Steve Heckler is the Johnny Appleseed of jazz festival programmers. For one weekend every summer, he plants live jazz performances in as many places as he can throughout the city of St. Paul. He figures if jazz is everywhere – easy to find, almost impossible to avoid – then people will like it and the music will thrive.
The 2015 Twin Cities Jazz Festival officially starts tonight with 24 performances at almost 20 venues, indoors and out, scattered throughout the city, including the Mears Park Stage (the festival’s heart), the Amsterdam, Arnellia’s on University, Bedlam Lowertown, the Black Dog, the Bull Dog, Camp Bar, Heartland, the St. Paul Hotel, the Dakota’s new Vieux Carré (in the former Artists’ Quarter space) and Como Lakeside Pavilion.
On Friday it expands to a second stage on Sixth Street, Union Depot Plaza and the Tiffany Sports Lounge on Ford Parkway, among others. On Saturday, the festival’s biggest day, it dances into the brand-new Saints Stadium.
By the time the last few stragglers leave the final jam session at Vieux Carré on early Sunday morning, an estimated 35,000 people will have heard more than 400 jazz artists in 100 performances at 24 places. There could be as many as 7,000 at the Saints Stadium on Saturday afternoon for headliner Dr. John.
Honestly, the only way not to hear jazz in St. Paul this weekend is to leave town.
Heckler is the festival’s executive director. He started it back in 1999 with a one-day event on Peavey Plaza in Minneapolis that drew 3,000 people instead of the expected 300, then stuck with it through thick and very thin: growth in Minneapolis, expansion into St. Paul. By 2008, the economic downturn, funding had dried up and a decision was made to pull the plug.
Enter Joe Spencer, director of arts and culture for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s office, riding a white horse. The city liked the festival. It was good for Lowertown, which was starting to boom. Funding was found and sponsors stepped forward, but only in St. Paul. Minneapolis was history.
Since 2009, Jazz Fest has been a highlight of summer in the city. And it’s still about scattering the seeds. In Heckler’s words, “If the end result is we’ve created more gigs for jazz musicians, more ways they can make a living at it because more people like it and are willing to book it and the art form survives, we’ve been a success.”
Earlier this week, we spoke with Heckler about the festival, its new artistic director and loving (or hating) jazz.
MinnPost: Is this the biggest-ever Twin Cities Jazz Festival?
Steve Heckler: Yes, by far. Our goal is to grow the jazz fest, to have the art form of jazz reach more and more people. To touch more people with the art form so they become aware of it. As we expand into more venues, more people will be touched by jazz just by being there.
MP: What’s new this year?
SH: We’re in the Saints Stadium, and Rice Park. Those are two big ones. We’re expanding the reach of what’s happening at Union Depot. That will start becoming another main stage. We’re at the new pavilion at Como Park.
The entire Wacouta Street will be like a jazz fest market, with artists and food vendors from Mears Park down to the Depot. Lowertown artists will show their work.
MP: You’ve brought in your first artistic director, the New York-based drummer Francisco Mela. How is he helping to shape the festival?
SH: As our event grows, we want to be able to think like a festival. I’ve been booking it by what we like, who’s available, who’s routing, who hasn’t been here, who would be a good fit. We check to see what other festivals are doing, read Downbeat and get a lot of advice.
Mela has booked festivals before. He’s also been a drummer with McCoy Tyner [and other jazz artists]. People know him. He has a more intimate understanding than I have. We had started thinking, “Why don’t we bring in someone who can thematically think through what works, who can mix-and-match?” Mela can call [trumpeter] Nicholas Payton on his cellphone. I can’t do that. Mela can think, “This band will be good with that band, that musician … I’ve worked with that person, who would be good for a clinic.” Mela recommended bringing in [festival headliners] Chris Potter and Dave Holland. Payton is playing with [Mela’s] Crash Trio.
Mela originally came here with [saxophonist and band leader] Joe Lovano [in 2010]. People wondered, “Who the heck is this guy?” We started paying attention. [Festival board chair] Alden Drew fell in love with him. His clinics were incredible. He was the most personable human being, able to articulate and do things in such a positive way. Good personality, great musician, big-picture guy. As we decided to start looking for an artistic director, we immediately thought of him. It was simultaneous.
