Composer, pianist and the curator of Minnesota Orchestra's new "Jazz in the Target Atrium" series, jazz columnist Jeremy Walker on artistic success, failure and the challenge of pushing ever forward.
December 31, 2014

Photo: Frank Stewart, courtesy of Minnesota Orchestra

On Tuesday, December 2, I had the great honor of launching Jazz in the Target Atrium, performing with Ted Nash, Marcus Printup, Vincent Gardner (in town with the Jazz @ Lincoln Center Orchestra), Anthony Cox, and JT Bates. It was the inaugural night of what I hope will be a long-running series at Orchestra Hall.  The President and CEO of Minnesota Orchestra Association and Osmo Vanska showed great support and trust in allowing me this opportunity. Wynton Marsalis offered the night’s opening remarks as well as his full support for what we’re trying to do. (You can read about the rest of the series here.)

I am so grateful for all of it. It is a remarkable experience to play your own music on a lovely Steinway in front of a packed house, with your friends, heroes, and peers either on the bandstand with you or in the audience. The connection between those of us on stage and between the players and the audience was familial.  And the music, the feeling of both hearing and playing it that night in early December, was transcendent. What Anthony, Ted, Marcus, JT, and Vincent can bring to a bandstand represents the finest kind of in-the-moment artistry.

But like all successes, our opening night in Orchestra Hall’s Target Atrium also issued a challenge -- a challenge to all of us to stay committed to this great music, even when it’s an uphill battle too often weighed down by discouragement.  Even when it is snowing and cold. Even when the news in our culture is all bad, and it seems that the distance between ourselves and our fellow human beings is growing vaster and more unbridgeable with every election, grand jury, and financial statistic. The night’s success challenges me to continue to push, to discover and improve. When I look back at all the hours of practice I have put in, sometimes it has seemed like that should be enough.  But it isn’t. Not by a long shot.

Jeremy Walker (Photo: Jeff Freeland Nelson)

The reality of being a musician now (and maybe always) is you have to develop your own scene. You have to develop your music, your aesthetic, and -- especially challenging -- your audience. Even Mozart and Duke Ellington had to be entrepreneurial. Successful artists have to be willing to take creative and personal risks to get a shot at having their work heard. That is the imperative. My dad has worked for and with entrepreneurs for 40-plus years (and is one himself), so I come by this view naturally I suppose.  The fact is if you want to do your own thing, you are engaged in an entrepreneurial pursuit and, like it or not,  you have to develop your own way to get your work out there. The closing of venerable clubs and the loss of grants to others, or the lack of viable venues doesn’t excuse inaction but rather places the greater burden on action -- personal action.

I approached the Minnesota Orchestra with the idea of presenting jazz in their atrium out of dissatisfaction, discontent with the scene and especially with my own career. I am looking for ways to get the message of this music out. I’m grateful beyond words for the opportunity to do so, but restless, too. The truth is I never wanted to have to work this hard. I am happiest in little insider clubs, playing piano, learning standards, hanging with the cats. But that time is passing. Maybe it’s already passed. But the music lives on and it needs champions who’ll find new ways to present it. I don’t want to hear anymore about mourning the Artists’ Quarter.  I don’t want to hear about how much my own club, Brilliant Corners, is missed. I have no opinion on the Dakota and its non-jazz booking practices. It’s over, and all the missing in the world won’t bring the old scene back. It’s been said many times before, but it bears repeating:  if all the people who protest the passing of a thing instead patronized the place when it was open, there would be no cause for mourning. For want of a nail, the roof sags, and what has been done must be done again.

Music is always a question of the future anyway. I think the past exists to inspire and to teach, but it is so easy to be ensnared by nostalgia. Looking ahead, and dreaming about what can happen in the Target Atrium, I see hope, and vast amounts of work in the continuing struggle to bring music to a public that sometimes needs to be persuaded anew to care. (But let’s not forget that, despite all the challenges, people do care about music and their community).

I am not unique in making this effort. I think of Zacc Harris and all that he puts into The Bridge series at Jazz Central and Shifting Paradigms Records.  I think about Steve Kenny and his indefatigable work at the Black Dog and with the Twin Cities Jazz Sampler.  I think of Adam Meckler and all the sweat he’s put into his big band - composing for it, booking it, and getting it recorded. All of them offer a resonant answer to the cynicism and complacency that plague culture.

Isn’t that the fundamental duality of human life and art? We are frustrated and hopeful, tired and yet undaunted, grateful and angry, connected and still apart. We celebrate achievement and, at the same time, we double down, increasing our efforts. We want to stay in because it cold and snowy, but we go out regardless. And we listen, becoming in the process hopeful and connected and determined -- only to fight through it all again.

Related event information:

The next Jazz in the Target Atrium event is January 22 at 8 p.m. and will feature New York-based pianist and composer, author and bandleader David Berkman in performance with the Atrium Jazz Ensemble.

Jeremy Walker (known to many as “Boot”) is a prolific composer and pianist who started playing the saxophone at age ten in Minneapolis. In 2005, illness (recently diagnosed as late stages Lyme disease) forced Walker to stop playing the saxophone; he turned to piano and composition earning accolades including a Jerome Foundation Travel/Study grant and collaborations with Alvin Ailey alumni, TU Dance, and Zenon Dance Company. He has performed with Vincent Gardner, Marcus Printup, Ted Nash (all with Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra); Wessell “Warmdaddy” Anderson (Wynton Marsalis), Anthony Cox (Stan Getz, Joe Lovano), Ron Miles (Bill Frisell), Matt Wilson (Dewey Redman and Jazz at Lincoln Center) and other notable musicians. After some years living in New York, Walker moved back to Minneapolis in 2012 to be close to his son, Sam. In 2014, Walker released 7 PSALMS, a suite for solo voice, choir, saxophone, piano, bass, and drums, available on cdbaby and iTunes.  Walker is currently serving as Curator and Music Director of Jazz at the Target Atrium at Orchestra Hall.  Find more information here and at

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