I’ve been to my share of jazz festivals in the past 20 years, from small city parks like Burnsville and Apple Valley (MN) to the biggest free fest of all, the Detroit Jazz Festival. Each has its own energy as well as a range of music that (usually) falls within the broad idiom of “jazz.” The Twin Cities Jazz Festival has persisted since 1999, through thunderstorm washouts, city politics, economic downturns, and now a pandemic. The common denominator, aside from the music, has been the vision and leadership of Executive Director Steve Heckler. When COVID pre-empted the festival in 2020, Heckler and sponsors created “Jazz Fest Live,” a series of concerts brought to an even larger audience through live streaming. When safety concerns continued into 2021, Heckler worked with Crooners to hold a series of “virtual festival” concerts to keep both live and streamed jazz going in early summer, and brought a somewhat scaled-down festival to St Paul’s Mears Park in September. And when his planned 2020 headliners were not available for 2022, he nevertheless created a festival worthy of its legacy by featuring artists on course to be the legends of the future.
For 2022, we had a lot of new venues including new sites blocks away in downtown St Paul; we had new venues in Lowertown where COVID and other factors forced closings of former jazz friendly spaces like the Black Dog. And we had crowds that easily rivaled past festivals, not only at the Main Stage at Mears, but in those smaller venues as well. St Paul was the world’s epicenter of jazz June 24-25. Even the weather, dire forecast notwithstanding, cooperated – no rain, no storms, a welcome breeze, and a break in the heat for one of the most pleasant closing nights of TCJF that I can remember.
I couldn’t get to half of it. I couldn’t get to the music much beyond Mears Park. (For Jazz Fest, we really could use a mini light rail system running up and down 6th Street!) Consider this a mere overview of Mears Park jazz and a taste of nearby stages.
Friday, June 24
JazzMN Orchestra With Lila Ammons. Having announced he would be leaving the helm of JazzMN, director/trombonist JC Sanford led our local answer to the Vanguard Orchestra through a rousing opener for the festival. The band has made a habit of bringing in local and international guest artists over the years, most recently Gretchen Parlato. For the festival, the vocals were provided by our local, internationally toured Lila Ammons, and we can only hope she continues this relationship with JazzMN.
Emmet Cohen Trio with Bruce Harris. Barely 30 himself, Emmet was the elder statesmen of a trio of hot young pianists leading the list of headliners this year. He may soon rival Jon Weber for most Twin Cities Jazz Fest appearances, having led his trio at Mears Park in 2018, 2019 and 2021, growing his local fan base each time. Emmet hosted a weekly jazz set from his apartment throughout COVID (still going!) which has further increased his market value, as has his series of recordings with “Masters” like Ron Carter and Tootie Heath. I wasn’t familiar with New York trumpeter Bruce Harris but I won’t be so ignorant again. Before the set, Emmet told KBEM, “I’m always so excited to play the Twin Cities, it’s one of our main stops every year, the festival is one of the greatest and we love it also because it’s free and open to anyone.” Emmet also noted a desire to “play pretty for the people,” and he always does just that. His music is usually familiar, swinging and soulful but with a unique exuberance that is all Emmet. Harris, who has appeared with Emmet on the live stream, seems a perfect horn for this ensemble, which included the always-fun-to-watch Kyle Poole on drums and Phil Norris on bass.
Matthew Whitaker Quintet. Blind since birth, a prodigy whose talents have only grown exponentially, Matthew is a veteran now at 21 on both piano and organ, and he had both on stage with his quintet (guitar, bass, drums, percussion) to close out the first night of the festival. Matthew knows how to rouse a crowd and has the talent to back it up, giving us a night of pure joy and soul. The crowd had a lot of fun but no one had more fun than Whitaker.
Xcel Energy Stage on 5th Street. Unofficially the “dance stage,” the remodeled 5th Street stage was scheduled with diverse ensembles that all inspired more than foot tapping. Opening night featured Doug Little’s Cuban-inspired Charanga Tropical followed by our local answer to New Orleans brass bands—Jack Brass Band. A large audience gathered on 5th throughout the festival, warming up a bit slowly to public dancing on Friday, but enthusiastic nevertheless.
Off the Park. There was a good list of venues offering more jazz throughout St Paul and particularly in Lowertown. Larry McDonough and Joel Shapira celebrated the release of their version of Bill Evans/Jim Hall’s Undercurrents in the latest incarnation of the café’ at Union Depot—be advised that the sound on the actual CD is vastly superior to the echo chamber at the depot. Ginger Commodore and her quartet had a much warmer sound in the “cave” below the MetroNome Brewery; and the Dale Alexander Trio drew a crowd to the Lost Fox, featuring special guest, young sax phenom Sophia Kickhofel. The interplay among the crew, which included Billy Peterson on bass and Pete James Johnson on drums, was main-stage worthy. (Sophia also led her own band during the fest at KJ’s Hide-a-way.) And earlier in the day, walking encyclopedia/pianist Jon Weber gave residents of Episcopal Homes off University Av a sparkling display of his keyboard wizardry and deep jazz trivia. In any requested key.
