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Midtown celebrates its first five years with a jazz festival

In 1995, the old Sears Tower on East Lake Street, the largest building in Minneapolis (and second-largest in the state; only the Mall of America is bigger), was a sad, empty behemoth. A Chicago developer had proposed razing it to make room for a strip mall for big-box retailers.

Instead, the Tower was saved, and today we have the Midtown Exchange, a vibrant, multicultural mixed-use site encompassing lofts, townhomes, apartments, the Midtown Global Market, the headquarters of Allina Hospitals, a Hennepin County service center, and a Sheraton hotel. The site borders the Midtown Greenway.

On Saturday, July 30, the Midtown Exchange will celebrate its fifth anniversary in urban style, with an all-day jazz festival.

The festival took root in the spring of 2010, when jazz vocalist Lee Engele went looking for a gig. For some time, the Market has featured live music, mostly on Saturdays, often jazz, and Engele wanted in. She met with Midtown Global Market Director Baba Letang and learned that he loves jazz and was contemplating a festival, maybe for the fifth anniversary. In turn, he learned that Engele is president of the Twin Cities Jazz Society and chair of the society’s annual Jazz from A to Z concert series.

Lee Engele
Photo by Travis Anderson
Lee Engele

“Light bulb!” Engele remembers. “He started out by picking my brain, to assess the feasibility of doing this. We met off and on for about six weeks. Then he asked me to create a business plan. I picked [Twin Cities Jazz Festival founder] Steve Heckler’s brain. He mentored me through this process. I wanted to include every possible detail, from porta-potties to trash, staging to sound.”

Engele and Letang took the business plan to the Midtown Business Association, the Midtown Global Market, and other stakeholders for approval. After that came the real work: drawing up a timeline, choosing and booking artists and vendors, fundraising, finding sponsors, promotion, and the myriad other tasks that come with planning a large, free, outdoor, public event.

The lineup is solid with Twin Cities favorites. On the outdoor Main Stage in the parking lot, the Chris Lomheim Trio performs at noon, followed at 2 p.m. by guitarist Pavel Jany’s Ticket to Brasil, at 4 p.m. by Doug Haining and the Twin Cities Seven featuring Charmin Michelle, then Patty Peterson & Friends at 6 p.m. to close.

Doug Haining and Charmin Michelle
Doug Haining and Charmin Michelle

Indoors, the Youth Stage sponsored by the Twin Cities Jazz Society will feature three bands of high-school students and recent graduates: the Respective Sounds Convergence Summit at 1:15 p.m., Public New Sense at 3:15, and the Quentin Tschofen Quintet at 5:15.

Tschofen, 17, won scholarships in the past two Schubert Club/Dakota Foundation for Jazz Education jazz piano competitions and served as pianist for the Dakota Combo for two years. He’s off to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (and its excellent jazz program) this fall.

For those who can’t get enough (or who are staying overnight at the Sheraton), the hotel will host an afterparty on its patio with music by the John Penny Duo starting at 6, followed by the Joel Shapira Duo at 8.

How were the artists chosen? “We had a wish list,” Engele says. “We wanted a diverse lineup, and a local lineup, for a community feeling. Chris [Lomheim] lives in the building; that’s really local. Charmin [Michele] lives nearby. Steve Wiese of Creation Audio in Minneapolis is doing the sound. Our announcers will include Ted Allison, Michele Jansen, and Maryann Sullivan [of local jazz radio station KBEM] and Larry Englund [of KFAI]. We also wanted a mix of music. So we have Patty’s modern jazz, Doug’s swing, Chris’s originals, and Pavel’s Latin sounds.”

What was the biggest challenge? “Learning the culture of the area, all of the different organizations and nonprofits, and trying to get as many people and organizations involved as possible from the start. We invited many groups to be part of the planning process. I think a lot of people thought the festival would never happen. But Baba and I kept pushing forward. There were several times during meetings with Midtown Global Market people and the Neighborhood Development Center [the festival’s fiscal agent] when someone suggested we drop it or try for a different year. Someone would ask, ‘Do you think this will really happen?’ I never said no. I never stopped believing.

“But I’m kind of an optimist. For me, the glass is always half full. Now I just want people to show up. Right now, it looks like it will be a sunny day. We’re hoping for 5-7,000 people. And we’re hoping this will become an annual event.”

If you go: The Midtown Global Jazz Festival will be held in the parking lot just west of the Midtown Global Market, 920 East Lake Street, Minneapolis. Parking is available in the ramp east of the market. Bring your own lawn chair, umbrella, or whatever you think you’ll need. There will be some outdoor food and beverage vendors, as well as those inside the market, but alcohol will not be sold or permitted outdoors. The music starts on the Main Stage at noon, on the Youth Stage at 1:15 p.m., and ends at 10 on the Sheraton patio.

Plan ahead: Road trip? The Great River Jazz Fest in LaCrosse, Wis., happens next weekend (Aug. 4-7). Ten bands on two stages, including the Torff/Wertico Quintet (Henry Johnson, Roger Harris, Corey Wilkes, Brian Torff, Paul Wertico) and Minneapolis’ own Christine Rosholt Quintet (Christine Rosholt, Tanner Taylor, Dave Jensen, Jay Epstein, Graydon Peterson). Visit the website for full details.

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