by Jeremy Walker   June 21, 2011

Our music columnist, Jeremy Walker, reflects on his complicated relationship with Minneapolis, his home for 38 years -- about feeling like a "jazz guy in a rock town," and how sometimes you have to move away from home to find your place.
Jeremy Walker - pianist and founder of Jazz is NOW! and a member of the NOWnet and the Small City
Jeremy Walker - pianist and founder of Jazz is NOW! and a member of the NOWnet and the Small City
Photo courtesy of the author

I AM NOT PRONE TO UNIVERSAL STATEMENTS, but I think everyone has a complicated relationship to their hometown. I know I certainly do. Like anyone, my hometown has been the arena for my bad decisions, regrets, failures, embarrassing moments. That's not important, though. I am not uniquely inept or unlucky. I am just alive, and like all of us who are alive, I do more stupid things than smart things.

I lived in Minneapolis until I was 38 -- twenty or so years longer than I intended. I won't go into the decisions and missteps that kept me there. Regret is boring to everyone except the regretter. Besides, my feelings about my hometown aren't so simple. I don't hate Minneapolis by any stretch; nor do I wish I came from somewhere else. It would be kind of nice if I felt otherwise, because hate and regret are luxuriously straightforward and pure, and so they give a clear narrative line. But such a story line would be false.

It would also be false to write about all the things I miss. The fact is, I don't miss that much. I miss some terrific people, but I still see them -- almost as much as I ever did -- because I come home to see my son nearly every month. I do miss the summers. I tell people out here in New York that summers in Minnesota are like being drunk, or in love. The winter is so terrible, that summer is heady and celebratory. I miss biking everywhere (a love for bikes is something I can definitely trace to my hometown). But I don't miss much else.

Except the beer. New York, or at least Manhattan, has lousy beer, but at least it is expensive.

The fault isn't with Minneapolis. Even while living there, I grew up remote from what was happening. In my mind, I was living in New York, and a fictional New York at that. I loved jazz and assumed everyone else did, too. If I saw someone with an instrument, I assumed they either played jazz or aspired to, unless, of course, they played classical music. My mom listened to John Denver and Jim Croce. My dad listened to a lot 20th-century classical music. Public radio was on all the time, and on Friday nights I listened to Leigh Kammon and The Jazz Image. I didn't go to First Avenue until I was 30, I am embarrassed to admit. I didn't want to go, and I didn't enjoy it when I finally did. I sincerely regret this. I missed out on something that was happening right under my nose. Once, I met Paul Westerberg at Anderson Cadillac, where my Granddad worked. I had no idea who he was. My friends at school were horrified at my ignorance when I mentioned I had met "some rock guy".

It's not that I think my life should have taken a different course, or that I missed something vital by opting out of more "current" music. On the other hand, if I had been more aware of that scene, I probably would have understood some things better. I still miss a lot of the cultural references that most musicians my age share: electronic music, heavy metal, prog rock, punk, all of it. It's just that, for years, I felt like a jazz guy in a rock town, and that was a source of tension for me.

And that sense of how I fit in Minneapolis (or not) became part of the central narrative thread in the story I developed for myself, which went something like this: a) Minneapolis is a rock town; b) I am jazz guy; c) I failed to see this and tried to be a purely jazz musician in rock town; and so, d) hard things happened. Only (b) and (d) turn out to be fully true.. Maybe it is inevitable. My hometown became the scapegoat, central metaphor, and point of origin for everything that bothered me for 20 years. To be sure, a lot of hard things happened there. And certainly, there is a lot jive being proffered under the banner of music and art in the Minneapolis music scene. But how is that unique? And isn't this a rock world? Surely, Minneapolis, alone, doesn't own that.

There is a lot I like about living in New York. I love the access I have to great jazz every night. There is more here than anywhere, of course, and I love the history of the music that is around every corner. It does seem that jazz is a more native sound here. And I feel like I fit in a little better. But that is probably true for anyone who lives in New York, really. There is so much of everything here, that if you can't find your "scene" you are probably just not looking.

