Lowell Pickett

Written by Niki D'Andrea Category: Spotlight Issue: June 2014
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As far as nominative determinism goes, Lowell Pickett –  a man whose name could be an amalgamation of legendary blues guitarist Lowell Fulson and R&B singer Wilson Pickett, but who’s actually named after an old family friend – seemed destined for sonic saturation. The Minneapolis native, 65, helped found the famous Dakota Jazz Club in the Twin City in 1985 before heading west for a position at Scottsdale’s Musical Instrument Museum in 2010. As Artistic Director of the MIM Music Theater, Pickett curates a gamut of shows in the museum’s Meyer-speaker-equipped, acoustically-stunning 300-seat venue, from legendary names like Ronnie Spector and Herb Alpert to lesser-known sonic trailblazers like Grammy-nominated indie folk duo The Milk Carton Kids.

What drew you to work at the Musical Instrument Museum?
Have you been through the museum, through the galleries? The first time I saw them, I couldn’t believe that a place like this existed...  you can’t explain it to someone. I have a friend who was Jimmy Buffet’s lighting designer for 24 years. He came through it, and he’s – “jaded” is not the right word, but he’s not easily swept away – and his comment was, “How can you describe the ocean to somebody who’s never seen it?” David Harrington, who started the Kronos Quartet, said it was like walking into the soul of mankind. [Grateful Dead drummer] Mickey Hart compared it to the library at Alexandria. He said, “All the musical knowledge in the world is in those galleries.” So... I’d been sort of an informal advisor or consultant to the theater before its opening, because you probably know the man who founded the museum [former Target CEO Robert J. Ulrich] was from Minneapolis. So I was asked if I would consult on a very informal basis... it wasn’t until [the original music director] was leaving and heading back east that I was asked if I would become more heavily involved, and I came down and looked at it, and I just thought, “What an honor to work with a place like this.”

How do you choose which artistsPhoto by Steve Craft to book?
On the ground level of it, this is a place that great music should be in. Great music. That doesn’t necessarily mean “high art” – it can be rock ‘n’ roll, it can be popular, it can be esoteric, but it should be great music. Great music from all over the world... nothing is off limits stylistically. The criteria is more quality. We are presenting about 190 concerts a year [and book artists 10-12 months in advance]... sometimes, opportunities come up more quickly than 10 months away. Some of the people who perform in this theater don’t make a career out of playing 300-seat theaters. An example: Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt did an acoustic duo show here in November of last fall. In 300 seats. They wouldn’t have reserved that date for MIM 10 or 12 months in advance. But Lyle Lovett has friends that have played here.

What are some of the shows coming up at MIM this summer?
On July 13, RUNA – which is a very creative Celtic group – is coming. And on the 26th, Dorado Schmitt and the Django All-Stars. Are you familiar with Django Reinhardt? Dorado Schmitt is...  unquestionably one of the greatest Django Reinhardt-style guitar players in the world. He’s arguably the most authentic. He comes from the same village in France that Django Reinhardt came from. He comes from the same cultural group, the same gypsy group that Django Reinhardt was a part of, and he plays the guitar stylistically very similar to Django Reinhardt. He’s phenomenal... the last time Dorado Schmitt played here, one person that was in the audience that was awestruck was George Benson.

Do you play any instruments yourself?
No. I grew up around it. I took piano lessons for five years when I was in grade school. I played drums and percussion all throughout high school orchestra and band. I was in a folk-singing group in junior high and I played guitar all through college, and my mother was a cellist and gave cello lessons. I grew up listening to cello lessons in the living room. So I was around music all the time, but I’m around too many great musicians now, all the time, to think that I play music.