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The night Prince didn’t play the Dakota

The rumor had legs. It was all supposedly hush-hush but enough of a crowd gathered to fill the Dakota’s bar side and spill outdoors onto the patio.

The rumor had legs. It was all supposedly hush-hush but enough of a crowd gathered to fill the Dakota’s bar side and spill outdoors onto the patio. Fans, press, and out-of-towners came to see if the buzz was true: Would Prince play a late set at the downtown club?

Prince’s people had, in fact, contacted the Dakota about the possibility. The purple one is set to play the Montreux Jazz Festival in France in July — or maybe that’s a rumor as well? He’s not yet on this year’s schedule, though he has played Montreux in the past, and Dr. Funkenberry reports that “THIS TIME HE WILL PLAY 3 CONCERTS IN ONE NIGHT FOR WHAT IS SAID TO BE THE HIGHEST FEE PAID TO ANY PER4MER IN THE FESTIVAL’S HISTORY.”

Wonder if it’s more than the $1 million Stevie Wonder charges. Wonder if Prince really does have a new jazz-ish group he plans to premiere at Montreux or if that’s just a rumor, too. Wonder where Prince was last night, because he never showed. The crowd, the press, the staff, the management, even the security dudes wearing earbuds (from Target, whose offices are upstairs?) remained clueless for several hours.

Still, strangely, it was a party. When we arrived shortly before 10 p.m. (OK, so I’m a longtime Prince fan) the club was already packed and there was “a list” (or maybe there wasn’t?). A stretch limousine with blackened windows was circling the block. There was a frisson of excitement in the air — lots of animated conversations, and of course lots of talk about Michael Jackson’s death earlier that day.

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The staff was kept very busy serving drinks. It was probably a good night for the club, especially considering there was no one on stage. Vocalist Alicia Wiley and her band had ended their scheduled set early so things could be made ready for Prince.

It wasn’t entirely unlikely that Prince would show up. He had come to the Dakota on June 1 to see trumpeter Roy Hargrove play, remaining on the mezzanine behind a curtain until after the show, when he made his way through the club to the Green Room. At the Twin Cities Jazz Festival on Saturday night, he sat in a limo behind the stage at Mears Park while bassist Esperanza Spalding performed her set. He’s around.

So we waited. We talked. We ordered more beers and moved around the room to greet friends. There were two exciting moments: First, shortly before 1 a.m., someone (was that you, Craig Eichhorn?) started playing Michael Jackson CDs over the sound system. Since the first tune out of the speakers was “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,’” people thought this meant that Prince was in the house.

Second, Jakob Dylan and the Wallflowers came in. They had played a private gig at the Fine Line, heard the rumor, and decided to check it out. Dylan was wearing a fishing hat, like Henry Fonda in “On Golden Pond.”

Around 1:45, just after last call, by silent consensus, people started to leave. No announcement was made and no one seemed upset. It had turned into a community event – not quite like gathering in front of Jackson’s rented Bel-Air mansion, but comforting. As we paid our check and headed for the door, “Purple Rain” was playing.

It was, after all, a Big Night. Rather like the 1996 film of that name — the one where two brothers who own an Italian restaurant go all out preparing a feast for jazz musician Louis Prima. The food is ready, the restaurant is full, but Prima is a no-show. Prince, meet Louis Prima.

Pamela Espeland keeps a live jazz calendar and blogs about jazz at Bebopified. She throws out the occasional jazz-related tweet.