Nearing its 35th year, the Dakota is a Twin Cities institution with an international reputation. Consistently named one of the world’s best jazz venues by DownBeat magazine, it has changed with the times from jazz-only to a multitude of genres. But it’s still the place you go – and the place people come to from miles, even states away – to hear jazz icons and rising stars.
The pre-COVID-19 lineup for spring included Chris Botti, Stanley Clarke, the stellar SFJAZZ Collective, Ethan Iverson, Benny Green, John Pizzarelli, Charles Lloyd, Kandace Springs, Kurt Elling, Pharoah Sanders, José James and Afro-Cuban phenom Daymé Arocena. Most have already been rescheduled.
Founded in 1985 by Lowell Pickett as the Dakota Bar and Grill, the club spent 18 years in St. Paul’s Bandana Square before moving to Nicollet Mall in 2003, with Richard Erickson signing on as co-owner. For 15 years, it was the Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant. In 2018, it became simply the Dakota. Regulars – and there are many – still call the Nicollet Mall location the “new Dakota.”
The great Cuban pianist Ignacio “Nachito” Herrera has been a regular on the Dakota’s piano bench for decades, thrilling audiences with his virtuosity and necessitating frequent visits from piano tuner Gordon Johnson. Pickett first heard Herrera play in 2001. He helped him obtain a special work visa to stay in Minneapolis and get a job at MacPhail. Then he helped him bring his wife and children over from Cuba, which took two years. Pickett and Herrera have been close ever since. Herrera has said, “Lowell Pickett and my family, we have a spiritual relationship.”
On March 28, a day he was scheduled to play the Dakota before everything closed, Herrera was hospitalized with COVID-19. Gravely ill, he was put on an ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) machine, which functioned as his heart and lungs. He spent 18 days in the hospital and, against all odds, is now back home in White Bear Lake, practicing piano. He was so eager to return to the piano that two days before he was released, he asked for a keyboard. Dakota sound man Craig Eichorn delivered one to the hospital.
We spoke with Pickett by phone on Thursday morning. This conversation, edited and condensed, turned first to Herrera.
MinnPost: Everyone wants to know how Nachito is doing. Outside his family, you probably know him better than anyone.
Lowell Pickett: Nachito crystallized the dangers of this [virus] in my mind. You think, “Well, I don’t see it around us” or “It doesn’t seem to be that serious,” and it is serious.
It’s a miracle that he’s alive. It’s really special. He was on the ECMO for 11 days, a very long time. The prognosis was grim. Now he’s playing the piano a bit every day, and he’s so positive. I thought he looked really good on Fox News. I talked to him on FaceTime the day before. His spirits are so high.
There was a story in the Star Tribune about an Ironman athlete who was put on an ECMO. It said the same doctor had treated two survivors [of only 21 in the world]. The other was Nachito. It really underscored how serious this thing can be.
MP: Have you made plans for his comeback concert?
LP: We’re working on it. It will probably be at the Guthrie. I’ve been in touch with the Guthrie about it.
MP: So Nachito will be on stage again and play for people?
LP: No question.
MP: Like every other club and restaurant in Minnesota, the Dakota has been closed for several weeks. Many places closed and events were canceled on Friday, March 13. Is that when you closed?
LP: We had a sold-out show that night with Wynonna Judd. We had disposable menus, hand sanitizer, all that stuff. We were really careful about things. We closed on Saturday the 14th.
MP: Walk us through your process. What did you do first?
LP: Notify our staff. That was the biggest concern. What do we do for our staff? When we originally closed, we anticipated it would be for two weeks, until the 27th. That was what the governor [Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz] said on Friday. We told our staff that we were closing for two weeks and we were going to pay everyone for those two weeks.
We spent the next few days mainly answering questions from our staff and trying to make sure their fears were assuaged to the best of our ability. Then we had to take care of the food in the kitchen. Everything was perishable. If it could be frozen, we froze it. If it couldn’t be frozen, we gave it to the staff. … It seems so long ago.
