On a recent Saturday, the jazz venues in downtown St. Paul were filled with what looked like local ensembles.
At Vieux Carré, a band named Vector Families was holding forth. The quartet is led by drummer Dave King, globally renowned as the timekeeper for the Bad Plus — but that’s merely the top item on his impressive résumé of associations.
Performing alongside King was Anthony Cox, a bassist touring this summer with saxophone great Joe Lovano. Cox has appeared on numerous records with other universally acknowledged masters of their instruments, including guitarist John Scofield and soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. Plus he has four nationally released albums under his own name.
In Lowertown at the Black Dog Café, trumpeter Steve Kenny introduced a song by John Coltrane by noting that the drummer behind him, Eric Kamau Gravatt, had played extensively with Coltrane’s pianist McCoy Tyner. Not incidentally, Gravatt was also the original drummer in the beloved fusion jazz group Weather Report.
At least since the heyday of bebop music 70 years ago, the world’s undisputed mecca for ambitious jazz musicians has been New York City. But there are those who take the alternative route of establishing themselves in New York before returning to their roots on the frozen tundra, enriching the local scene by their reputation and expertise.
“I feel incredibly fortunate to have the best of both worlds, being part of the New York jazz community without living in New York,” said King, who cites Bill Frisell (Seattle), Ambrose Akinmusire (Oakland) and Joshua Redman (Berkeley) as musicians on similar paths.
King credits his success to a gamble he made to “come at New York from the outside,” by building his reputation via non-New York ensembles rather than following the typical course of hustling for freelance gigs and connections within the city.
“We committed to the group idea with Happy Apple, and the Bad Plus followed that model,” he said, referring to a pair of trios comprising Minnesotans and Wisconsinites. Both projects made enough of a national splash for King to pick and choose his side projects when he moved to New York City.
He moved back to the Twin Cities more than 11 years ago. Here, he said, “I am able to provide my kids with a nice education and upbringing for a lot less money and stress.”
He still gets calls about New York gigs from people assuming that he lives in the city. He frequently commutes by plane for shows.
He revels in being a cultural conduit for other Midwesterners, most recently on behalf of Vector Families guitarist Dean Granros, a locally fabled veteran who was given raves by the New York media when the ensemble played there last year.
“It helps that I’m from the Twin Cities, which is almost universally regarded as a very hip place,” King said. “It’s a midsize city with good health care, good politics, good seed layers of complexity in our arts. The creative class in New York knows that and respects it.”
‘Means to survive’
Jazz artists such as Cox and Gravatt have even more practical reasons for their residence here. After a decade of living in New York City and then briefly upstate in Woodstock, N.Y., Cox said, he moved back in 1991 “as a lifestyle decision.” He had started getting as much work overseas as in New York. And, as an only child, he realized his parents were getting older.
“People think the road is glamorous, but after 10 or 15 years, it is the road,” he said. “To come back to normalcy after long trips really appealed to me.”
For a long time, locals didn’t even know he was back in town; first it was the constant travel, then caring for his parents, who died two years apart in the late aughts. Cox took teaching jobs to stay closer to home. After his parents died, “I started reconnecting with people I knew around here, and it felt good.”
It helped that because of his reputation, “anytime I wanted to play out somewhere, like at the [now defunct] Artists’ Quarter, I could.”
Cox feels a slight pang for his old New York haunts — “Manhattan was really dirty when I lived there; now it is as clean as St. Paul,” he marveled — but claims that “in terms of convenience and what’s around, the quality of life here is really good.” A busy touring schedule with Joe Lovano and other prominent artists doesn’t hurt, either.
As for Gravatt, his decades in the Twin Cities are wrapped in parental sacrifice. He came to Minneapolis in 1974 to join the band Natural Life shortly after splitting from Weather Report. The group didn’t make it, but Gravatt found work locally and nationally — he recorded an album with Tyner in Berkeley, Calif., in 1977 — until the day in 1979 he learned that his wife was pregnant.
It was time for a gig with health insurance. Gravatt took a job as a prison guard in Lino Lakes, putting his musical career on hold for 21 years before retiring in 2001. Asked if he regrets it, he didn’t hesitate. “Not at all. I saw it as a means to survive.”
That was especially true after Gravatt’s wife died in the late 1980s. Their children were 4 and 9 years old. He didn’t remarry for another 24 years, always tinkering with his music when he could, but bringing home that steady paycheck while he rose to lieutenant in the Department of Corrections before his enforced retirement at age 55.
Gravatt went back on tour with McCoy Tyner in 2004 and even relocated back to his native Philadelphia for a while. But he acknowledged that “my participation in the music business has always been rather insular.” Some arrogance in his youth, the long hiatus and his steely independence have made it difficult for his long-standing band, Source Code, to gain much traction nationally.
He is probably best described as a sporadic fixture on the local jazz scene since moving back to the Twin Cities about a decade ago, where he helps care for his three grandchildren. Source Code has often appeared at Jazz Central, and Gravatt occasionally gigs with younger, adventurous musicians such as bassist Adam Linz and guitarist Dean Magraw, with whom he recorded an album two years ago.
Gravatt still draws raves from his stellar peers. Tyner calls him “a fantastic musician” and the august saxophonist Wayne Shorter says Gravatt has a special “bounce.” Shorter, who played with Miles Davis before founding Weather Report, remembered: “Eric was the one. Miles wanted him, but he came with us in Weather Report.”
And Gravatt keeps the eyes of die-hard jazz fans peeled on music calendars for venues around town. He will play with the group Bottomless Pit at St. Paul’s Black Dog on April 29 and is known for booking on short notice.
“Eric Gravatt, man, he has been a teacher to me — I learned so much just from watching him play,” King said excitedly. He was only able to get that visual tutorial because Gravatt was in town. A new generation of jazz drummers is sure to say the same about King in years to come.
Britt Robson is a Minneapolis freelance writer.