There is a lot I don't like about living in New York, as well. It is too expensive, for one thing, and the city itself isn't nearly as cool as so many here seem to like to think (and more irritatingly, say, loudly and frequently). New York smells bad in the summer, and it takes forever to get even mundane tasks done around here.

But, for me, New York is redemptive. No, that's too strong -- it is clarifying. And I don't think it is the city which is doing the clarifying, I think it is the moving here. As much time as I spent here before fully relocating last year, there is something about day-to-day leaving-homeness of living here that is, of necessity, fundamentally different from visiting. Away from the insulating familiarities and pleasant diversions of home, when you move to a new town, what you're left with is just you.

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All artists and artisans, inventors and thinkers, workers and farmers -- all of us who believe in aspiration, ultimately are expressing a belief in the worthiness of doing something even against a backdrop of indifference.

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All art is, on some level, about confrontation. What confrontation is more primary than the one you have with yourself?

Leaving my hometown has put me alone in the room with what I can offer, on the one hand, and all that I will never be able to offer, on the other. I am only the musician I am, with the promise of what that can become with work. The setting has something to do with that, I am sure, but I can't say what. All the platitudes you hear, about being a tiny fish, and about all the great musicians in New York, and all the difficulties you run into trying to make it here... those things have nothing on the  challenge of confronting yourself: dealing forthrightly with your limitations and having the courage to say something with your own accent.

And more than that, the clarifying that comes with moving away from home -- the real test -- lies in the unselfconscious belief in the merit of doing something well for its own sake. You get to where you can leave the outcome, the question of a broader acceptance of your work, to time and circumstance. All jazz musicians -- no, all artists and artisans, inventors and thinkers, workers and farmers -- all of us who believe in aspiration, ultimately are expressing a belief in the worthiness of doing something even against a backdrop of indifference.

I enjoy coming back to Minneapolis, seeing the people, drinking the best beer anywhere. I love leaving a Twin Cities club at closing, and getting on a bike to ride home in the cycling contingent's post-bar rush hour. I like the fact that I grew up on MST3K long before the rest of the country got it. And I love the city's underground, supposedly marginalized musicians who continue to fight to make great music despite it all (although that is the case everywhere).

My hometown is part of who I am -- I not sure what part, but it is there. I am glad I left it, and I am, at the same time, surprised that I'm starting to miss it sometimes.

A related postscript: I had intended to review Joined at the Hip: A History of Jazz in the Twin Cities by Jay Goetting (Minneosta Historical Press, 2011). I've decided I am not going to, though. Pamela Espeland already wrote a good piece on it here, and it's impossible for me to do a legitimate review of something so tangled with my own history. However, I did enjoy reading it, and if you have even a passing interest in Twin Cities nightlife you should pick it up. There are some omissions, maybe even some glaring ones; for example, I think the author could have taken a harder look a race and racism in Twin Cities music history. He does mention race and racism, but without questioning its aesthetic impact on the scene as a whole. That said, no book is perfect, and this one doesn't pretend to be an exhaustive cultural history. The subject of race and the history of Minnesota's music scene is out there though, just simmering and waiting for someone to turn up the heat; I think about it a lot, but I don't know quite how to take it on. What does stand out in Goetting's book is admirable: the resilience of jazz and the people who play it. The Twin Cities never did really have a jazz scene, not in the sense that there was ever any possibility of making a living at it. But there were and are musicians committed to playing, regardless. For that message alone, the book is welcome and worthy.

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About the author: Jeremy Walker is a composer/pianist based in New York. He has performed with Matt Wilson, Vincent Gardner, Wessell Anderson, Marcus Printup, Ted Nash, Anthony Cox and other notable musicians. He was the owner of the now defunct club, Brilliant Corners and co-founder of Jazz is NOW! in Minneapolis. In April 2011, Walker stepped down as Artistic Director of Jazz is NOW! to focus Small City Trio in Minneapolis and several new projects in New York. Small City Trio just released their first album, a collection of original songs by Walker called Pumpkins' Reunion, available digitally on iTunes.