Spontaneity, No Regrets

Lowertown’s First Lady of Jazz, Pippi Ardennia, found a love song in Minnesota.

Pippi Ardennia sings jazz straight—without runs, without the vocal “somersaults” they performed at her grandfather’s Pentecostal church on Chicago’s Southside, where Ardennia grew up. “I didn’t like doing all that stuff,” she says. Her parents introduced her to Broadway belters—no frills. “But at the same time, I don’t sing any song the way it was written; every song has to go through my filter.” Ardennia tries not to rehearse. “I’m up for a musical trip,” she says, saying that she gauges audience reactions and extemporaneously adjusts rhythm and energy. “But I don’t play games with the notes.”

Ardennia’s mom brought her to sing in nightclubs at age 13, where she learned that “being a singer, you just don’t get no respect.” She says mentors George and Von Freeman told her to sing like an instrument: “Get up on that bandstand and be on top of it. And also be in it.” In 2005, Ardennia moved to Saint Paul to write an album and founded PipJazz to teach young singers the same lessons.

“The Twin Cities is probably the best-kept secret in the U.S. when it comes to the arts,” she says. Possibly because of widespread arts funding, Ardennia found her students here educated and meticulous. “Everybody wanted music charts. In Chicago, you just jump on stage and hit it. I thought, I should be working with these kids because they need to learn the spontaneity,” she says.

Minnesota became home. The PipJazz Foundation, a nonprofit she established in 2011, nurtures emerging talents; its Women of Jazz Band pushes women to take the lead in a male-dominated genre.

That’s why, come Valentine’s Day, Ardennia’s love song of choice is “Here’s to Life”: “No complaints and no regrets/I still believe in chasing dreams and placing bets/And I have learned that all you give is all you get.”