Planet Pickett

A gauntlet of black-and-white portraits of jazz luminaries lines the walls of the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant on the Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis. Nearly all of these musicians have appeared at the Dakota in one of its two incarnations. The trick with this sort of self-promotion-as-interior-decoration is in the execution. To do it right, a place needs to have attracted top-notch talent and established a unique rapport with artists over many years, to the point that the portraits themselves seem to address the wistful adage "If these walls could talk."

Veering left from the Dakota’s entry, the first portrait you see is of Joe Williams, the Count Basie Orchestra vocalist. Back in ’96, the then-seventy-eight-year-old Williams frolicked with unvarnished joy across the Dakota stage, delivering an unbelievably potent performance. Recalling that night in Richard Grudens’ book The Music Men, Williams said, "I don’t remember feeling that good. I think every pore in my body was open…. " The singer inscribed his Dakota portrait to the man most responsible for the club’s legacy-founder, co-owner, and frontman Lowell Pickett: "Lowell, Best. Love, Joe Williams."

Next in line is a similarly signed shot of Stanley Turrentine, a man of massive physique and a tenor saxophone tone to match. Many years ago, Wynton Marsalis and his band finished their concert at the Guthrie and hurried over to catch Turrentine’s final set at the Dakota, only to discover they’d arrived too late. No matter. Lowell (as he is known to most everyone) invited them in, convinced a cook to stick around and feed them, and the two bands ate and jammed in the empty club until two in the morning. Beside Turrentine on the wall is a picture of trumpeter Roy Hargrove. Lowell first met Hargrove at the 1989 Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy; he was the road manager for Moore By Four and Hargrove was still a teenager yet to release his first record. Since then, the Downbeat poll winner has performed at the Dakota on numerous occasions. "To Lowell, The most comfortable jazz club in the world for musicians and patrons. Peace + Love."

The tributes go on and on: nationally renowned jazz cat, pungent memory, heartfelt inscription. Finally, there’s McCoy Tyner, the pianist in John Coltrane’s legendary quartet who went on to become an influential dynamo in his own right. Tyner and Pickett were friends for more than a decade before Tyner became the Dakota’s first national jazz act in the fall of ’88.

Then the legacy jumps from the wall of portraits to the bandstand. It’s the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and for the eighth year in a row, that means hip, ironic trio The Bad Plus are playing the Dakota. Lowell introduces the group, wryly noting that the crowd is larger now than it was for the band’s first show at the club in 2000; also that the trio is fresh from a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall and an effusive write-up in The New Yorker. What he doesn’t say is that back in high school, before they even knew each other, two of the three Bad Plus musicians, pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Reid Anderson, were at the Dakota for that first McCoy Tyner gig.

Three weeks before The Bad Plus took the stage, the Detroit blues singer Bettye LaVette played her now-regular winter engagement at the Dakota. After decades of barely scraping by, LaVette’s career was finally showing a pulse when she got a call from Lowell. Four years later, LaVette sits in her dressing room after wowing the capacity crowd she now typically draws to the Dakota. She talks about "the night Lowell and I sat right here and talked until almost daylight. Oh, you should have heard us going back and forth from the ladies rest room that night! I’m threatening to burn down the bathroom because my picture isn’t in there. And he’s saying, ‘Well, let me get to know you better.’" LaVette lets out a big laugh, then suddenly gives me a no-bullshit look from behind her tinted glasses. "Lowell is just somebody I want to hang with. I do a million gigs a year and I don’t know any other club owner or any other promoter who I’d want to hang with."

Judging from his childhood and public mien, Lowell Pickett is one of the last people you’d expect to be earning hanging privileges and trading bathroom bon mots with a sassy, streetwise black woman from Detroit. He was born and raised in Austin, Minnesota, the Hormel company town where his father ran the local J.C. Penney and his mother was a music teacher and ardent cellist. Lowell was their third child and second son, reared in a quiet neighborhood, tucked away from the countercultural changes of the ’60s. Lowell’s folks were molded by the Depression, which meant that the family never ate out and pinched pennies to invest in education.

"My father grew up dirt-poor in the middle of North Dakota; at sixteen he had to find a place for his family to live. He couldn’t afford school, and used to read college catalogues the way other people read travel brochures," Lowell says, explaining how his dad gently coaxed him into attending Shattuck Academy, at the time an Episcopalian military school in Faribault (now most famous for such alumni as Marlon Brando and Nick Nolte), first for the summer and then for a year. When he graduated from Austin High in ’67-right in sync with the Summer of Love-he had already been accepted to St. Olaf College in Northfield. He planned to earn a law degree, and was considering a double major in business administration.

That careful, cultivated side of Lowell, now fifty-nine, can be seen as he introduces acts from the stage or roams the club troubleshooting. He’s almost always attired in a gray suit and matching tie, and his longish hair and short, graying beard are immaculately groomed. He’s a bit hangdog around the cheekbones and shoulder blades, but his voice has the dulcet, reassuring tone of an FM radio host. He can also display the unerring formality of a funky but ace maître d’.

But that’s the master disguise, the veneer of decorum acquired (and required) when you grow up in the sticks. A less obvious but more important side of Lowell is the dreamer and adventurer-the one who’s always ready to receive, or concoct, what the flamboyant reedman Rahsaan Roland Kirk once referred to as "Bright Moments." The moments when Joe Williams turns back the clock and breathes through every pore; when Turrentine and Marsalis are sharing a blues and some blackened fish in the wee hours; when McCoy Tyner passes a baton to The Bad Plus before the group even existed in the minds of its members.

This side of Lowell was kindled at St. Olaf, where he landed a roommate from Philadelphia. Lowell’s mother had made sure her children took piano lessons and w
ere steeped in the classics. Show tunes were also played around the Pickett household, and Lowell had ventured further, from the New Christy Minstrels into songwriting-oriented folkies such as Donovan, Tim Hardin, and his first musical hero, Bob Dylan. But this dude from Philly had been a drummer in a rock band back home and had an entirely different crate of sounds. "Cream and Moby Grape and the Grateful Dead and the Mothers of Invention," Lowell says, reverently rolling out the names. "I had never heard that stuff before. I just loved it."

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