Free and Cheap Jazz in the Twin Cities: Plentiful and Easy to Find (2018 Update)
Too often I hear complaints from would-be jazz fans that it’s too expensive to go out and hear live music in the Twin Cities. Or that they would go but they don’t know where to find it — and since the closing of the Artists Quarter at the end of 2013, that’s been a more common complaint. Often people cite Orchestra Hall or downtown clubs as offering hefty ticket fees, pricey wines and menus, and often expensive parking. And indeed, concert hall tickets can cost $75 and up; ramp parking downtown can run $8 a pop (or more for “event parking”). But in truth, the vast majority of jazz performances in the Twin Cities are not taking place at Orchestra Hall or Ordway; even downtown clubs and restaurants have many bargain nights, and many of the ramps offer reduced rates in the evenings. Additionally, more and more jazz is appearing at neighborhood and suburban venues where parking and often the admission are free. So where is all this “free and cheap” jazz in the Twin Cities, and how do you learn about it?
Learning about jazz offerings, free and otherwise, is pretty easy online. Check out Jazz Police of course; venue websites often have frequently updated music calendars); KBEM posts a live jazz and blues calendar on its home page; KBEM and KFAI radio announce jazz events throughout their broadcasts. Want print? Music gigs at clubs and concert venues are listed every Friday in the Star Tribune’s Variety section and sometimes appear as highlights in City Pages. Larry Englund’s blog (Rhythm and Grooves) lists jazz and blues events weekly, and Pamela Espeland’s Bebopified lists jazz events frequently, as does her MinnPost postings in Artscape.
The following is not an exhaustive list of area venues catering to jazz as well as tight entertainment budgets, but provides a listing of venues that routinely can fill your needs for swing, bop and beyond without requiring a significant investment. And remember that, during the summer, there will be more options for outdoor music, including the free Twin Cities Jazz Festival in June (in Mears Park, St Paul) and smaller festivals in the metro area. Keep in mind that, particularly in this age of recession, clubs and restaurants come and go. For purpose of this listing, we consider only venues offering jazz (at least sometimes) for a $15 cover or less.
318 Cafe (318 Water Street, Excelsior). Looking for music out in the west burbs? This little joint has good food and drink, a small stage, and a calendar with of some of the best local music in the metro. Reynold Philipsek is a frequent performer. The music is very eclectic so check the website to find something to your liking.
Amsterdam Bar (6 W. 6th Street, St Paul). An old beer hall in the center of downtown St. Paul with a large stage and seating area, the Amsterdam puts on eclectic music every night, and now and then they bring in some renowned improvisers for evenings of sound experiments. Even members of the SPCO might take the stage. Some higher price tickets for special shows.
Black Dog Coffee and Wine Bar (308 Prince Street, St Paul). Aside from Lowertown’s growing reputation as the place for avant culture and after-work socializing in St Paul, the Black Dog has long been a hot spot for both. Every Saturday night, Steve Kenny curates the Saturday Night Jazz at the Black Dog series, with an opening set (often young artists or veterans in new configurations) followed by such headliners as Dave King, Anthony Cox, Dean Granros, Zacc Harris, JT Bates, Pete Whitman, Steve Kenny, Dave Karr and more. First Tuesdays, it’s Dean Magraw and Davu Seru, often with very compatible and creative guests. Second Tuesdays, hear the Chris Olson Project, often a duo or trio led by guitarist Chris Olson. There’s music of some sort most every night of the week. Often no cover, rarely over $10; the Saturday Night Jazz series seeks donations ($10 suggested) to support the music. And now the Black Dog has expanded into the adjacent space, offering a larger dining area, table service to go with more options, and a full bar in the music area with the local brews, wines, bar drinks, and espresso. Larger ensembles typically perform in the dining space.
Boom Island Brewing (Boom Room) (2014 N Washington #300, Minneapolis). Yes it is a brewery, but this one takes its jazz seriously, sponsoring a weekly performance in the “Boom Room” curated by drummer and bandleader Jesse Simon. Twice per month, Simon’s Minnesota Hard Bop Collective is on stage with a revolving cast of top area musicians, and often paying tribute to one of the greats of the hard bop era.
