The history of the Twin Cities' best jazz club circa 1977-2013.
Interview: Davis Wilson (March 2006)
If you know the Artists' Quarter, you know Davis Wilson. The man at the door, but much more. When the Star Tribune recently called the AQ “the jazz club that actually feels like a jazz club,” I'm sure they had Davis in mind when referring to the “charming old-timers.” His wit, charm, and occasional rant have long endeared him to many of us. On occasion of his upcoming birthday (his 70th), I sat down and interviewed Davis to share just a bit of his back story with you.
Davis Wilson was born on March 5, 1936, in Tampa, Florida. After growing up in Florida, he went into the Navy to serve his country and see the world.
Davis, what was it like growing up in Tampa?
Grew up very poor. My father was a cop. Died when I was nine. Had no pension to speak of. The bad thing about that was I never learned how to handle money. I never learned how to get rich. Save money, make compound interest. Save that, make some more. We always spent whatever we could get a hold of.
Tampa's a trilingual city. Spanish, Italian, English. There was a newspaper published in all three languages. Back then that was unusual. There was lots of Spanish spoken and a fair amount of Italian, too. They had a lot of great Italian and Spanish restaurants. It was the world center of the hand-made cigar industry.
The best thing about it was, we knew, when we were little, everybody in the neighborhood. We could go in and out of the all the houses in the neighborhood. It was like a big extended family.
Baseball was plentiful. We'd go down to spring training and hang around the field. Also, in those days we would mow lawns on Saturday to get enough money to go to the movies.
We played sports. That was before television, no jet planes. Cars looked funny and didn't go very fast. There were streetcars and buses. It was a whole different world.
Got a scholarship in high school despite my lousy grades. Florida State. Ran into difficulties up there. Living pretty thin, didn't have a lot of money. Finished the first semester, got tossed out the second semester. Came back home, worked at a few jobs, went into the Navy.
Tell me about the Navy. I'm thinking about the controversy surrounding US involvement in armed conflicts today. What was the mood like when you joined? This is pre-Viet Nam, so I'm guessing things were quite a bit different.
Going into the Navy in those days was a good thing. You were still much loved. It wasn't that much after World War II.
I was in during Eisenhower's time in office. The Secretary of State was John Foster Dulles, who followed a policy called brinkmanship. Allowed everything to go up to the brink. Brink of conflict, brink of war.
The Navy got me the GI bill. I got in just before the Korean war ended. So that qualified me as a Korean Vet.
They shipped me to San Diego. I'd never been in California before. It was a long train ride, but I'd ridden a lot of trains already. Lots of railroad men in my family. It's a family tradition. I hear that's the best job around right about now.
I went through boot camp in San Diego. I ended up getting out of it. Took a job as a RADAR-man. I found out later it's very much a sea-going rate. There's not much call for RADAR-men on land. So I was basically at sea for four years.
I saw snow for the first time when I was in the Navy. I flew from San Diego to Chicago. Stepped off the plane at O'Hare into fourteen inches of snow.
You told me before how you kept missing your first ship because of how the Navy worked then, how they weren't always very organized. What did you end up doing while waiting to get back on your ship?
Shore Patrol. Military police for the Navy, like the MP. I caught a lot of Shore Patrol duty. The worst one was in Kaohsiung – they had the most beautiful girls there and I caught Shore Patrol. These girls come out and tease you and tickle you because they know you're on Shore Patrol.
Served four years in the Navy. 54 through 58. Signed up just under the umbrella of the Korean war. Just got out before they started to freeze enlistments due to Viet Nam. I got out a month early. I was sweating it, because they were about to freeze discharges due to Viet Nam. But they didn't stop me.
What did you do with yourself after getting out of the Navy?
After the Navy I had this girlfriend in Seattle. So I went up there. Then that broke up. I was broken hearted over that. I was thinking about marriage.
In those days money went a lot further. I had a little windfall. Back Pay from the Navy. I gave her a little money, got on a bus, went down to San Francisco.
Came to San Francisco in 1958 or 1959. The beat thing was just starting to happen, so I hung around for a few minutes. The coffee shops, cheap places to live were easy to find. At the Black Cat Coffee Shop you could get breakfast for a dollar.
Went down to El Paso, stayed with a friend. Worked in a store about a block from the border with Juarez. In those days I carried a conga drum around with me in a Navy duffel bug.
How did people react to that?
They didnt mind. I could sit in with a lot of musicians. I hadn't played the piano in years, so that's all I could play. I would sit in with my Conga drums.
Came back to Tampa, my home town, after that.
So how did you end up in Minnesota?
That's a long story. That's two marriages worth of stories.
My wife at the time was originally from Minnesota. When she was nine years old, her father moved the family to Miami. She grew up in Miami and hated it.
Got married to her, lived in Tampa for a while. Came up here on a vacation, I loved it. We were getting ready to come back, driving around Summit Avenue or something, and she started crying. She hated the idea of leaving here. So I said, “why don't we move up here?”
