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Mourning and Celebration: Notes on Recent Losses in Twin Cities Jazz

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By Bill Stieger.

“You want to play JAZZ? That music is too good. Now, you’ll really starve” – William Stieger Sr.

The consequences of aging accumulate with each passing year. The aches, fatigue, diminishment of the senses reminds us gummers daily that things are headed South, It’s an old story–perhaps the oldest story-and guaranteed to bore the hell out of the young. My response to their lassitude is “One day you’ll understand.”

Gary Berg
Gary Berg (photo by Andrea Canter)
Yolanda Bruce
Yolanda Bruce (photo by Andrea Canter)
Donald Thomas
Donald Thomas (photo by Andrea Canter)

What I’m mulling over is the increasing loss of friends as the years proceed.  For those of us who have spent our lives in the performing arts, that list can be long. And the recent loss of talents in the local jazz scene is either sobering or compels one to open a jug, depending on where you’re at.  If you’re a fan of local jazz, you know the causality list.  Allow me to spare you the grim roster, as my purpose here is not to mourn–though some of that is inevitable–but to celebrate their memory and express my gratitude for knowing them, and witnessing their  talents.

Pat Morarity
Pat Morarity (photo by Andrea Canter)

Through these blues, I nevertheless  work to  cultivate a philosophy of gratitude. These recent visits by the Reaper to musicians and singers in the Twin Towns makes me realize how damned fond I am of them all, both for the departed and those who remain. My affection and gratitude for all the local jazzers grows with each soul’s passing.

Oh, how those years pass. I came on the local scene in the early 70s, at the age of 20. Prior to that I was on the road, playing and touring with rock and roll bands. But a chance hearing of John Coltrane playing “Giant Steps,” got so far into my blood that I returned to the Twin Cities, got a job driving for St. Paul Yellow Cab, and took drum lessons from Elliott Fine, a terrific teacher who burped me through the basics of reading and technique. I needed to learn that side of drumming because I wanted to play jazz.

Morris Wilson
Morris Wilson (photo by Andrea Canter)
Debbie Duncan
Debbie Duncan (photo by Andrea Canter)

I began to frequent Dahlgren’s Drum Shop, on 10th Street, near Marquette, where I hung out with drummer Phil Hey, who worked there, and knew more about jazz drumming than anyone I’d ever met. These were the days before the advent of the personal computer,  when knowledge was gained either through schooling or apprenticeship. I’m sure I drove Phil crazy with my hanging about. But I learned as much from him as I did my drum teachers. Evenings were spent  listening to Natural Life (with Eric Kamau Gravatt on

Marv Dahlgren
Marvin Dahlgren (photo by Andrea Canter)

drums) at the Longhorn; sitting in at the Blue Note on Minneapolis’ North Side (with its bullet holes in the ceiling), and later hanging out and performing at Steve Kimmel’s Rainbow Gallery, on the West Bank. These were the locales where I first met the musicians I would play with and know throughout my life.

There was the great alto saxophonist Eddie Berger, with whom I eventually played. I met uber-bassist Billy Peterson on a gig with Brazilian pianist Manfredo Fest at the Mai Tai on Lake Minnetonka. I studied informally with drummer Paul Lagos, who was privy to drumming secrets from his mentor, Philly Joe Jones. I spent a summer playing at the Buttery, in St. Paul with bassist Anthony Cox and pianist Pete Madsen, two who went on to tour the world with Stan Getz. I  was lucky enough to get onto a regular gig with the great Irv Williams at the saloon of a suburban country club, the name of which I do not recall (Irv taught me to feather the bass drum under the beat of  the ride cymbal). I gigged with Bobby Peterson, Billy Schiell, The Whole Earth Band, Bees Knees, Ira Pettiford, Cornbread Harris, and loads more.

Tommy O'Donnell
Tommy O’Donnell (photo by Andrea Canter)
Peter Schimke
Peter Schimke

Many of these people are gone, but they are with me always.  I remember their stories, their humor (All jazz musicians closet comedians), their shenanigans, their times of difficulty  (many hard times in this racket), and above all their relentless passion for this marvelous music. And, believe it, it’s that lifelong passion for jazz music that binds us, cements our friendships, makes us lifetime comrades.

Sure, we have our resentments, jealousies, even some short-lived hatreds. There’s never enough work for us in our local venues. Many of us live, or have lived, on the ragged edge of poverty, a condition that can encourage depression, bitterness, or leave one subject to the temptations of mood altering substances. Scuffling is the name of the game in this great music, born of black America, a style of music our culturally bereft citizens so often ignore. It can get lonely out here.

Billy Shiell
Billy Shiell

It can even get lonely at home. Sometimes, when my family–my son and my wife’s kids from her previous marriage–gets together, I can often feel lonely in it. And it’s not because we don’t get along. We do. I can say without guile that we love each other, with no bones to pick. We have that. But–and this is beyond arrogance–I consider people outside our sphere squares. Yeah, I said it So, when I run into, say Billy Peterson, Dale Alexander, Jimmy Wallace or Kenny Horst, to name a few, I’m seen as a fellow musician, someone with that shared obsession–what Eddie Berger called “that jazz disease”– for this music, an obsession that can border on insanity. When I  get together, or better yet,  play with any of them, I feel at home. I feel that I belong.

Carei Thomas
Carei Thomas (photo by Andrea Canter)

And I feel the same for the great young players on the local scene: Will Kjeer, Jordan Anderson, Charlie Lincoln, Sophia Kickhofel, and others. They assure our continuance.

Sure, musicians and singers may not be among the friends I see daily. But I do think of them at a very deep level as brothers and sisters of a multiracial tribe, one that I belong to. And sharing that passion, and those decades together, kindles the love I have for every one of them.

In fond remembrance and respect for those recently departed:

Gary Berg, Debbie Duncan, Yolanda Bruce, Peter Schimke, Max Swanson, Morris Wilson, Tommy O’Donnell, Pat Moriarty, Carei Thomas, Billy Shiell, Marvin Dahlgren, Larry England, Davis Wilson, Willie Murphy, Donald Thomas.