Saturday, June 25
The theme of youthful talent continued on Saturday, from the youth ensembles that opened the Jazz88 Main Stage to the Minnesota Jazz Education’s showcase at Creators’ Space on E. 7th to early evening headliner, 16-year-old piano prodigy Brandon Goldberg, featuring a band of veterans 2-3 times his age.
Youth Ensembles at Mears. Two of the area’s busiest music schools, the MacPhail Center for Music and Walker West Music Academy, split the opening set. A “global music” ensemble led by Greg Byers started off on a lot of high notes, not the least of which was a pair of vocalists. Particularly advanced beyond her years, Charmaine already has the chops to hold down gigs around town. As a whole, the ensemble seemed ready for some prime time gigs around town. Similar strong talents were on stage representing Walker West under the leadership of Charlie Lincoln. The future of jazz in the Twin Cities is undeniably bright.
Zacc Harris Group. One of the most prolific performers in the Twin Cities, guitarist Zacc Harris brought together a stellar quintet of favorite area jazzers—saxophonists Aaron Hedenstrom and Brandon Wozniak, pianist Bryan Nichols, bassist Chris Bates, and drummer Pete James Johnson—and a set list of original music.
Bruce Henry and the History of African American Music. A local favorite til he moved back to his native Chicago about ten years ago, Bruce was known not only for his velvety baritone but also for his devotion to education, particularly to teaching about the origins of African American music. His show gives us plenty of music and history. Joining him on the Main Stage were old pals from his Twin Cities days and newer collaborators –Pete Whitman on sax, Omar Abdulkarrim on trumpet, Kavyesh Kavirij on piano, Kevin Washington on drums, Daryl Boudreaux on percussion..didn’t recognize the bassist but no doubt I will soon.
Brandon Goldberg Quartet. Rounding out the parade of hot young pianists, Brandon Goldberg was the youngest of all at 16. But he led a band of veterans—Marcus Strickland on sax, Ben Wolf on bass, and Aaron Kimmel on drums. Goldberg looks like a kid til he touches the keys, transforming into a swinging veteran pianist and bandleader. And it’s always a joy to hear Strickland.
Treme Brass Band. Twin Cities Jazz Fest has long celebrated the music of New Orleans with at least one Crescent City band or its offspring . Closing out the festival with second line march through the crowd, Treme Brass offered a set of standard NOLA fare to a fully packed and stacked Mears Park audience. That march was actually just a set up for the encore!
Dancing in the Park, Night 2! The local swing dancers had plenty of opportunities Saturday at the Xcel Stage—three band born to incite dance and march. Tom Wells has led the Selby Ave Brass Band for years, and this was a nice warm up for the night’s closing set at Mears Park from the Treme Brass Band. Later, Maryann (Sullivan) and the Moneymakers gave dancers plenty to swing about, and as has become a fest tradition, the Latin vibes of Salsa del Soul packed 5th Street with a near riot of motion and commotion.
Youth Showcase at Creators’ Space. Minnesota Jazz Education (aka Dakota Foundation for Jazz Education) again hosted a youth stage, and perhaps this was its best space yet—indoors and airconditioned with a full service coffee shop! Youth organization bands (Minnesota Youth Jazz Band, Apple Valley High School R&B Band, High School for Recording Arts) and independent young artists (Henry Berberi) played throughout the afternoon—a very diverse overview of jazz for the younger generation.
Connie Evingson/Jon Weber in the Boiler Room at Creators’ Space. For at least the past decade, vocalist Connie and piano genie Jon Weber have collaborated on numerous projects at the festival and beyond. Adding bassist Steve Pikal, they jammed in the (very cool) lower level space with a swinging set. (It was a nice warm-up for Connie and Jon’s gig the next night at Crooners.)
Dave Milne Quintet at MetroNome Brewery. Lately saxophonist Dave Milne has been collaborating with pianist Laura Caviani in various settings. This afternoon set in the “cave” below the brewery featured Chris Olsen on guitar, Kameron Markworth on bass, and Dave Schmalenberger on drums, and included some original tunes from Dave and Laura. The space is pretty small and the audience was fairly big!
I missed as much music as I heard, particularly a great three-night line-up of top area ensembles at KJ’s Hide-a-Way, with impresario Steve Kenny picking up where he left off with the closing of the Black Dog. There also was jazz at the new Momento (in the old Pazzaluna space), at Landmark, at the Inter-Continental and more. And more.
Apparently jazz has returned, alive, and well, in the Twin Cities. Thanks to everyone who kept the music alive, via streaming or little gigs or, now, big festivals.
Maybe I’ll see you next weekend at the Iowa City Jazz Festival. Or at Crooners, The Dakota, KJ’s, the Icehouse, or ….
Author’s Note: Please feel free to contact me to fill in the blanks, omissions, or whatever I forgot or didn’t know in the first place. This article written from no notes and no access to the info that no longer appears on the festival website…. firstname.lastname@example.org