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'Immensely talented' Duluth guitarist dies at 59

A beloved fixture of the Twin Ports music scene, Mark Anderson also made headlines for surviving a 2017 fall off the Blatnik Bridge.

Guitarist Mark Anderson
Mark Anderson, circa 2012.
Contributed / Andrew Perfetti
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DULUTH — Mark Anderson, a Duluth musician who wrote and performed in many genres but was best known for his jazz guitar playing, died Saturday, March 5, at age 59. The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his wife, Connie Anderson.

"He was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic pancreatic cancer in August 2019," she said. "His doctor told him usually that's like 11 to 18 months, and he lived almost three years with it."

Anderson was a fixture of the Twin Ports music scene, often playing multiple nights a week at venues like Carmody Irish Pub and Izzy's BBQ Lounge in addition to weddings and other gigs. Alan Sparhawk of Low said that Anderson was "immensely talented," explaining that his playing had both "intensity and intent."

Aside from his musical fame, Anderson made headlines across the state in January 2017 when he survived a fall off the Blatnik Bridge . Driving on a slick coating of newly fallen snow, Anderson lost control of his pickup truck. The truck veered off the bridge and fell over 30 feet to the ground, landing on its tailgate.

Anderson also survived a 2015 house fire , helping Connie Anderson and her daughter get to safety as the flames spread rapidly. "Everybody thought he'd live through the cancer," said Connie Anderson, "because it seemed like he could live through anything."

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Born in 1962, Anderson grew up in the Twin Cities area and discovered a love of music early on as he watched family jam sessions featuring his grandfather, a fiddle player. According to a biographical statement Anderson wrote for his musical appearances, he started playing guitar, mandolin and banjo by ear at age 5.

Anderson "played in several garage bands during his high school years," reads the bio. "He also played professionally with a rock band called Halifax in his early 20s." He came to the Northland around that time, said Connie Anderson, initially to work as a guide for youth groups in the Boundary Waters.

In 1991, Mark Anderson enrolled at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where he would receive a Bachelor of Arts in jazz studies under storied instructor Billy Barnard. Anderson and his future wife met when he was playing jazz in the long running Saturday series at Duluth's Club Saratoga. "He could fit in with any band," said Connie Anderson. "Big bands, rock and roll bands. You know, he played guitar, he could play bass. He could play piano."

"He couldn't read music when he got to jazz guitar school," said Andy Perfetti, a fellow guitarist and close friend. "He taught himself how to read music while he was going through school, which is a little bit contrary to norm because usually you have to be able to do that to get in. Somehow he faked it 'til he made it."

Bassist Steve Garrington, a member of Low throughout the 2010s, said he started playing with Anderson when Garrington was about 20 years old. "Mark was a bit older than me," said Garrington. "Just observing how he played, with the love and the joy and the confidence in which he shared and expressed his music, was really beautiful and inspiring to me."

Garrington performed with Anderson often over the succeeding decades, spending "a number of years" as a member of the Mark Anderson Trio. "He was a big man and he had big hands," said Garrington. "It was amazing to see him play the guitar with these really huge hands and the way his fingers could span wide, wide gaps on the fretboard."

Connie Anderson remembered going into the Artists' Quarter, a since-shuttered venue in downtown St. Paul, with her husband one day when organist Billy Holloman was onstage. Holloman spontaneously asked Mark Anderson to play along, and "didn't give him any clues about anything," remembered Connie Anderson.

Holloman, she said, "just looked over at him, called the song, and started playing this crazy music. I just held my breath. I thought, 'Oh my God, how is he going to play along with that?' And (Mark) just listened for a second ... kind of, you know, picking a little bit, and then he was in it. And he was so amazing."

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Anderson "always had a smile on his face," remembered Perfetti. "Never took things too seriously. Had a really quick wit." He said the towering Anderson was "larger than life" in both "size and personality."

Mark Anderson's albums include "It's Only a Beverage" (1996), "Just a Cue Stick" (2002), "Mark Anderson Trio Live" (2010) and a holiday album, "Peas on Earth" (2012). He was both a composer and an accomplished interpreter of other songwriters' tunes.

"He would take songs from old jazz standards to stuff he wrote to songs by Stone Temple Pilots or Blondie and he would make his own jazz version," said Perfetti, who called Anderson a "genius" at jazz arrangements.

"He was so captivating, with his chording and his style," said Jason Wussow, proprietor of Wussow's Concert Cafe in Duluth. Wussow has fond memories of the release show for Anderson's Christmas album, which had "very deconstructed" versions of holiday numbers. "It's fun to watch people get a reaction when they figure out what song he's doing."

"Anderson is clearly a wonderfully talented guitarist whose non-plectrum approach gives him a clear and unique voice on his instrument," critic John Ziegler wrote in a News Tribune review of the 2010 live album. "His instrumental command places him in an elite group of the very finest guitarists in the area."

Connie Anderson said her husband became "a great stepfather" to her two daughters from a previous marriage. Perfetti is helping to organize a musical celebration of life that will take place at R.T. Quinlan's Saloon in Duluth, starting around 1 p.m. March 27.

Connie Everett, of Duluth, Mark Anderson's longtime girlfriend, pokes fun at Anderson
Mark Anderson and Connie Anderson (then Connie Everett) at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center's Neuro and Trauma Intensive Care Unit in Duluth after the Blatnik Bridge fall in 2017.
Bob King / File / Duluth News Tribune

Mark Anderson's work outside his musical career included, most recently, a job at Superior's Barko Hydraulics. He was driving to work there when he experienced the 2017 bridge fall. Connie Anderson remembered rushing into the emergency room when she heard her partner had been in an accident.

She found him lying on a stretcher wearing a neck brace, "and it's like, every doctor in that place was coming in to talk to him. He was his pleasant self, talking and stuff. He told me that he drove his truck off the High Bridge, and I just almost passed out."

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Borrowing an expression from gymnastics, Anderson told the News Tribune: "I stuck the landing."

READ MORE OBITUARIES
The Duluth Central graduate earned 23 varsity letters playing seven sports in the 1940s for the Trojans and was a member of the Super Bowl XIV officiating crew.

Related Topics: MUSICDULUTH
Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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