month. A new twist on the Dakota's recipe for success: they'll serve lunch to the Downtown crowd, though it will be without live jazz.

An honest question Some fans of the Dakota are no doubt worried that the intimate, beloved acoustics of the old 106-seat place might get lost in the glitter of the larger, 150-capacity music venue on Nicollet (the restaurant half of the Dakota seats another 120).

Pickett has surely spent a few dead presidents making certain the new place sounds like the old place, right?

"Why would we want to?" he asks.

Why? Because jazz fans love the old Dakota, that's why.

"The old place was not that good for sound," Pickett replies with honesty uncharacteristic for a clubowner -- albeit one who no longer has to champion his old place. "The reason everybody thought it was, was that everyone heard such great music there. There were just two speakers up on the stage so there were some spots where the sound was hotter than others. It could be too loud and it could be hard to hear in other areas. So all in all, when people think in terms of the sound being so wonderful there, it's because they were hearing such great music. So what we've tried to do here is create a more even soundflow throughout the room."

Although no one will really know how good the sound at the Dakota will be until it opens Oct. 27, Pickett said he isn't worried.

"We tried to do everything we could," he said. "You never know until you turn it on. I'm sure some adjustments will need to be made."

He said he and his new partner in the Dakota, Twin Cities businessman Richard Erickson, aimed for a sound that's "Warm and good. Ideally, fidelity over volume.

"We're just trying to do what we've always done," Pickett said. "Have a place that has music we really enjoy, present both musicians who live here and musicians who tour, have great food, and have a great wine list. Just an enjoyable place to be. That's our focus."

While Nicollet Mall, with its mix of steel 'n' glass and yuppified chic might not be everyone's notion of an ideal jazz location (once known as dens of smoke, sex and cool), it has emerged as a place Pickett said is perfect for the new Dakota.

"The Nicollet Mall, five years ago, would not have been a place that I would've imagined would be good for us to move to. But it's quite different now; it's fresh and healthy and vibrant and safe."

A new home away from home Not everyone is convinced that the Dakota's move is a good one. Howard Gitelson has been going to the Dakota three or four times a week for the past 10 years or so, he said. During that time, the Twin Cities Jazz Society member and software engineer indulged his love of jazz and worked on his own art, taking photographs of the musicians and customers populating the place. His book, "A Barfly's View at the Dakota Bar and Grill" is available for purchase at the new Dakota, but the old place still grips his heart.

"It's like a home away from home," he said.

He said he expects that the sound at the new place, with its sound-absorbing curtain separating the club from diners, and the sound-absorbing material sprayed on its high ceilings, will be better than at his beloved second home. He worries that the elegant new abode might attract a crowd that he and other hardcore jazz fans won't appreciate: the dreaded scenesters.

"It's my biggest worry when we go to the new place. Is it going to be a place to hang out like First Avenue or Fine Line?" he asked. "People are there just to be seen, not to really listen to the music. If that happens, they're going to lose a lot of their loyal jazz listeners."

The key, he said, is in hanging on to the steadfast jazz crowd there to hear the delicate sounds that John Patitucci's fingerprints make on the strings of his acoustic bass as he plucks out "Wise One" -- rather than a crowd eager to be seen at the new scene.

"If they can keep the crowd to people who enjoy the music and like to listen, it's going to be a great place," he said.

The Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant opens Monday, Oct. 27 with local veteran jazz vocalist Debbie Duncan taking the stage. On the following two nights, The Elvin Jones Jazz Machine will be the first national act to grace the new venue. Call 332-1010 for more information.