By Christa Lawler, Duluth News Tribune
Glenn Swanson made an unlikely discovery during a remodel of the historic Carlton-based home he and his wife purchased earlier this year from his mother.
Underneath it all, the living room was far more than just a living room.
“I think there is a jazz club on the first floor,” Emily Swanson recalled him telling her mid-construction.
Sure enough: This past Friday night, there was a piano and small stage in the corner of the room with a dark draped backdrop. Members of the Carlton High School football team had traded out the everyday furniture for nine small tables, covered in black cloths and lit with tea lights. There were hor d’oeuvres — including salamini and smoked salmon from Northern Waters; sourdough from Duluth’s Best Bread. A few known jazz musicians stuck to the periphery as the guests arrived and later, with more than 35 people sitting elbow to elbow in Chiavari chairs, the living room-turned-Carlton Room earned its nickname — The Sardine Club.
For the past few months, the new owners of the Oldenburg House have been hosting Cookin’ at the O, nights that pair live jazz music and small plate meals.
Swanson, dressed in black, greeted the mix of young and less-so, friends and strangers, some neighbors, some Duluthians who had made their way to this still relatively unknown DIY hotspot.
“The whole vibe (is) bringing people together, coming together,” he said of the brick classic revival home built in 1894. “This is proof of that.”
Glenn Swanson is a musician by birth. His father was a player and an aficionado who played classical and jazz around the house and ultimately found his way to country western music. Leslie Swanson’s obituary lists him as a lifelong member of the Duluth Music Association Local No. 18.
Swanson, like his siblings, was encouraged to study piano and an additional instrument of choice. He picked drums and by high school, he said, had out-distanced his peers.
Swanson, who grew up in Hermantown before his parents bought the Oldenburg House in the late 1960s, went to the University of Minnesota Duluth intent on majoring in biochemistry. But, a one-off chance to play with jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley helped push him in a different direction.
“I got to play with these masters and being inside that vibe made me realize that this is something I really want to do,” Swanson said. “Basically I dropped out of college and moved to Minneapolis and began trying to earn a living hitting things with sticks.”
He has been a session musician, a staff drummer, a creator of theater, a producer, an author and has mentored young musicians through his nonprofit work. He toured internationally with Sheila Raye Charles — daughter of Ray Charles.
“I was always kind of somebody you would never hear of,” Swanson said. “I don’t have aspirations to be anybody special, but (someone) who loves playing music. I love jazz and I view it as a language and a way of being fully present in the moment. I think no matter what you do, if you’re totally present in the moment, there’s something that makes you happy about being there.”
Before the music started on Friday night, a guest at Table No. 1 wondered aloud about the titular Oldenburgs. Emily Swanson was within hearing distance and offered a quick, but detailed history of the family — Henry C. and his wife Mary — originally built the home in 1894 on six acres, land that now has Jay Cooke State Park and the Munger Trail as neighbors.
Henry C. Oldenburg was a lawyer-conservationist-politician and his well-educated wife hosted many events in the home. They were significant enough figures that Helen and Leslie Swanson were able to get the home added to the National Registry of Historic Places in the mid-2000s.
After his father died, Swanson worked with this mother Helen to turn the Oldenburg House into a bed and breakfast. Earlier this year, shortly after marrying Emily, the couple bought the home from Helen and began renovations.
The club was a natural fit: For years, jazz musicians had been visiting the house and playing together.
“He’s got a Rolodex,” Emily Swanson said of her husband’s music contacts. Not to mention: “(The house) wants people. It needs people,” she added.
Friday night was the first time Glenn Swanson had physically met pianist Ryan Frane, director of jazz studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth and bass player Matt Mobley, a seemingly busy and versatile local musician.
“We’ll be introducing ourselves to each other as the music begins,” Swanson said.
Pippi Ardennia, a sassy Minneapolis-based jazz singer playing the role of a diva, is the drummer’s longtime friend and collaborator. Performing under blue-hued lights, she wore a long dress with draped sleeves and fanned herself as she sang. Ardennia opened with a song she wrote for the occasion about how she had retired earlier that day, true story, and continued with a mix that included mostly jazz standards that she oozed into, first physically responding to the music then jumping in with vocals. One, in particular, knocked her out.
“That ‘Moon River’ was hot,” Ardennia said to the guests, after the final notes. “Did anyone record that? I want to hear it again.”
Before dinner was served — stuffed pork loin, seasoned green beans and wild rice, by local caterer Paul Sapyta — Ardennia was already considering the logistics of sprawling across the piano.
“My Funny Valentine” and “Fly Me to The Moon” led to Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman.”
Ardennia coaxed a singalong and Emily Swanson danced with a friend in the lobby. The night ended with coffee and cookies, a take on the Beatles’ “Come Together” and, finally, “Honeysuckle Rose.”
On Monday afternoon, the Swansons said they considered the fourth go-round of Cookin’ at the O, a success. The December edition is almost sold out.
“The thing that’s mind blowing to me is that it’s actually working,” Glenn Swanson said. “It’s kind of unlikely. I thought the people were genuinely engaged and completely in love with what was happening. And how cool is that to do that around America’s only original form of art … and bring it in and make it part of the community.”