We were trying to figure out how to communicate with our guests. The Chris Botti concert was coming up. It was our biggest concert, four nights, two shows each night. Chris’s manager and I had talked two or three weeks prior to that. He was really proactive. He called me and said, “Just in case there’s an issue with April, let’s look at some dates in the fall.” We had set aside those dates. Our first communication with our guests was to let them know that Chris had been rescheduled.
It was a multipronged effort. Communicating with our staff, communicating with our guests, trying to let people know what was going on, talking with agents, starting to reschedule shows.
People were talking about buying restaurant gift cards [to help restaurants stay in business]. I thought in the long run that buying gift cards for the Dakota would not be the difference between whether we survived or didn’t survive, but it might be a way to raise money for our staff. [By selling gift cards], we raised over $20,000 to distribute to our staff. We paid everybody for two weeks, plus everybody got a check for a little over $400.
MP: Where is the staff now?
LP: The majority were furloughed after the two weeks. By then, the unemployment parameters were clear and the CARES act had been passed. We communicated to everyone what was happening and provided detailed information on unemployment. We kept about half a dozen people on staff.
MP: Everyone else seems to be doing virtual concerts or events. Are you planning any?
LP: I’m interested in virtual concert experiences if they help keep our community together and provide some revenue for artists. We’re working on an e-card for Mother’s Day. Artists will make a video of a song, then record a personalized message to your mother. Jonatha Brooke and Davina and Pete Whitman and the Steeles are all participating, and there might be a few others, too. We’ll send out an e-newsletter saying for X number of dollars, you can buy a song with a message to your mother.
Charmin Michelle and Joel Shapira have a new album coming out. We’re going to do a virtual album release. We’ll probably do it in a parking lot somewhere, or a backyard. We’ll pay them and people can watch for free, and we’ll use our website to sell their CD.
We’re looking for ways to generate some revenue for the artists and provide an experience that has some unique content and value.
MP: The Dakota has been around for a long time, and you’ve had financial ups and downs before. How does this challenge compare?
LP: What we’re going through right now is a shared experience throughout the culture, throughout the world. I don’t view this as a Dakota problem because there are so many people going through this same process and navigating their own personal difficulties.
I see this as something we’re all experiencing, and we have to work together and support one another in order to get through this. And we will get through this. That’s what I told our staff. We will get through this. Our community and our culture are pretty resilient.
Obviously, we have to have food and shelter, and the health and well-being of our family and friends are paramount. But we also know that there are things in our life that enrich life. Music is critically important to every culture in the world. Every culture through history. It’s one of those things that connects us as human beings, that is universally shared.
What we do at the Dakota is bring people together for food and music. It’s what we’ve done for almost 35 years. We’ll continue to do that. It might look a little bit different for a while. It certainly looks different today than it did two months ago. But the community we work with at the Dakota, our staff and all of the artists and the patrons, is very resourceful.
[COVID-19] certainly presents some unique challenges. But the challenges we’re facing as a business, and the challenges that we face to our existence, are pretty minor compared to the challenges that Nachito faced. We have to keep that in perspective.
MP: People are talking and writing about the pandemic’s effects on jazz. With clubs closing and musicians dying from complications of the coronavirus, they worry that jazz might not survive. What are your thoughts?
LP: I don’t have any concerns about the future of creativity and the future of beauty. People will need those things in their lives. I don’t think the existence of jazz is threatened whatsoever by this pandemic. People return to bedrock when there’s been an upheaval. Jazz is very much a part of the creative musical foundation of American music, and music in the world.
Like countless other gig musicians, Nachito Herrera had already lost income from performance cancellations before he became ill with COVID-19. His friend Sam Grabarski, former CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council and current head of “Team Nachito,” has opened a GoFundMe to help Nachito and his family. FMI.