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Jazzman Steve Kenny: ‘The pandemic did not destroy me. It made me stronger.’

On Saturday night at a café in Lowertown, Steve Kenny will stand before a crowd and proclaim, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Saturday Night Jazz at the Black Dog!”

Bandleader, performer, booker and producer Steve Kenny.
Bandleader, performer, booker and producer Steve Kenny.
Photo by John Whiting

On Saturday night at a café in Lowertown, Steve Kenny will stand before a crowd and proclaim, his voice rising, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Saturday Night Jazz at the Black Dog!”

The last time he said those words was March 14, 2020, 72 weeks ago. In a world without COVID, and all else being copacetic, this would have been week 376 of a long-running series of live jazz performances, a cornerstone of the Twin Cities jazz scene that helped re-energize a community shaken by the closing of the Artists’ Quarter on New Year’s Day 2014.

Kenny is a force on stage and behind the scenes. He curates the Saturday Night Jazz series, one of many he has run over the years – at the Black Dog, Studio Z, Jazz Central Studios and Reverie – and sometimes performs, playing the trumpet and the Flumpet, a flugelhorn-trumpet hybrid. He handles the Black Dog’s bookings (three nights, five sets each) for the annual Twin Cities Jazz Festival.

His company, Illicit Productions, has produced several recordings including “Twin Cities Jazz Sampler” volumes 1-3, sonic portraits of jazz in the moment. He leads several bands, the Illicit Sextet, Steve Kenny’s Group 47, Steve Kenny Quartet, Central Standard Time, the River Falls Cultural Project, What Would Monk Do? and the Steve Kenny Trio, often playing his original compositions. Since 2016, he has run the Jazz Police website, which covers the local and national scene and maintains a syndicated events calendar.

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In 2019, the Jazz Journalists Association named Kenny a Jazz Hero, one of 22 “activists, advocates, altruists, aiders and abettors of jazz” in 20 cities across the United States.

Somewhere in there, Kenny has a day job. He’s a software engineer for a Swiss conglomerate. In 2018, he earned his master’s degree in computer science from the University of Wisconsin River Falls.

And he has a dog, a teacup chihuahua named Benito. “He’s the smallest genetically possible dog. Like, five pounds,” Kenny said on Zoom earlier this month. “He might be the best dog that ever lived.”

As always, this conversation has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: A lot of people are looking forward to the return of Saturday Night Jazz at the Black Dog. When did you and [Black Dog co-owner] Sara Remke decide this would be the weekend?

Steve Kenny: We had a meeting in March or April, when we first kind of picked this date out of the sky. I started working on booking. I have the whole rest of the year booked.

I am optimistic. I feel like there’s pent-up demand, not just for this particular series but in general. When this thing took off five years ago, it was after six or so months of the Artists’ Quarter being closed. Saturday Night Jazz at the Black Dog was able to capture that pent-up demand. It is my firm opinion we’re gonna have the same experience this time, and that jazz music one night a week is going to help [the Black Dog] get back on its feet. And hopefully we’ll be good to go another 300 weeks.

Steve Kenny welcoming the crowd to Saturday Night Jazz at the Black Dog.
Tom Dunn Photography
Steve Kenny welcoming the crowd to Saturday Night Jazz at the Black Dog.
When the pandemic shut us down, I had bookings all the way into January 2021. This thing had so much steam. We were setting up to have guest curators. Things were happening. The audience levels had been steady, near sold out week after week, and the financial part was stabilized. It was gangbusters.

MP: Let’s go back to the last time you played the Black Dog before everything closed.

SK: March 14 was the final gig. Week 303. That was the Bates brothers [Chris Bates on bass, JT Bates on drums], Brandon Wozniak [saxophone] and me. Other bands that had been booked would not appear. We played a great gig, one of the memorable ones for me because of the opportunity to play with those fine musicians. There was a normal-sized crowd.

MP: How did the pandemic change your life?

SK: The pandemic did not destroy me. It made me stronger. I was doing a lot of things when it hit, and I was searching for a way to find a break. As an artist wearing multiple hats, I had elbowed my way into some kind of relevance. It seemed like if I took a break, even three or four weeks off of the scene, someone would step in.

In the jazz community, we’ve got too many good artists, trying to play too few gigs for very low stakes. I’m well aware of the space I’m occupying that could easily be occupied by other people. Those are the kinds of fears I had.

And then comes the pandemic, and I realize not only do I get a break, but everybody gets a break. It’s not just me who doesn’t have a gig. Mick Jagger doesn’t have a gig.

[Without] an active performance schedule, there were certain things on the trumpet I was able to address. I got some work done on the horns. That’s a multi-month proposition. I can’t just take my instruments down to the music store. I have to ship them to Portland, to prima donnas who work on custom horns. My instrument maker is the greatest one on Earth.

I got the horns worked on. I ordered a new one that’s being built. I fixed some issues I was having with my embouchure that would take weeks to resolve, that I wouldn’t be able to do if I had a performance schedule. I got that break that I needed.