Crooners Lounge/Dunsmore Room (6161 Highway 65 NE, Fridley). In the space once occupied by the Shorewood, this lounge and supper club in the north burbs continued a popular happy hour with music as well as headliners in the lounge several nights per week, but the buzz now is about the Dunsmore Room, one of the most intimate and listener-friendly rooms in the area if not the Midwest. In what is otherwise the Lakeside dining room, at least three nights per week, the room is transformed as the Dunsmore Room with a 9-foot Steinway piano on stage, modern sound system, and a line-up of top area and national artists. On some Sunday nights, Dan Chouinard hosts The Birthday Club — featuring a vocalist celebrating musical birthdays of the month. Recently the Lounge was transformed into a large performance space with the bar moved into the “inbetween” space, providing better sightlines, more seating, and scheduling more shows, both local and national. Usually there is no cover in the Lounge (although a cover charge can reserve a seat), where jazz, blues, and pop artists are usually featured when there is no action in the Dunsmore Room. When a large crowd is anticipated, you might find a national act like Joey DeFrancesco in the lounge! In the Dunsmore Room, patrons can reserve a table for a local gem like Connie Evingson or Maud Hixson or for national touring artists like Dave King, Bill Carrothers, Geoffrey Keezer, or Sheila Jordan. Advance reservations in the Dunsmore Room are highly encouraged due to limited seating.
Dakota Jazz Club (1010 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis). It looks incredibly pricey and it can be, but often it’s a bargain. One of the most acclaimed jazz clubs in the country and known for its schedule of national jazz and blues acts as well as for its kitchen, the Dakota is a glittering gem on Nicollet Mall that draw visitors like a magnet. National acts tend to fall on weeknights and can run anywhere from $15 to over $60 per ticket. But the late sets are usually cheaper, and on weekends, you often can hear some of the best in the region (Debbie Duncan, Charmin Michelle, Connie Evingson, Ginger Commodore, Sophia Shorai) for $10-$20—and never a minimum food or drink order; there’s free Happy Hour on Friday afternoons (4:30-6:00 pm) with great food bargains and often music from 98-year-old saxman Irv Williams and his trio. Parking? After 4 pm, the adjacent Target Ramp is $6, no special event rates. And after 6, you might find a free spot on the street. Reservations recommended for national acts, weekends, and special local shows.
Hell’s Kitchen (80 S. 9th Street, Minneapolis). In the old Rossi’s space with its own kitschy decor, Hell offers live music most nights, which currently features the Wolverines Trio and guests one Wednesday night per month (Rick Carlson, Steve Pikal and Jendeen Forberg), and other area favorites throughout the week, from crooners like Arne Fogel to brunch with modern ensembles like Fat Kid Wednesdays. If you are going to Hell, this is a great way to go! Usually no cover.
Icehouse (2528 Nicollet Av South, Minneapolis). Remember the old Clown Lounge “Jazz Implosion” series? Curator/drummer JT Bates brings it back on Mondays at the Icehouse in south Minneapolis. And it really was an old Icehouse, then studio, now combination bar and trendy dining spot with a stage and almost nightly music. Monday’s Implosion features the likes of Dave King, Fat Kid Wednesdays, JT Bates himself, and other like-minded, ear-blowing ensembles. Weekend dinner sets (no cover) often feature a piano/bass duo like James Buckley and Bryan Nichols. Other nights might bring in a nationally or regionally renowned jazz ensemble. Covers range from $5-$12 as a rule; a really special show like Tim Berne might have a $20 ticket. Quirky but mighty fine bar and food menus. A night owl’s delight as many shows, including Implosion, start at 9:30 pm or later.
Jazz Central Studios (407 Central Av NE, Minneapolis). Yes, Minneapolis has its own underground jazz club. Formed in 2010 by Tanner Taylor and Mac Santiago, and now operating as a nonprofit, Jazz Central is located in an old basement recording studio with a small but warm performance space for Featured Artist Nights and jam session (Mondays), Tuesday Night big bands (yes, the big band takes up about half the space), Wednesday night series of new and improvised music, Thursday Vocal Jazz nights, Friday’s “Illicit Jazz Workshop” curated by Steve Kenny, and often late night sets with young performers testing their wings. More and more, music is also booked on Saturdays; Sundays have a B-3 jam session. Most nights, donation of $10 requested to pay the rent as well as musicians. This is a great opportunity to hear combinations of musicians that don’t otherwise come together and to focus in on some of our top sidemen. Many performers from the old Artists Quarter are presenting their music at Jazz Central.
