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Thompson to present first Jazz Night in the Barn

By Ruth Nerhaugen, contributor

Noted jazz pianist Butch Thompson has put together a new program for his debut performance in the Anderson Center's newly restored historic barn.

"Jazz on the River," which will trace how jazz spread from New Orleans to St. Paul, will be presented at 7 p.m. Aug.17 at Tower View.

The Anderson Center and the Sheldon Theatre are jointly presenting the inaugural Jazz Night in the Barn.

Thompson has performed many times in Red Wing, most often at the Sheldon but also at a summer celebration several years ago, before the barn became a Red Wing venue.

A world traveler, he's well known in Minnesota for his 12 years as house pianist and bandleader on public radio's "A Prairie Home Companion," other acclaimed performances and his recordings.

It's been awhile since he played for a Red Wing audience, and even longer since he made an appearance at the Anderson Center.

"I'm looking forward to it," said Thompson, whose jazz expertise also includes writing, reviewing and hosting a radio show. "I'm going to do a fun thing."

He plans to start — musically — in New Orleans and work his way up the Mississippi River, the same way jazz musicians did on board the steamboats that traveled the river going back to the turn of the 20th century.

"A great deal of early jazz was played on the river," Thompson explained.

The story must begin in New Orleans, "the legendary birthplace of jazz," he said, and he will begin the tale with one of jazz's most significant early figures, Jelly Roll Morton. Born in New Orleans in 1890, Morton did not himself travel on the riverboats, but his music did.

"The steamers were loaded with jazz musicians," Thompson said. The Streckfus Line was well known for its excursions, which included short trips or evenings of dining and dancing on the river aboard steamboats that traveled from New Orleans to St. Paul.

Thompson said his presentation will include the story of Fate Marable, a Kentucky-born musicians who came to New Orleans and became music director for Streckfus at a young age. Among the best known musicians during Marable's tenure was Louis Armstrong, who played on riverboats for about three years before moving to Chicago.

Thompson also will share his memories of some musicians who told him about their experiences coming to the Twin Cities via riverboat.

He plans to make several "stops" at cities that were musically significant, including Memphis, home of W.C. Handy, "Father of the Blues," and Davenport, Iowa, where Bix Beiderbecke, self-taught jazz cornet player, was born.

Red Wing almost certainly would have been a river port where the excursion steamers stopped, Thompson said, making it an appropriate location for a concert focusing on the music of the river.

Although this concert won't be at the Sheldon, Sean Dowse, executive director of the historic theater, is excited to welcome Thompson back to Red Wing.

"It's a great opportunity for an intimate engagement with one of the great jazz artists of our time," Dowse said.

"This is the very first event of this kind we've ever done," Anderson Center director Robert Hedin said. "We could not have a selected a better person than Butch Thompson" to launch what sponsors anticipate will be an annual concert series.

Noting that "Jazz is not overly represented on the Red Wing music scene," Hedin added that the event also is planned to showcase the potential for concerts in the barn. "The acoustics in the barn, we have learned from other musicians and dance groups, are exceptional. ... That was an unexpected bonus" of restoring the building.

"It's a perfect combination" for the inaugural concert, he added — "having someone as acclaimed as Butch Thompson playing in the unique setting of the barn."

With a grand piano on site, officials are finding that the space is enhancing Tower View's ability to host a variety of events, from exhibitions and celebrations to readings and concerts presented by the Anderson Center including collaborations with the Sheldon.

Seating is limited, however. Tickets, which are $20, are being sold at the Sheldon Theatre box office. If space remains, they also will be sold the night of the concert at the door. Food and a cash bar will be available. Information is available at the Sheldon, 651-388-8700, or the center, 651-388-2009.

If you go...

Who: Pianist Butch Thompson

What: Jazz Night in the Barn

Where: Anderson Center, Highways 19 and 61

When: 7 p.m. Aug. 17

How much: $20

More info: 651-388-8700 or 651-388-2009