After about five months, I was ready to go. I tried to fire up last summer. There was some funding to do some gigs at Crooners, and we booked a bunch, and then that fell apart. It looked like [the pandemic] might be over, or you could start to think about the fall, and then it went nuts again, and then it went nuts a third time, and now it’s about to go nuts a fourth time with the delta [variant].

But the break has been good for me in a lot of ways. I’m revitalized. Anything I took for granted before about the space I was occupying has been reoriented in a good spiritual way. I have gratitude and appreciation for the opportunity to present again, and it looks like it’s about to happen.

MP: I was going to ask if the pandemic had a silver lining for you, but you just answered that. Unless there was something you wanted to add?

SK: I didn’t miss a single day on the horn. Well, there might have been three days when I didn’t play the trumpet at least for 90 minutes, and on some days for multiple hours.

It’s like yoga for me. It fits into the 12-step program in step 11, about prayer and meditation. I wasn’t so much working on music. There’s part of every day where I’m learning tunes or thinking about material, but a lot of it is just keeping the breathing going, keeping the fundamentals intact. It’s very yogic. It’s a double-edged sword. It’s a curse, because there you have it, every day. No matter how good you are, you’re only as good as your last four or five days of practice.

I know a saxophone player who took the whole pandemic off. He focused on his day job and didn’t play the sax. I know guitar players and drummers who will play once a week. They could take a year off and still play a gig. There’s no trumpet player who could do that. That’s why there are so few of us.

MP: When you look around at the jazz landscape in the Twin Cities right now, what do you see? What are your hopes, and what are your concerns?

SK: Here’s another silver lining of the pandemic. Normally, what happens to the best and brightest of our youth, the ones that are able to go to Berklee [College of Music] or are that good, they go to those places and distinguish themselves. They’re lost to us. They come back at Christmas.

What the pandemic has done, because the industry shut down, is [bassist] Charlie Lincoln is here. [Pianist] Will Kjeer is here. Otherwise they’d be in L.A. We wouldn’t see them for years. These fantastic young artists are making a go of it in our community, and that’s good for the quality and level of these things that I’m trying to produce.

I think there’s a class of artists that are going to hang it up. People who aren’t going to be back after this. Some of the older artists and the more avant-garde players who weren’t playing too many gigs to begin with. They aren’t going to survive the big gap. And that’s bad.

The landscape of the Twin Cities is increasingly influenced by the success of some of the local colleges. The University of Minnesota, of course, but [the University of Wisconsin] Eau Claire continues to be a fantastic music school. And we have a functioning jazz record label, Shifting Paradigm Records. In the last three or four years, it has really come into its own.

We have a radio station [Jazz88.FM] that is still viable and playing jazz. We have people like you writing about our scene. We have the Jazz Police website. The Black Dog is coming back, Crooners is bigger and better than it ever was, and the Dakota is about to reopen. The cooperation between the Dakota and the Jazz Festival bodes well. The Jazz Festival pivoted into the digital domain and attracted more audience and more donations. This year, we’re limping through quasi-festivals, but next year it’ll be gangbusters.

And Jazz Central Studios figured out how to broadcast. They cooperated with a TV studio and got their technology together. Their [livestreamed] performances look and sound professional. They now have a funding pipeline and are presenting Friday and Saturday in perpetuity.

[At the Black Dog], we just did some refurbishing of the sound system. We’re investigating the possibility of some live broadcasting.

So I’m completely bullish.

MP: What does it mean to you personally to bring jazz back to the Black Dog?

SK: When it’s all said and done, I’m a mouse in charge of the cheese. The personal beauty of it, for me – and again, I’m a trumpet player – is I need to prepare for things in advance. I need to space them out appropriately. [I can] curate and cherry-pick when I’m going to appear. If I didn’t have that privilege, I would be waiting for the phone to ring. The series coming back means my power to orchestrate my own jazz career is back on the table.

I went to the Black Dog [two weeks ago], and there’s a place right next to the stage where there’s some drum equipment. It had cobwebs all over it. Not just a few, but almost like someone had sprayed fake ones for Halloween. It was covered in cobwebs. I was thinking – “Wow. The house kit is dismantled on the floor and covered with cobwebs.” It was weird.

MP: What do you want audiences to get out of seeing your shows?

SK: I want each show to represent the genre to the best of my abilities. A lot of people don’t know what jazz is, or have had bad experiences going to see jazz. I don’t want that to be the case. I want people who show up, even if they’re not aficionados, to understand that there’s something compelling going on here.

***

Saturday Night Jazz at the Black Dog will resume tomorrow night (Saturday, July 31) with an opening act (Jordan Anderson Quartet) at 8 p.m. and a headliner (Hoaxer) at 9:30 p.m. Admission is free, but plan to show some love to the tip jar, which is how the musicians are paid. Next Saturday, Aug. 7, will feature the Jerome Treadwell Quartet and Kjeer-King-Lincoln (Will Kjeer, Dave King, and Charlie Lincoln). Learn about more upcoming shows here.