MP: Jazz Fest is a big, sprawling event. It can be hard to get a handle on it.
SH: It’s meant to be that way. The sprawl is so people who live in the neighborhoods can experience jazz [where they live]. That goes for all the venues outside Lowertown. The intent is to get more and more exposure to jazz in the community.
Hopefully, our success is based on the fact that more people than before like the art form of jazz. When we started back in 1999, guys like Lowell [Pickett, at the original Dakota in Bandana Square] and Kenny Horst [at the Artists’ Quarter] were busting their butts. I had a gut feeling more people would enjoy jazz, that a lot more people would come out to hear it. A lot of people thought I was crazy, but I guess I was proved right.
MP: Any special tips for first-timers?
SH: Come to Lowertown. You don’t even have to like jazz. If your significant other or family is dragging you down to Jazz Fest, know that it’s meant to be enjoyable. People come and camp out. When they start hearing the musicians … wow.
It’s an outdoor free festival. There’s no reason to be afraid of jazz or think it’s too above you or too sophisticated. It’s not. Like any art form, there’s some you’ll like and some you won’t. It’s a personal taste thing, and that’s OK.
Overall, if you come to Mears Park and totally hate it, there’s a beer truck and a wine truck. So you can just hang out.
The 17th Annual Twin Cities Jazz Festival starts tonight (Thursday, June 25) with the annual Jazz Night Out. A free Club Crawl shuttle [PDF] starts tonight and runs through Saturday. Look at the schedule, look at the map [PDF], learn a bit about the artists and make a plan, or just show up in Mears Park or another festival venue. Pick up a printed program almost anywhere. Download a free bus/Light Rail pass from the festival’s home page. Musicians, educators and the curious, check out the jazz clinics. (Artistic director Mela plans to expand these in the future.) Find updates on the Facebook page.
A look at the headliners
Jazz Fest features literally hundreds of Minnesota jazz artists performing all kinds of jazz music – mainstream, free, instrumental and vocal, R&B-infused and funky, Latin, big band, world music/global, standards, originals, classic and in-the-moment. The headliners are being brought in especially for the festival. Most perform at Mears Park.
Araya Orta Latin Jazz Quartet featuring Othello Molineaux. We don’t know Araya, but we’ve heard Molineaux, who plays steel pans, and he’s amazing. 6 p.m., Mears Park.
Chris Potter, Dave Holland, Lionel Loueke, Eric Harland. A quartet so new it doesn’t yet have a name. All four are giants of jazz, huge stars in their own right. It’s abso-freaking-lutely incredible they’re coming here. 8 p.m., Mears Park.
Dr. John and the Nite Trippers. In a giant first for Jazz Fest and the city of St. Paul, New Orleans legend Dr. John will give the inaugural big-deal music concert at CHS Field, the Saints Stadium, Lowertown’s new baseball park. We’re totally tickled that local heroes Jack Brass Band will open for them. There will be two lines: one for those who preordered (preorders are now closed) and another for walk-ups. The preorders gate will open at 1:30 p.m., walk-ups at 2. This event is free, like the rest of Jazz Fest, but donations are welcome. The music starts at 2:15 with Dr. John scheduled to take the stage at 3:30. Tip: Most Jazz Fest main stage schedules run like clockwork, so forget what you’ve heard about “jazz time.”
Marquis Hill Blacktet. Chicago-based trumpeter Hill recently won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Trumpet Competition. We saw him years ago at the Artists’ Quarter and he was terrific. 6 p.m., Mears Park.
Cloudmakers Trio. Read about them on the website and you’ll know as much as we do. Guess we’d better check them out. 7 p.m. on Union Depot North Plaza.
Francisco Mela’s Crash Trio with Special Guest Nicholas Payton (8:30 p.m.). The Cuba-born drummer and the fiery trumpeter share a stage. 8:30 p.m., Mears Park.
All three nights:
Jon Weber Trio. Pianist, brainiac, storyteller, great friend to the festival and National Public Radio host Weber will perform nightly with his trio at 8 p.m. He’ll be followed by a Jazz Jam Session that starts around 9:30 p.m. As in the past, anyone can show up at the jam session, and headliners often do. At Vieux Carré.