We came back on another vacation, this time bringing our daughter with, looking around for places to stay. We came up one more time, this time to seriously house hunt. We settled on a couple of things. That was about 1989 when I moved them up here.
When I first met you, you worked at a paper mill.
Yeah, it's Rock-Tenn paper mill now. All the jobs I've had I got through a newspaper ad, oddly enough.
Started out in the lab. Where they test paper. They have this whole pneumatic tube system like department stores used to have. Every set of paper they'd make, they'd send us a sample and we'd test it to make sure it had the right characteristics. Every time they'd run some kind of product and something would change, we would test it. The brightness of the surface, the bond, etc.
When I started on that it paid about minimum wage. But the guys over in the mill were getting about 12 bucks an hour for the same job. So one day I went down to the union, got signed up, got the other people (about six of us) to vote for the union and our pay went right up to about 12 bucks an hour overnight.
I got bumped out so I went to work in the corrugated mill. Making cardboard out of corrugated paper. Started out cutting bundles then driving the forklift. Bale checker. Had to cut the wires on the bales so it didn't fall apart.
Eventually they eliminated the bale checker job so the forklift drivers had to do it themselves. We'd jump up and cut the bales while putting the paper on a conveyor built. A lot of guys got hurt doing that.
This one foreman thought I wouldn't last four days. Said I was his hero. Wound up working that job about eight years.
How did your involvement in the local music, art, poetry scene come about?
It started at Copernicus. That's what the Black Dog was called then. Nelson Paguyo owned it. It was very dimly lit. I told him the first time I met him, I said, “Nelson, this reminds me of the old beat coffee houses. You should get some music and poetry down here.” Eventually it became one of the hotspots for jazz around here. This was before the Artists' Quarter, there was nowhere else to play around here. A lot of guys started playing at Copernicus that have since gone on to better things.
When did that turn into going to the Artists' Quarter?
I had known of its existence before, but it was gone before I moved up here. It stopped before I got here. When I came up in around 1989 it wasn't around yet. Rudy's had a place there. Really bad go-go dancers or something. Really weird place. I'd go down there once in a while to hear Rick Aguilar sing Mustang Sally. He loves to sing rock and roll. I'd go there a couple of times. And then it suddenly turned into the Artists' Quarter and I went down there when I could.
I hung out with Joe Banks and Jimmy Kirschner. I met Joe at the AQ. I knew Jimmy from Copernicus.
Byron (Nelson, ex-AQ bartender) was working the bar a lot then. A lot of other people came and went then. Lots of different servers. Paula (Cisewski, still a friend of the club) was the mainstay. Jerry owned it before Kenny (Horst) got it.
The AQ was a whole other chapter. That came up later. I started hanging out there more. I'd be there almost every night of the week, when I wasn't working.
I mentioned to you that I just randomly one day walked up to Kenny and asked him if he needed help with a website. Is that how it was with you?
I had been going to the AQ for a while before I started talking to Kenny. I was very shy about it. Kenny probably got to know Joe and Jimmy and me at the same time.
It's kinda weird to hear you say you're shy about it.
At some point I got to know Kenny and got to talking to him. Barbara used to do the door back then, but then she left. Finally about the time I retired I started working the door at the AQ.
What did you do for fun when you weren't at the AQ?
I worked. That job at the paper mill was 24/7. It was Waldorf Paper in those days, before Rock Tenn took it over. It would involve sometimes working a sixteen hour shift if your relief didn't show up.
Didn't have a whole lot. I was very broke in those days. I was separated from my wife and I still gave them most of my paycheck every week. They were still on my insurance.
You and I talk a lot about the old slow nights when it'd be just you, me, and Mike, in there to see somebody great like Bobby Peterson. Wondering, where are all the people?
Yeah, there wasn't really a big draw on nights like that. Though, Robert Smith, the football player, loved Bobby. He'd come down there on Thursday nights with a girlfriend and drink his Courvoisier.
Holloman's organ night was like that at first too. Holloman would make collard greens, sometimes chicken and dumplings, other things. Byron would make four alarm chow mein, pretty dangerous stuff. Eventually people figured out about the free food and the people started coming in. Everybody pigged out.
What about open mic night? Were you in the scene at all?
Yeah, I participated in that a little bit. Paula invented it; pestering Kenny until he gave her a night. And then making it work. Huge job. It was generally for poets. I'm an inveterate performer – I never read my own stuff. But I'd read other peoples poems. Some E. E. Cummings or T.S. Elliot or whatever.
At first there were two people there for poety night -- Paula and maybe somebody else. Then I'd show up and we'd be the crowd. After a while it got really big. It'd be crowded on poetry night! I'd emcee it once in a while.
You're turning 70. By my estimation, that means you've got about another thirty years to go. What are you going to do with that time?
Whatever time I've got left, I need to do... I tell myself I need to do some writing. I have great difficulty doing it. I'd like to get back to the poetry some more. I'd like to get back to the music. Travel. Go to as many places as I can. Try to figure out a little beauty to put back in the world. That's the only thing that counts. Nothing else matters.