The Twin Cities Jazz Festival is back to full force for its 24th annual celebration, taking place on three outdoor stages plus 25 indoor partnering clubs.
From opera singer-turned jazz and boogie woogie vocalist Lila Ammons performing with the JazzMN Orchestra to the Emmet Cohen Trio featuring trumpet player Bruce Harris, this weekend’s festival will have the most number of stages the festival has ever had, with about 300 musicians performing.
That’s a long way from the festival’s beginnings. In the 1990s, Steve Heckler had been struggling to distribute the CDs he had recorded with several Twin Cities jazz artists. The internet was changing the music industry and the way music was distributed, and he thought the best way to sell CDs was to have some sort of public event.
In 1999, Heckler and co-founder Steve Adams convinced Minneapolis’ Downtown Council to allow a one-day jazz event at Peavey Plaza as part of the Alive After Five music series.
Heckler and Adams had anticipated 300 people would show up, but that turned into 3,000. “We basically did not sell a single CD because we were dealing with making sure people didn’t get hit by a bus,” Heckler says.
The next year, the Hot Summer Jazz Festival was born, which became a 501(c)(3) with nonprofit status in 2001. Then in 2004, the festival expanded to St. Paul.
Heckler got the idea to venture across the river from former Mayor Jim Scheibel, and one day was driving around with Jazz 88 DJ Kevin Barnes. “We slammed on the brakes at Mears Park,” Heckler recalls. “And it looked like a very cool, kind of urban little park. At the time, there was nothing there. There really weren’t any restaurants around and you could park your car for $1. It was just absolutely perfect.”
Each year, bands are chosen by a booking committee using protocols with diversity goals set by the board of directors, Heckler says. The committee format was developed to make sure the festival was tapping new and exciting musicians. “I don’t always know who they are,” Heckler says. “When this committee started, a couple of our musician friends said, you’re missing an entire set of musicians. They’re not playing in the established jazz venues.” So the committee seeks out talent at other places — a coffee shop in north Minneapolis, for example, a church, or a venue that doesn’t necessarily focus on jazz. They also seek out people from educational institutions like Walker West Music Academy, which will have its own stage beginning on Saturday this year.
There’s a strong cohort of young musicians this year, Heckler says. For example, Friday’s headliner is 21-year-old Matthew Whitaker, from New Jersey. Blind since birth, Whitaker has played at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall, and opened for Stevie Wonder when he was 10. “He’s one of the better B3 organ players out there,” Heckler says. “And he’s just fantastic.”
Heckler says planning for the festival meant dealing with a lot of unknowns, especially as many of the big headline acts made their way to Europe. “We decided, let’s have a little fun this year,” Heckler says. Case in point, Treme, a brass band from New Orleans, is another one of the headliners. According to Heckler, Treme plays in the New Orleans style that was one of jazz music’s original art forms.
“The only city that really hosts it to a level like this is New Orleans,” he says. “They’re bringing the essence of what traditional jazz is.”
Another highlight this year is pianist Brandon Goldberg. “He’s bringing in a monster band with Marcus Strickland on sax,” Heckler says.
Bruce Henry, who is from the Twin Cities, is performing on June 25. He is based in Chicago currently and has a set he did at an indoor venue at the festival a few years ago called The Evolution of American Music. “I went in to watch I couldn’t even get in the door,” Heckler says. “I said, Bruce, you need to come back and do this on the main stage.”
The festival starts out with a pre-show on Thursday at the festival’s partner venues. Then music kicks into gear Friday and Saturday, at Mears Park, Keg & Case, St. Paul Union Depot and numerous indoor clubs in Lowertown, around St. Paul, and also Minneapolis. (Free, though some of the indoor venues charge a cover). More information here.