Where jazz takes center stage: Club Saratoga maintains loyal following with Saturday music tradition
DULUTH — It's a strip club every night of the week, but for a couple hours every Saturday, it's all about that jazz at Club Saratoga.
Last weekend, neon signs and velvety curtains graced the walls of the Canal Park building. Twinkle lights hung behind the bar. By the pool table, a miniature bar scene with chipmunks, and near the bathroom, posters of mostly bare burlesque dancers.
On stage, John Thorene plucked the strings of the standing bass as Jeff Peabody pounded the drums and Paul Ierino hit the piano keys. Retired music teacher Scott Junkert walked around the metal dancing pole to his MalletKat vibraphone, which he skillfully struck with four mallets.
"This crowd is long gone before the girls' show," said jazz regular Fred Anderson.
Throughout the evening, he was seen dancing soft-shoe to the music, and called Saturday jazz "the best kept secret in Duluth."
For over 30 years, Club Saratoga has hosted local and regional musicians. Among them: Twin Cities artists Billy Franze (he played with Prince), Maurice Jacox, and locals Billy Barnard, Greg and Tanya Moore, Rich Mowers of Ekso.
Near the stage, Arlone Chapinski and Rich Williams glided in a fox trot on their makeshift dance floor. Chapinski has been a regular on Saturdays for the past 17 years, and on her table in the back sat a wooden sign: "Reserved for the jazz broads."
Chapinski said jazz regulars are "music people; they're listening to the music."
For Judy Shelton, Saturdays remind her of her mother, who always had Chicago jazz on the radio.
"She sang every word, so I know every word," she said. "I didn't get the voice, ... but I got my love of music from her."
On last week's lineup: "Take the A Train," "Moonglow," "Moon River," "Night and Day." As Junkert breathed the first three notes on his harmonica, Dan Fahland named that tune, "What a Wonderful World."
Fahland handles the jazz programming and the newsletter. On Saturday, he sat in the front row making set-list notes. Fahland knows well the songs and their film associations.
He has played piano since he was 7, and he's learned a lot from the Saratoga acts. All guests bring a different talent and flavor, he said. A group of top-notch musicians will have a different style and interpretation of the music, and that continues to leave an impression.
"I find that when I come home and start playing in my own living room that some of it sunk in and rubbed off."
Pianist Paul Ierino agreed.
He has been playing jazz every Saturday since 1986. You get better with the musicians who come in and work with you, he said.
Of the jazz trio, Ierino said today's group pays tribute to the original trio by honoring the format and the "old standard tunes" from the '40s, '50s and swing era. They play every week, but they don't rehearse — they don't need to. They've been playing for so long and they're good at improvising.
"We get along and have the same goals. ... As long as it's fun and I learn, we'll keep on playing," Ierino said.
For some music lovers, the strip club location causes apprehension. It did for Shelton, who heard about Saturday jazz long before she came to see for herself.
"We started coming, and I'm thinking, 'Oh, I hope I don't go to hell going into a strip club' because I'm Catholic. ... So, I walk in, and here's a whole table of Catholic ladies from St. Mike's Catholic Church, and I thought, 'Oh good,'" Shelton said.
And for some, the location was never a deterrent. "I used to come for the strippers before I ever came for jazz," said Diane Eck.
It's a safe destination in Canal Park; their biggest issue is parking, Fahland said, and the layout of the club supports live music.
"It's got carpet on the floor, it's got acoustic tile on the ceiling. It's got a fairly decent stage with a soffit around it that holds (and) separates sound," he said.
If you took what's going on there and put it elsewhere, it wouldn't work, Ierino said — and the time slot is optimal for the musicians and the crowd.
And the jazz crowd is an extended family.
"There are people in there that my parents knew, and my parents are both gone now," Fahland said. "These are folks that have been around for a long time, and they tend to look after each other."
On top of the camaraderie, the artform continues to feed those on and off stage.
Bass player Thorene said Ierino has missed only perhaps three Saturdays performing at the club. When you've found something you aspire to be, you put that on the forefront, Ierino said.
"Like any art that you endeavor to learn, the more you learn, the more you find out there's more to learn," he said.
The education and the mechanics of it continue to fascinate Fahland, who said jazz can be interpreted many different ways: "It is a language that you can use to express feeling to yourself or other musicians. ... It's freedom of expression, (and) it's never the same twice, so you better be listening."
If you go
What: Club Saratoga Jazz
When: 3-7 p.m. Saturdays
Where: 331 Canal Park Drive
More info: firstname.lastname@example.org