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‘Jazz Fest Live’ draws thousands of viewers to music made in Minnesota

The series began with streams from musicians’ homes and apartments. It has since streamed from Crooners, Walker West Music Academy and, starting in September, the stage at the Dakota.

Kevin Washington and RA Spirit at the Dakota on March 25, 2021.
Kevin Washington and RA Spirit at the Dakota on March 25, 2021.
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Tonight at 7, you can sign into Crowdcast or click on Facebook for Jazz Fest Live, a performance by Twin Cities-based jazz musicians. And you won’t be alone. You’ll be joined by thousands of people from across the United States and around the world.

Wait, what … thousands?

Jazz Fest Live is a free weekly series of virtual jazz concerts that launched a year ago, on Thursday, April 9, 2020. Over Crowdcast, which began as a browser-based webinar platform, Twin Cities Jazz Festival favorite Jon Weber played his own piano in his New York apartment.

The video was fuzzy. There were latency problems. But Steve Heckler, the Jazz Festival’s founder, executive director and CEO, was undaunted. With the 2020 Twin Cities Jazz Festival canceled, along with all other live events, Heckler was determined to keep the music going.

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“We were not going to cancel Jazz Fest and do a ‘see-you-next-year’ kind of thing. Personally, I couldn’t live with that,” he told MinnPost in April.

Jazz Fest Live has streamed every Thursday since, with two exceptions: the week of the presidential election, and the week when George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police. Every concert has been live except one, maybe two, when someone was sick or had to cancel.

Even Heckler is surprised it has lasted so long.

“We thought this thing would end by December,” he said in conversation earlier this week. “That people would drop off big time and we would just end. Who wants to watch another show on a computer, or whatever?

“The exact opposite has happened. The numbers have grown exponentially. We were excited when we had 300 people per show. That’s more than a club holds, you know? Then, in December, it doubled, going to 600. Then Facebook exploded. By January, we were getting over 1,000. AARP, our biggest sponsor, was pushing Jazz Fest Live on their platforms. In March, we were getting up to 6,000.

“It’s crazy. Keep in mind, if somebody is watching a show, there could be two people sitting there watching.”

As audiences have grown, so have donations. Artists who perform for Jazz Fest Live are paid.

Photo by Andrea Canter
Steve Heckler: “We were not going to cancel Jazz Fest and do a ‘see-you-next-year’ kind of thing. Personally, I couldn’t live with that.”
The series began with streams from musicians’ homes and apartments. It has since streamed from Crooners, Walker West Music Academy and, starting in September, the stage at the Dakota, which has become its Thursday-night home. The quality of the shows has vastly improved. They’re crisp, clear and sound great.

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“We have new cameras, new switchers,” Heckler said. “We had to understand how to use the internet correctly, what high speed meant, how much data went through it. Crowdcast allows us to broadcast on Facebook, so a show will be on Crowdcast and three separate Facebook accounts simultaneously. Adding them all up is how we’re getting between 3,000 and 5,000 people per show. They’re coming from all over the country and nine countries outside the United States. Not just one person from each country, but a lot of people.

“And it’s more than just the music. We’re getting comments like, ‘This has really made my day, my week’ and, ‘We need this in our lives right now.’ So the shows are tapping into other emotional stuff.”

Jazz Fest Live streamed one of Debbie Duncan’s final performances with her brother, William E. Duncan III, at Walker West on June 25, 2020.
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Jazz Fest Live streamed one of Debbie Duncan’s final performances with her brother, William E. Duncan III, at Walker West on June 25, 2020.
Not only for viewers, but for musicians, too. Many haven’t played for months. Some find it challenging and weird to play to an empty house. But they finally have the chance to play, and to say what they want and need to say with their music.

Last Thursday, drummer Kevin Washington dedicated his first song to the women in Georgia who had died senselessly the week before, and to Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, then led his quartet RA Spirit into a heartfelt version of John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” which Coltrane wrote in response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four African American girls.

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Jazz Fest Live recently added an ASL interpreter to its broadcasts. “There are people out there all over the range of hearing, and they enjoy the music, they can feel it, but they can’t make it out when we’re talking,” Heckler said. “We were hearing that even pre-COVID. When that came up again, I reached out to ASL and said, ‘Is there a way we can try this?’ So that’s how that came about. His name is Paul Demming. We’re enjoying him being there, and he’s telling us that a lot of people are tuning in.”

Dale Alexander
Courtesy of the artist
Dale Alexander
Demming will be signing for the Dale Alexander Quartet tonight at the Dakota. Alexander, a pianist and drummer, grew up in Minneapolis, where his first band was a trio with Prince and Andre Cymone. He has performed with George Benson, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Jimmy Smith, Dianne Reeves, and more music legends from many styles and genres. Tonight he’ll be on piano. His quartet will include Billy Peterson on base, Jake Baldwin on trumpet and Abinnet Berhanu on drums.

If you haven’t visited the Twin Cities Jazz Festival’s website lately, helpful changes have been made to the home page. Click “TC Jazz Scene” to view a calendar of jazz events in and around the Twin Cities provided by Jazz Police, a website maintained by trumpeter/Flumpeter Steve Kenny. (Jazz artists, to get on the calendar, send information about your events to gigs@jazzpolice.com. Just do it!)

Click “Jazz Fest Live” to learn about upcoming events and access an archive of many past events, available for viewing in full. Click “Keep Music Live” for the free livestreamed series from Crooners, including an archive of past events. This series, for which musicians are paid to perform, is supported by the Keep Music Live fund, created early in the pandemic by a group of local music patrons led by Mike and Donna Wolsted.

Making live jazz virtual has been and still is a learning curve. But it’s bound to affect how the music is presented and made available in the future. More people know about jazz in Minneapolis and St. Paul today than a year ago. Meanwhile, the Twin Cities Jazz Festival has gone from being an annual event – a big one, for sure, and one we hope will return in some form or another before too long – to a steady presence on our music scene.