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Local View: Not jazzed about end of 30-year tradition

Hundreds of music fans showed up on Nov. 24 for the final jazz set at the Club Saratoga in Canal Park. After 30 years, and with only a few days' notice, this weekly musical offering came to an end.

Jazz at the Saratoga was more than just a happening: It was a bright thread in the tapestry of Duluth's cultural life. It was a community, open to any music lover who walked through the door, no reservation required. Regular attenders established ties over the years that made them friends, even family.

Gerri WilliamsAt a time when so much entertainment is created, canned, and packaged by giant, distant production companies, jazz at the "Toga" was hyperlocal. That singer or guitarist on stage could be your neighbor or the music teacher at a Twin Ports school. Musicians from the Twin Cities also headlined regularly, expanding access to Minnesota's talent.

As opposed to the listening experience at cavernous, expensive (and deafening) "entertainment" complexes, the Saratoga was intimate. You could get up close and personal with the musical talent, share a beer with them at a table. The club provided a stable venue for the working musician, a place to get experience and maybe sell his or her new (and often locally produced) CD to appreciative listeners.

For music lovers of a certain age, jazz at the Saratoga was a link to the classic American songbook.

But also, it was where a new generation of musicians could hone their skills and discover why the songs became classics in the first place.

Besides the shock at the sudden and unexpected end of jazz at the club, there was a sense of bewilderment among the crowd that final night. Reasons given for the end of the music included low turnout and revenue. Could jazz at the Saratoga have been saved by charging a $5 cover? Could it have floated financially as a monthly, rather than a weekly, event? In the end, it seemed as if the consideration of possible solutions was not in the cards.

In the crush of the crowd saying their final goodbyes, I didn't have the chance to thank the "heart" of jazz at the Saratoga, the house band, the Toga Trio, master musicians who faithfully showed up all those years to entertain. So to Paul Ierino, Jeff Peabody, and John Thorene: the artistry and pleasure you provided will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace. Every Saturday for 30 years, between 3 and 7 p.m., you helped make Duluth swing.

Gerri Williams of Duluth is a print and radio communicator, editor, interviewer, and researcher. See more of her work at