Twin cities, four rings.
Twin cities, four rings.
Dedication to craft connects a Minnesotan metropolis.
Dedication to craft connects a Minnesotan metropolis.
By: D. Momanaee
Photos: Trevor Hacker
My arrival on a record-setting 70-degree day in early March dashed my hopes of framing this article in a platitude that cold weather makes hardy humans who rise above adversity and still put the time into craftsmanship that America was built on. Honestly, I’m glad, because the people of the Twin Cities deserve better, and I found Minneapolitans and St. Paulites to be very warm in the early thaw.
With its incredible pieces of art on loan from various galleries, the hotel lobby confirmed the wisdom of my choice. I’m talking about the kind of thought-provoking modern art—like a four-foot-wide realistic head made out of silicone and other mixed media—that the museums in Minneapolis are known for. Despite fatigue and the terribly inviting hotel room, I met up with my photographer, Trevor, because there were two whole cities to see.
We walked around to take in downtown Minneapolis on a Monday afternoon, and we grabbed a cab to head uptown for ramen and freshly brewed sake. I wasn’t expecting something so cosmopolitan for my first meal in Minneapolis, but this whole trip was about finding the truth beneath my small-minded, preconceived idea of Minnesota. Milled right here in “Mill City,” the Koshihikari rice imparted an impressively rich, one-of-a-kind flavor and texture to the local libation, demonstrating the true craftsmanship that went into every sake that I sipped.
As the natives got off of work, Trevor and I mingled at the local hotspots. Every place had its own history: a restaurant that was a grocery store for over 100 years, a bartender who had worked there since its conversion in 1980, friends at the bar who had been coming there since they could legally drink. To me, this is the basis for what is perceived to be the friendliness of Minnesotans: the cosmic security of the timeless Mississippi River, 150 years of history, and generations that have had kids here and kept them close. The Twin Cities metro area is one of the largest in the country, but the people who call it home give it a distinct small-town feel.
It was early the next day when we arrived at Harrelson Trumpets, and my dream was about to come true. As a trumpet player, I have followed Jason Harrelson’s trumpet-building career since my high school years. His horns are played by many of the top players in the world, and with his scientific approach—he studied physics and trumpet in college—he has irked many in the artistic community who often favor “feel” over fact.
One of the most efficient men I have ever met, Harrelson related his credo within five minutes of our meeting: “Our philosophy is to preserve as much energy as possible, build the most aesthetically pleasing instrument we can that’s built for the player, and have a variable performance system so we can tailor the performance to each person.” As someone who writes about Audi vehicles all the time, that sounded pretty familiar to me.
Let me be plain: There is no instrument more taxing and difficult to play on the face of the Earth, and the engine that drives this instrument is a tiny piece of your lip that wasn’t engineered to output hours of vibrational energy or to withstand heavy PSIs. While other trumpet builders do small things—like adding weight to the horn—to improve playability, Harrelson is the only manufacturer that I have found who truly builds trumpets that fit the players ergonomically and works with the players to build exactly what they are looking for.
Harrelson’s genius clearly lies not only in his intellect but also in his hard-working commitment to the scientific principle of trial and error. His experiments have led him to build lighter trumpets that maintain the huge inertia coefficiencies of the heavier horns he used to make. His latest projects have been working toward a new line of trumpets, the final goal being a completely solderless—and therefore more efficient—trumpet made with laser-welding technology and 3D printing. Just like Audi, Harrelson’s horns aren’t designed just to look cool—their engineering drives the design. Everything has been thoughtfully crafted, all the way down to the shipping techniques Harrelson uses to ensure that customers receive their horns undamaged.
Not only did I learn about the process of building a trumpet, Harrelson taught me certain playing philosophies—like using less air, instead of more, when playing high notes—that few players have figured out. Certain lessons he learned in his scientific way, but others he had to learn through experience. A few years ago, he woke up with half his body paralyzed from a massive stroke, with no recollection of who he was and the complete inability to read, walk or talk. He believes that his stroke was caused by forcing loud high notes with a huge volume of air the previous night. After months in the hospital, he was able to relearn everything from reading and writing to playing the trumpet and machining parts on a CNC machine. His determination to make the best horns in the world have made him who he is today, and his dedication to his craft carried him through tremendous adversity.
After an incredibly inspiring morning with Harrelson, I remembered just how hungry I was. We headed across town to a local farm-to-table restaurant, where I ordered two lunches. (Trevor was more reasonable.) The food everywhere we’d gone had been delicious, varied and thoughtful. After lunch, we went to St. Paul to check out the capitol, but on the way, we came across the impressive Cathedral of Saint Paul, for which the town was named—a nice change from the original name of the township: Pig’s Eye Settlement. Standing 30 stories tall, the granite cathedral is breathtaking, adorned with bronze Magnificat grilles, a copper dome and Botticino marble inside. And when you turn around, you see the Twin Cities together, one rolling into the other.
Later, at the brilliantly curated local museums, I reflected on the spiritual feeling that began at the cathedral. The incredible and varied art presented inside unthinkably fantastical architecture moved me once again. I experienced the paintings and sculptures of some of my greatest heroes and jotted down pages and pages of names to check out later. I was understandably wiped from all of this experience and returned to the hotel for a little rest.
The bartender at the hotel bar recommended that we visit a Polish piano bar in the “Nordeast”—a hip neighborhood across the Mississippi full of working-class people, immigrants and artists—before it closed forever. When we arrived, it was packed—clearly it was not closing because it was unpopular. We sat in the back, in a little lounge area that looked like they’d been serving Cherries Jubilee tableside for 60 years. After nearly losing my voice singing along, we headed to a little back bar that I noticed on our way in. There, we found even more locals, a band that’s been playing the bar for 20 years, and a trumpet player who was holding a Harrelson, one of the first Summit trumpets ever made. This was a place that would clearly be missed, and the band let me know that the bar would eventually return after some gentrifying renovations to the property.
When we left, I finally felt the biting cold and zipped up my jacket so fast that the zipper fell off. We headed to Lowry Hill for yet another music performance—a fusion band with a trumpet player playing another Harrelson trumpet. I watched in admiration and envy as he played with the kind of effortlessness and efficiency I had enjoyed earlier that day, the crowd going absolutely nuts.
On our last morning, Trevor and I went in search of the Minnesota food I saw on TV. We sat down in one of two rival restaurants that both claim to have invented a trademark Minnesota staple: the Juicy Lucy. It turned out to essentially be an innovative cheeseburger, maybe too innovative since the cheese seemed to steam the burger from the inside out, making my preferred medium-rare impossible. The good news is that the Twin Cities offer a wide range of food and experience that greatly exceeds the metaphorical American cheese oozing from a hamburger.
Before going to the airport, we visited one more outpost of innovation: the site of a new Audi dealership in Richfield. There, we watched backhoes and bulldozers lay the groundwork for what will be a three-level, 100,000-plus-square-foot facility with progressive customer amenities like an outdoor meditation area. While it was just piles of dirt along the interstate, I know that it will fit in perfectly once it’s completed, since Audi embodies the same dedication to craft and originality as I found in the people who live here.