As the Black Dog Café prepared to close last month after 23 vibrant years, Steve Kenny went looking for a new place to showcase jazz in downtown St. Paul.
What he found was an old and very familiar place with a new name.
“The idea of a basement jazz venue is almost a cliché,” the trumpeter and talent booker said, “but this particular one has an undeniable mystique.”
Kenny was talking about the underground space now occupied by KJ’s Hideaway, where Vieux Carré, and the Artists’ Quarter before it, hosted live jazz for two decades.
Named after its new owners Kristen and Jeremy Siers, KJ’s has been open since September but has been slow to catch on due to omicron and the usual winter lull for music venues.
Because of the new name, the club is also a bit hidden. It’s housed in the basement of the historic Hamm Building, beneath Park Square Theater and the Loon Café, and across the W. 7th Place plaza from the Palace Theatre.
Of course, regular patterns of the AQ and/or Vieux Carré will know exactly where it’s located. Kristen and Jeremy Siers were among those regulars.
“We just loved the space so much and all the great music we saw down there,” Jeremy explained. “We hated to see it sitting empty.”
After becoming empty-nesters and moving to downtown St. Paul four years ago, the Sierses fell in love with Vieux Carré, run by the same team as the Dakota in Minneapolis. After the supper club shut down in June 2019, the couple decided to try running the space despite having no experience in the music business.
They actually came close to taking it over in early 2020, but then COVID hit. After waiting out the pandemic, Jeremy said, “We missed the place even more.”
“There’s just something exciting about going down the stairs, turning the corner and being surprised to see what’s in there,” Kristen said. “It’s like you leave all your stress and all your junk at the door once you get down in there.”
In the interest of not messing with a good thing — and because they both still hold down steady sales and marketing day jobs with industrial companies — the Sierses didn’t do much updating to the space.
There’s some new KJ’s signage, plus a new food menu featuring what they called “simple comfort food” (paninis, soups, wraps, appetizers). Otherwise, the place looks and feels the same, with candlelit tables and the large wraparound bar all facing the roomy stage and its grand piano. Like before, there’s enough space to host 100 to 150 people.
One thing the Sierses are experimenting with is different music bookings, including bringing in country, blues and rock acts. Hailey James hosts a songwriters night for twangers every first Thursday of the month. Among blues acts, Joyann Parker has been a repeat headliner, while Iowa’s Avey Grouws Band is due March 18. Americana rockers Maygen & the Birdwatcher will perform March 19. There’s also an open mic night every Wednesday.
Still, the couple said they will be happy if jazz can remain the flagship music at KJ’s.
They have aligned with the Twin Cities Jazz Festival to be a host venue in June. They are also starting to work with former AQ owner and drummer Kenny Horst, who’s due to return there with his band April 8.
Most significantly, the Sierses have handed over every Saturday night to Steve Kenny to book jazz acts, and nothing but. This weekend he’s bringing in locally adored trio Fat Kid Wednesdays, with bassist Adam Linz, drummer JT Bates and saxophonist Michael Lewis. Another reputable band, Red Planet (with Dean Magraw, Bill Carrothers, Chris Bates and Jay Epstein), is scheduled March 26.
Kenny said the Saturday jazz nights have proven popular so far, which he credits to both musicians’ and fans’ love of the old space.
“I’m enough of a believer to think jazz deserves to be booked on a Saturday night at one of the nicest venues with one of the best pianos in town, and not in a corner at a coffee shop on a Tuesday,” Kenny said . “This is the right place.”
Hours: 5 pm-midnight Wednesdays-Sundays.
Where: 408 St. Peter St., St. Paul.