Saturday, January 2, 2010

Quintessential Minnesota jazz at Bennett's in St. Paul

St. Paul, Minnesota

For three magical hours, Dec. 29, members of the Bill Evans New Orleans Jazz Band and their audience of dinner customers journeyed through the quintessence of Minnesota's jazz traditions. At its end, the cornetist Charlie DeVore observed "We haven't had such a wild evening here in years."

Exceptional music – and the occasional wild evening – happens whenever the group plays Bennett's Chop and Railhouse in St. Paul, providing the nondescript establishment with a cachet matching those of the Twin Cities' more visible jazz venues: the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis, the Artists' Quarter in St. Paul, the Northrop Jazz series at the University of Minnesota, and Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion broadcasts.

Situated where neighborhood-meets-city near an old railway on West 7th Street and Victoria Avenue, Bennett's features a weekly menu of American food specials, along with performances by some of Minnesota's best, home-grown jazz musicians on the second and last Tuesdays of each month.

The six members of the Evans ensemble enjoy prominent mindshares among Minnesota's jazz fans, while three have become living legends. DeVore can recount tales of playing at Brady's Pub in the 1960s on Block E in downtown Minneapolis. He, trombonist Evans, and pianist Mike Polad also are longtime veterans of the Emporium of Jazz in Mendota, across the Minnesota River south of the MSP airport. I saw and heard them there during forays with my law firm colleagues in the 1970s.

Members of a younger generation round out the ranks: clarinetist Tony Balluff, bassist Steve Puttell, and drummer Chuck DeVore, son of the cornetist. Balluff also plays with the Southside Aces, a jazz group he founded in south Minneapolis, and he annually pulls together the 34th Street Irregulars to march in the city's May Day Parade.

As a part-time sports bar, Bennett's best-of-both-worlds setup includes a flat screen television above the musicians. This allowed diners to bop along with the Evans band while watching Flomax commercials and the Wisconsin Badgers kick the Miami Hurricanes' collective backside, 20-14, in the Champ Sports Bowl. On days of Vikings home football games, Bennett's runs a shuttle bus to and from the Metrodome in Minneapolis.

The weekly menu specials include half-price apps and bottles of wine on Monday, walleye dinners on Tuesday, T-bones on Wednesday, half-price burgers on Thursday, all-you-can-eat crab on Friday, prime ribs on Saturday, and kids free on Sunday.

Jazz night clientele includes a man attired in a jacket from the American Legion Post in Inver Grove Heights; a couple who heard their first jazz music concert outdoors at the Lake Harriet Bandshell in Minneapolis, then attended the Emporium for many years, and soon will embark on their 15th annual jazz music cruise; and a man whose last cruise took place in 1945 when a 20mm gun was positioned above his bunk in the North Atlantic.

Bennett's eclectic ambience, decor, and patronage remind me of Jimmy Hegg's Restaurant, a former destination spot on Second Avenue South in downtown Minneapolis. For lunch and after work, lawyers and business people worshipped at St. Hegg's, ushered to their seats by Jimmy's wife, Jeannette, and officiated by Jimmy from his stool at the cash register. Late nights, the place became the town's central theater hangout, a place where the late Mike Steele, the theater critic, could appear in person to read aloud his review that would appear in the next morning's newspaper. Hegg's closed in 1982.

A similar feeling of communal ritual pervades the jazz night at Bennett's. On the 29th, the BENOJB offered three sets within three hours, separated by breaks not exceeding 10 minutes. The group performed many tunes from the 1930s, including "Algier's Street," "Honey Hush," "Bugle Boy March," and a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday" for Tom Steele, a diehard fan of 83.

Throughout, the elder DeVore maintained a two-way conversation with the audience between numbers. "The music sounds great!" someone said.

"I don't know what happened," he replied.

In-town for the holidays, two guest musicians sat-in for the second and third sets: clarinetist and vocalist Andy Moore, and soprano saxophonist Henry Blackburn. Moore is a son of the late Dave Moore, the pioneering news anchor for WCCO Television in Minneapolis.

Blackburn's sax and Moore's voice sang sweetly and sonorously through Sidney Bechet's "Promenade Aux Champs-Élysées." Hearing it reminded me of another sweet experience with Bechet, that of seeing Danny Buraczeski's choreographed "Blue On The Moon," performed by Zenon Dance Company in 1989 at the Ordway in St. Paul and the Joyce Theater in New York.

Moore also vocalized Fats Waller's "If It Ain't Love" from music Polad found in a music store in Bayfield, Wisconsin. Other tunes included "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like New Year's," "All the Wrongs You've Done To Me," and "Just a Little While to Stay" – this last an audience sing-along.

Duke Ellington's "Creole Love Call" opened with three clarinets and later featured a sublimely sweet clarinet solo by Balluff. ("Tony: Call me!") For "Shake and Break," two women of a certain age danced among the restaurant tables, one spinning a lavender parasol as she moved. Charlie DeVore provided the vocals and scat from "Why Don't You Go Down to New Orleans." The audience provided vocals for the closer, "Auld Lang Syne."

Over the years, I have spent time at the Blue Note in New York City with Buraczeski, at Yoshi's in Oakland, California, with former ballet dancer and jazz musician John DeSerio, and numerous evenings at Twin Cities jazz venues.

The evening with the Bill Evans New Orleans Jazz Band at Bennett's in St. Paul ranks with the best of them. The group returns there Tuesday, Jan. 12, with Sonny Leland on the piano.


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