In April 2020, shortly after COVID rolled in, impresario Steve Heckler had already canceled — or postponed, the word he preferred — three things: a small jazz festival planned for March 29 in Uptown, a livestreamed concert series that was supposed to start on April 4 at Crooners in Fridley and the 22nd Annual Twin Cities Jazz Festival, which had been scheduled for June 25-27 in St. Paul.
He was down, temporarily, but not defeated. On April 9, he said in an interview, “We’re going to get through this, and jazz will go on.” He was launching a new livestreaming series that would eventually draw thousands of viewers nationwide. Funded by grants, sponsorships and donations, it would pay out more than $80,000 (and counting) to local musicians hurt by the pandemic.
But the big summer Jazz Fest is Heckler’s baby. It has been his baby since 2000, when he threw the first one together in Minneapolis, expecting 300 people to show up. When more than 3,000 came, he knew he was on to something. Every summer since — first in Minneapolis, then in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and finally, in 2009, exclusively St. Paul, mainly Mears Park — the Twin Cities Jazz Festival has been a highlight of summer for music fans, not just jazz fans. And it has always been free.
In summer 2020, COVID erased it. In June 2021, Crooners hosted a Summer Jazz Festival where some performances were ticketed and some were free.
The return of the free fest to Mears Park this weekend (Friday and Saturday, Sept. 17 and 18) will be a victory lap. This won’t be the big, sprawling Jazz Fest we’re used to, but it will have A-list headliners and holds the shining promise of a good time for all.
Friday’s headliners will be the award-winning pianist Emmet Cohen and the esteemed pianist and NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron. During COVID, Cohen has livestreamed weekly concerts from his Harlem apartment, keeping jazz alive and attracting millions of internet views. He has performed in the Twin Cities several times and built an avid following here. His special guest Patrick Bartley Jr. is a Grammy-nominated saxophonist whose appearances with Cohen have been so popular that Jazz Fest invited him, too.
Barron is jazz royalty, a nine-time Grammy nominee who continues to dazzle with his elegant, lyrical playing. He has made more than 40 recordings as a leader and played with dozens of other jazz greats including Roy Haynes, James Moody, Dizzy Gillespie and Buddy Rich.
Saturday’s headliners will be the local vocal supergroup Moore by Four and Delfeayo Marsalis. Formed in 1986 at Ruby’s Cabaret, Moore by Four played years of sold-out concerts, weekly shows and world tours. The members moved on to individual careers, then reunited for two shows at Crooners in 2018. They’ve been back on the scene ever since. After the recent untimely passing of founding member Yolande Bruce, Ginger Commodore’s daughter Ashley has joined the group.
Delfeayo Marsalis is, well, a Marsalis, a member of the first family to be named NEA Jazz Masters. All five were granted the prestigious honor in 2011: father Ellis and brothers Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason. The New Orleans-based trombonist also has strong ties in the Twin Cities. “I like his engagement with the audience,” Heckler said. “That’s what we need, especially now.”
Jazz Fest usually takes place in 15 venues, some outdoors and some indoors. You can walk between most of them — Heckler has always wanted Jazz Fest to be a walking festival — but a few are more widely scattered. Because beloved saxophonist Irv Williams once lived at the Episcopal Homes retirement community south of University Ave., Heckler still books Episcopal Homes for Jazz Fest. You can catch Travis Anderson and his trio there on Friday afternoon, Maud Hixson and Rick Carlson on Saturday afternoon.
But the rest of this year’s performances will take place at three locations: the mainstage in Mears Park, the Fifth Street Stage adjacent to it and the Black Dog Café a few blocks away, across from CHS Field.
“We had to scale back,” Heckler said by phone on Tuesday. “We obviously could not do the type of massive event we really want to do. We could not have all the indoor venues we usually have. A lot of stages are closed or the buildings aren’t open. So we’re focusing almost the entire festival outdoors, which is probably a good thing.”
Safety is paramount to Heckler, who lost his father a few weeks ago. He had Parkinson’s disease, but after contracting COVID, his condition deteriorated quickly.
