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Andrea Canter, Steve Sharp

Jazz Central: “For the Cats, By the Cats

By Andrea Canter               

This past October marked a very special anniversary on the Twin Cities Jazz Scene. Jazz Central celebrated its first year of jams, gigs, lessons and recordings under the stewardship of Tanner Taylor and Mac Santiago. Tucked into the lower level of a multi-use building near the corner of 4th Street NE and Central Ave in Minneapolis, the space that once housed a recording studio has already lived up to its mission – “for the cats, by the cats.” On any given Monday night, and sometimes other dates during the week, Jazz Central hosts one of the area’s most free-wheeling, sophisticated performance-and-jam sessions for serious jazz artists and listeners. And there’s no set cover, just donations to pay the musicians and the rent. It’s our slice of a New York jazz scene that isn’t all that easy to find these days, even in New York.


The Birth of Jazz Central

The October 2010 issue of Jazz Times included an article about the proliferation of  “underground” jazz venues – small, often private spaces where both accomplished and developing talents gather to perform without the usual limitations of for-profit clubs where the bottom often drives the roster and repertoire. Some of these settings are house parties in private residences, others are small musician-run cooperative clubs with both private and public performances. In northeast Minneapolis, pianist Taylor and drummer Santiago transformed an old recording studio into a haven for musicians, students and serious fans, dubbed Jazz Central. The notion for Jazz Central grew out of a proposal Mac had written a few years ago for a community jazz center, one on the order of what became the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, CA.  Ultimately, he teamed with Tanner to lease the old Glacier Studio space on Central Avenue, promoting the venue as “a non-public, invite only, performance space.”

Originally intended as a teaching and rehearsing space for local musicians, the performance potential of the space grew, and soon Jazz Central boasted weekly performances followed by an open jam. “The Monday ‘Featured Artist’ sessions are what we felt would be the starting point to get the local jazz community involved and aware of our existence,” says Mac. So far there has been no cover charge for the Monday night sessions (with seating for about 50), but donations are cheerfully accepted!  “We do book performances on other nights,” notes Tanner, “and the room is available for rental as a private performance space.  It has also been used to introduce young jazz artists and new cats in town.” Over the past year, Jazz Central has presented veterans like Dave Graf, Dave Brattain and Michael Nelson, as well as young upstarts like Javier Santiago, Trevor Haining, and Miguel Hurtado. Recently, Minnesota native, New York-based trumpeter John Raymond held a CD “Preview” at Jazz Central.


A Unique Venue

While there are many other performance opportunities in the Twin Cities, Jazz Central is unique as “a place for jazz musicians and appreciators to congregate,” notes Tanner. “Pianists never get to hang out with other pianists on gigs,  same for other instrumentalists.  Jazz Central provides musicians a place to come together and discuss the music scene,  talk ‘shop’ and bounce musical ideas off each other.”  Jazz Central also offers a recording studio, managed by saxophonist/ engineer Don Jacques. Musicians have the opportunity to record live in the performance space as well as within the controlled areas of the studio.

Tanner sees the “underground” performance space movement as a sign of the times and a good option for musicians during the current economic downturn. “One of the things that inspired us to create Jazz Central was a lack of decent rehearsal spaces to really create our own music. Since the recession began,  we've lost a lot of the venues that used to hire us.  I think we'll be seeing a lot more ‘underground’ spaces open.  House ‘jazz parties’ have become more frequent as well.  I do hope more pop up because these underground joints tend to bring out raw creativity in musicians.”

Adds Mac, “We generally feel that there is a wealth of very talented, seasoned jazz musicians that we rarely play with or hear  in an environment conducive to 'the Art'. Now we do.”

Michael Nelson (trombome), Chris Bates (bass), Dave Brattain (saxophone)

at The Jazz Center

photos by Andrea Canter

An Appreciation of Willie Johnson: Howlin' Wolf Rides Again (Ace Records, U.K.)

by Steve Sharp

With tributes being generated around the globe to the masterful Hubert Sumlin who died Dec. 4, 2011, it is perhaps a good time to recall another late, great guitarist who helped Howlin' Wolf become a legend of the blues. That man was Willie Johnson.

The shadow cast by Sumlin was so large that many blues fans might not realize Johnson, who died Feb. 25, 1995, even existed, nor the pivotal role he played in establishing Wolf's career in the south before the big man was able to achieve stardom in Chicago and beyond.

Johnson gave Wolf a brutally hard-edged sound during his time of service in early 1950s Memphis and "Rides Again" captures Johnson's revolutionary playing with Wolf during this period.

At the time the recordings on "Rides Again" were made in 1951, Wolf had only recently lumbered up from the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta to become a DJ at West Memphis radio station KWEM and these supercharged tracks for Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service would precede those waxed for Sun Records by Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash by at least three years.

Early in Wolf's tenure at 706 Union Ave., Phillips had, unwittingly or not, already created a harsh business environment in which he was selling Wolf's recordings to both Jules Bihari of Modern Records in Los Angeles and Leonard Chess of Chicago-based Chess Records. The recordings on "Rides Again" were created during this turbulent period.

Although Wolf's recordings with Sumlin on guitar — the earliest of which date to 1953 — are among the toughest-sounding in blues history, to catch Wolf at Sun is to hear him at his ferocious best and that is what is captured on "Rides Again." The passion, edginess and violent beauty compacted into these grooves is unsurpassed in recorded blues. In fact, few early rock 'n' roll records can top them for intensity and originality. The numbers on "Rides Again" have a sparse, raw energy Wolf would never again achieve, in large part due to Johnson's apparent love/hate relationship with the guitar.

"Rides Again" contains 18 tracks, beginning with the swinging, rollicking piano of "House Rockin' Boogie." On this number, the intimidating, yet lovable Wolf can be heard encouraging his charges to, "Play that guitar, Willie Johnson, 'til it smokes!" "Piano man, whoop that ivory!" "Violin man, step on it!" To drummer Willie Steele, Wolf growls, "Whoop that drum, boy!" "Ain't that sweet," the seemingly merciless band leader finally concludes.

With that as its kick-off, "Rides Again" never disappoints. "Crying At Daybreak" features Johnson's sinewy guitar wrapping itself around Wolf's harp-playing, and assorted whoops, hollers and howls. Other highlights include the psychotically hard-rocking "Keep What You Got," which is surely among the first vestiges of rock 'n' roll ever to echo through Sun Studio. The haunting interplay between Wolf's harp and voice, and Johnson's truncated guitar attack must have made the song a juke box favorite throughout the south.

"Riding In the Moonlight," one of the album's truly melodic numbers, finds the Wolf attempting, mostly in vain, to soften his vocal approach as he tries to seduce a woman with the expertly delivered, third-person pick-up line, "Baby ...  can you ride with daddy tonight?"

"Worried About My Baby" features Johnson's popping rhythm guitar beneath Wolf's usual rudimentary, but soulful harp-blowing and gruff, yet somehow charmingly sweet, vocals. The collection concludes with fascinating audition acetates and alternate versions of songs.

As mourning over Sumlin's loss eases to fond memories of a fantastic blues talent, it's invigorating to crank up the oldest Wolf records and pay homage to Willie Johnson, the guitarist who perhaps gave Sumlin his early inspiration, but certainly helped give Howlin' Wolf his start.