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Sounds True: St. Paul Celebrates All Genres During Year of Music

Mayor Chris Coleman (center) w Solomon Parham (left) and Spencer Christensen (right)

Vieux Carr�

Music in Mears

Palace Theatre

 Saul Williams and Mivos Quartet at the James J. Hill Reference Library

In the 1970s and 80s, “The Minneapolis Sound” put the Twin Cities on the world’s musical map. The hybrid sound merged funk, pop, rock and synth, and was best known through the production work of Jimmy Jam and Terry Clark and, ultimately, hit the charts through the music of our dearly beloved and recently departed Prince. Minneapolis and music are intertwined. That emphasis continues to this day in a city that includes such venues as First Avenue, Orchestra Hall, MacPhail Center for Music and sundry other institutions. St. Paul, however, has just as much aural candy as its sister city—and that’s not just rivalry talking.

St. Paul’s tight-knit music community spans all levels of the industry. The city hosts McNally Smith College of Music, The Current and Minnesota Public Radio, Minnesota Music Coalition, Walker West Music Academy and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and venues including Amsterdam Bar & Hall, Turf Club, Xcel Energy Center and Roy Wilkins. Later this year, the Palace Theatre will be added to that list.

A 2015 economic impact study, Creative Minnesota, found that roughly 7 million visitors come to each city each year, in near equal numbers, to experience the arts. “We have similarly sized scenes,” says Joe Spencer, St. Paul’s director of arts and culture. In 2016 the City of St. Paul is letting those drums roll, proclaiming a citywide Year of Music.

The Year of Music is an awareness campaign highlighting St. Paul’s diverse music culture, from blues to hip-hop, rock and classical, across all spectrums of education, performance and business. “I think people are really jazzed about it, pun intended,” says St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. “A real key driver of our revitalization plan has been arts and culture across the city, including music.” Coleman made arts and culture an initiative when he took office in 2006. Now, the Mayor is shining a light on that accomplishment.

Renowned venues like the Fitzgerald Theater, Ordway Center for the Performing Arts and Turf Club have long been musical hubs, but the city has added new events including Music in Mears and Vieux Carré. The renovated Palace Theatre, a restored 2,800 capacity venue operated by First Avenue, is a large room where acts too big for First Avenue, but not quite arena-sized, can play in the Twin Cities. It will fill a hole in the local music scene by bringing in large touring productions that previously skipped Minnesota because there was no such space. “I think the Palace Theatre will be the premiere venue for concerts in the Twin Cities,” says Coleman. “It will be a real anchor to our music scene.”

“What we wanted to do with the Year of Music is take it to a new level to really celebrate our artists,” Coleman says. That includes youth learning instruments at Walker West Music Academy and teenagers at Central High School forming their first garage bands. “[Year of Music] is about promoting music as not just an economic driver but as something we want to invest in throughout the city.”

An enhanced common identity

Jarret Oulman has experience running music venues in both cities. His first venture, in collaboration with his dad Jon Oulman and additional partners, was the 331 Club in Minneapolis. The team has since added Amsterdam and Como Dockside in St. Paul. “A big reason Amsterdam is in St. Paul is because of this mayor,” says Jarret Oulman. Coleman’s team courted the Oulmans, put them in touch with downtown neighbors Big Table Studionow Hamilton Ink Spot—and Eclipse Records, and made sure the deal happened. The growth of arts and culture on the downtown block symbolizes the Mayor’s ambition to improve the city’s cultural development and demonstrates that the city is not in the shadow of Minneapolis.

“For better or worse, St. Paul has this little brother syndrome that is a chip on its shoulder,” Oulman says. That something-to-prove attitude is a blessing, he adds; one that brings neighbors together and creates strong bonds between St. Paul musicians. Year of Music celebrates that unity, and the commonalities between professional chamber music and hip-hop, youth music programs and a music college, blue grass and rock.

Year of Music also exists online, where interns, Spencer and Coleman are posting blogs and reviews of local events, and videos of Jeremy Messersmith and Dem Atlas performing from the under-construction Palace stage are available. “Stuff like that is calling attention [to Year of Music and] redoubling our efforts to celebrate the music scene,” Spencer explains. “People have responded and [are] maybe putting in a little extra effort to claim this as a better music town.”

In additional to St. Paul’s venue mainstays, Year of Music includes sundry new initiatives. Amsterdam is debuting its Wayfarer Series in pop-up venues throughout the city, such as in the Wabasha Street Caves. The first pop-up was a collaboration between Amsterdam, The Current, McNally Smith College of Music, the Knight Foundation Arts Challenge and Hamilton Ink Spot—all St. Paul entities working under a single banner to promote the initiative.

Other big moments in Year of Music include the Lowertown Blues Festival, Twin Cities Jazz Festival and the new Rhythm in Rice, an international series curated to unite the Twin Cities’ multicultural communities through music. Rhythm in Rice’s 11 free concerts will include music from Africa, East India/Asia, South America, Latin America and the U.S.’s Native American communities.

“Let’s take our identity and show off collectively, so we can have an enhanced common identity,” Oulman says of Year of Music. Adds Nate Kranz, general manager of First Avenue, Turf Club and the Palace, “St. Paul’s music scene is growing.” If nothing else, he continues, “It’s evident in the number of venues.”

Hitting on all genres

The expanded Ordway Center for the Performing Arts is further enhancing the city’s music scene and diversity, says Lindsey Thoreson Hansen, director of marketing and communications for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO). The Ordway’s new Concert Hall, she explains, which opened last year, “has dramatically expanded the musical offerings in downtown St. Paul.” With two large performance spaces now in the building, multiple performances can happen simultaneously, greatly increasing the number of people who may be coming to downtown St. Paul for an Ordway event.

“The classical music happening here is one of the major things that sets St. Paul apart from Minneapolis, as well as from other cities across the country,” Hansen continues. “Institutions like The Schubert Club, American Composer’s Forum, The Baroque Room, Studio Z and the SPCO just don’t exist in other cities and should be celebrated as organizations that contribute something unique to St. Paul’s music scene.

The Ordway now also provides greater availability for performing arts organizations and musicians to rent one of the spaces for performances. In addition to being the new downtown St. Paul home of the SPCO, the Concert Hall has hosted rock concerts, world music, choral performances, recitals and more, bringing a greater diversity of programming to the building. Moreover, The SPCO has teamed with the Liquid Music series, which partners with contemporary artists like Saul Williams, Devendra Banhart, Kid Koala and Poliça.

“Liquid Music is a concert series unlike any other among American orchestras,” says Kate Nordstrum, SPCO’s executive producer of special projects, who also founded, curates and produces Liquid Music. “The SPCO has established a new model for musical exploration that was championed at its inception by Mayor Coleman and Joe Spencer.”

“Their advocacy, attention, and the funding they approved through Cultural STAR were absolutely essential to laying the groundwork and building the series from a base of strength,” Nordstrum continues. “They understand what it takes to start something new and of world-class caliber. They encouraged Liquid Music's ideal incarnation. The impact goes so far beyond St. Paul.”

Oulman adds that beyond Year of Music, “There is development and there’s fertility for a lot more” to happen. “The Year of Music is a tool to recognize the development that arts and culture has experienced in the last decade. It’s real.”

Loren Green is a Minneapolis freelance writer who regularly contributes to City Pages, The Growler, Eater and Paste Magazine. He also helps run the music webzine Scene Point Blank.
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