Jazz @ St. Barneys (St. Barnabas Church, 15600 Old Rockford Rd, Plymouth). The Art Center of St Barnabas Church has sponsored a monthly (or more frequent) jazz series for years, and for $10 you can hear the best instrumental and vocal artists in the region in an intimate context (typically duo or trio). Recent guests have included Maud Hixson, Rick Carlson, Connie Evingson, Travis Anderson, Rhonda Laurie, Laura Caviani and more. See the website for the complete listing of the upcoming 2016-17 season.
MacPhail Center for Music (501 S. Second Street, Minneapolis). The region’s largest community music school also includes several beautiful performance spaces and there’s an unending array of free and inexpensive music throughout the year. You can hear MacPhail faculty or student recitals; master classes in all genres (usually $5 for nonstudents); and a special series of weekend concerts that typically run higher ($20). Parking at meters or adjacent ramps. Past jazzy guests have included trumpeter Ron Miles, percussionist Dosh, the Dave King Trucking Company, and various combinations of jazz faculty.
Minneapolis Parks summer concerts. Some of the Minneapolis city parks have summer concert series such as the Lake Harriet Bandshell concerts series. Always free, the concert seasons are eclectic but jazz is frequently on the schedule, which is generally listed in the Star Tribune as well as individual park websites.
Orchestra Hall (1111 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis). Most of the jazz at Orchestra Hall is well beyond the definition we’re using for “cheap” — there are concerts by the likes of Doc Severinsen and Wynton Marsalis in the main hall at $40 and up, and the Jazz in the Target Atrium series with national and local stars (usually $25/ticket). But sometimes you can be treated to a solo artist like Chris Lomheim or a small ensemble in the lobby before a concert, at no charge and no requirement to hold a concert ticket. In the summer, there is often free music, sometimes jazz, on adjacent Peavy Plaza.
Saint Paul Hotel, Lobby Bar (350 Market Street, St. Paul). One of the most elegant spots in the city, the Saint Paul Hotel’s Lobby Bar now sports live music every Saturday night (and Fridays during winter months), and the gig belongs now to vocalist Erin Livingston and her trio, who replaced the long-running JoAnn Funk Trio a year ago. From 7-11 pm, you can sip wine, order from an extensive bar menu, and just sit back and enjoy music far more sophisticated than what one generally finds in similar settings.
Studio Z (275 E 4th Street, #200, St Paul). Home to the new music ensemble Zeitgeist, Studio Z hosts other gigs of improvised music as well, such as Insurgent (Pat Moriarty, Ellen Lease, Phil Hey) and visiting avant garde musicians and composers. The annual Jazz at Studio Z Winter Festival brings in four or five bands for nonstop music. As he has for five summers now, Steve Kenny curates an “All Originals” jazz series on selected Thursday nights, July through August. Zacc Harris has curated Jazz at Studio Z for the past five years, and hopefully will return with a new season in fall 2018.
Vieux Carré (408 St. Peter Street, St. Paul). In the space formerly known as the Artists Quarter and operated by the owners of the Dakota Jazz Club, VC opened in summer 2015, offering music Tuesday-Saturday, with a 6-7:30 pm opening set, often solo piano or a duo, followed at 8 pm or 9 pm (weekends) by the headline ensemble. Jazz is on the schedule at least two and often three nights per week, featuring both young talents and seasoned veterans of the local jazz scene, including Connie Evingson, Chris Lomheim, the Adam Meckler Orchestra, Joel Shapira and more. While the talent has been mostly local or former locals like Pat Mallinger, Nancy Harms and John Raymond, VC has started to book some up-and-comers as well as some well established veterans of the national touring circuit, including Kenny Werner and Francois Moutin. The room has been given a facelift and a small kitchen turns out very consistent and tasty New Orleans-style plates; the bar features NOLA-inspired cocktails. Covers range from free (theearly sets) to $5-10 during the week and perhaps up to $12 on Friday and Saturday nights and $30 for a national act. Reservations usually available.
For more jazz in your neighborhood, check out the following as jazz (free and cheap!) is often on the calendar:
• 56 Brewing, 3055 NE Columbia Av #102, Minneapolis
. Aster Café, 125 SE Main Street, Minneapolis
• Club Saratoga, 331 Canal Park, Duluth
• Ingredients Cafe, 4725 Hwy 61 North, White Bear Lake
• Minnesota Music Cafe, 499 Payne Av, St Paul
• Public Kitchen, 229 E. 6th Street, St. Paul
• Riverview Wine Bar, 3747 42nd Av South, Minneapolis
• Wabasha Street Caves, 215 Wabasha Street, South St.