“All of our staff, all of our volunteers, all of our contractors must be vaccinated,” Heckler emphasized. “We’re not allowing anyone on our staff, on stage, or anywhere not to be vaccinated. We’re asking everyone on stage to wear masks. We’re recommending that everyone in our audience wear masks, certainly if they’re not vaccinated. We can’t enforce it, but we’re recommending it.”
Past Jazz Fests have brought crowds of more than 30,000 people. Heckler isn’t expecting nearly that many this year. “There’s enough room in the park that people can separate from each other,” he said. “You don’t have to sit on top of the stage. You can be six feet from other people.”
If you’re not comfortable in crowds of any size, indoors or out, you have another option. You can watch and listen from home. After months of livestreaming shows from the Dakota, Crooners and occasionally Walker West, Heckler and his crew are pros at making jazz available virtually. Jazz Fest will start livestreaming at 5 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 17 and 3 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 18, catching all the headliners. You won’t see everything — to do that, you’ll have to attend in person and move between Mears Park, 5th Street and the Black Dog — but you’ll see the big names. Go here to get in. If you haven’t already registered with Crowdcast, you’ll need to provide your name and email. You can sign up in advance. As of Wednesday, 1,000 people had registered; Heckler expects close to 2,000 by Friday.
Here’s the complete schedule, starting with pre-festival events at the Black Dog programmed by trumpeter Steve Kenny.
Thursday at the Black Dog
- 8 p.m. Peter Goggin Trio (Peter Goggin, alto sax; Charlie Lincoln, bass; Phil Hey, drums)
- 9:30 p.m. Tall Tales (Zacc Harris, guitar; Dean Granros, guitar; Chris Bates, bass; Jay Epstein, drums)
Friday on the Mears Park Stage
5 p.m. Emmet Cohen Trio with Patrick Bartley Jr. (Emmet Cohen, piano; Yasushi Nakamura, bass; Kyle Poole, drums; Patrick Bartley Jr., saxophone)
- 7:30 p.m. Kenny Barron Trio (Kenny Barron, piano; Kiyoshi Kitagawa, bass; Johnathan Blake, drums)
Friday on 5th Street
- 4 p.m. Maryann Sullivan & the Money Makers
- 6:30 p.m. Selby Ave. Brass Band, led by Tom Wells
Friday at the Black Dog
- 8 p.m. Steve Kenny Quartet (Steve Kenny, trumpet; Levi Schwartzberg, vibes; Charlie Lincoln, bass; Miguel Hurtado, drums)
- 9:30 p.m. Jazz Fest Jam, hosted by the Steve Kenny Quartet and friends
Saturday on the Mears Park Stage
- 12:30 p.m. Youth Performances: Walker West Music Academy and MacPhail Center for Music
- 3 p.m. Twin Cities 7, led by saxophonist Doug Haining
- 5 p.m. Moore by Four (leader-pianist Sanford Moore and vocalists Dennis Spears, Connie Evingson, Ginger Commodore and Ashley Commodore)
7:30 p.m. Delfeayo Marsalis Quintet (Delfeayo Marsalis, trombone; Mark Gross, alto saxophone; Christian Sands, piano; David Pulphus, bass; Marvin “Smitty” Smith, drums
Saturday on 5th Street
- 2 p.m. Jack Brass Band
- 4 p.m. Katia Cardenas
- 6:30 p.m. Salsa del Soul
Saturday at the Black Dog
- 1 p.m. Minnesota Jazz Education’s Youth Showcase
- 8 p.m. Aaron Hedenstrom Trio (Aaron Hedenstrom, saxophones)
- 9:30 p.m. Cody Steinmann Band (Cody Steinmann, guitar; Kavyesh Kaviraj, keys; Chris Smith, bass; Fode Bangoura, djembe; Abinnet Berhanu, drums)
If the music on the 5th Street stage puts you in a dancing mood, that’s deliberate. Over the years, that’s where the dance bands have performed. When you’re not listening and/or dancing, you can visit the five food trucks and Summit booth, along with the restaurants around Mears Park that have reopened.
This year’s Twin Cities Jazz Festival will be smaller and shorter, but it will take place. Heckler is already making plans for next June. Meanwhile, he’s optimistic. “The big picture is, we’re thrilled to be doing Jazz Fest this year,” he said. “If you think on the bright side, good things will happen.”