You may not think of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul as a hotbed for jazz. New Orleans, Chicago and New York, for sure, but jazz in Minnesota? That’s flyover country.
Yet jazz has been part of the Twin Cities history for a long time, at least since World War II, when the Minneapolis-based Andrews Sisters recorded “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” an early jump-blues jazz hit. Today, the area is home to hundreds of jazz musicians, many of whom have been participating in the virtual event series Jazz Fest Live through AARP’s Virtual Community Center. Launched in April 2020 and presented by AARP Minnesota, Jazz Fest Live streams jazz to thousands of people across the United States and beyond.
Jazz Fest Live was created in part by Steve Heckler, an events organizer and former social worker, who helped create the Twin Cities Jazz Festival. In the summer of 1999, he requested and got permission from the city of Minneapolis to add a jazz event to a music series happening downtown. Heckler expected 300 people to show up. More than 3,000 came. “We realized we had something special,” he says. “We realized we had jazz fans in this city, and they would come out.”
The first official Twin Cities Jazz Festival, then called the Hot Summer Jazz Festival, was held in Minneapolis in 2000. In 2001, it grew to three days and became a nonprofit. In 2004, the festival expanded to St. Paul. But in 2008, during the Great Recession, it almost went under when all of the sponsors pulled out. Heckler and the board had decided to call it quits, feeling like they had no choice. Then Heckler got a call from the director of arts and culture in the St. Paul mayor’s office. What were his plans for the 2009 Jazz Festival? Heckler said there were none — the festival was over. But St. Paul wasn’t willing to let go of an event that was helping to revitalize a historic district. Several sponsors and donors came forward. The Twin Cities Jazz Festival relocated to St. Paul and stayed.
The 2019 festival drew record crowds, but the 2020 festival, like everything else, was canceled by COVID-19. Suddenly, musicians everywhere were out of work. Heckler wasn’t willing to sit around and wait for things to get better. Over his many years of running the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, he had become closely connected to the jazz community.
“We came up with this idea for a virtual show and asked our sponsors,” Heckler said. “AARP jumped in right away. AARP helped us with the creative part of how to pull this off.”
By August 2021, more than 50 hours of music by hundreds of artists were available. From the start, it was about more than the music. “AARP talked about this being a community-building thing,” Heckler says. “The virtual show was a way to bring people together. I have a social work background, so that made a lot of sense to me. And I think that was the key, and why it took off.”
At first, 50 to 80 people were viewing each virtual show. Then 300 ... 600 ... 1,000. When AARP started featuring Jazz Fest Live on its website, the audience jumped from 1,000 to 6,000. The chats are active and filled with thanks and positive comments about the music and the musicians. Friends meet each week over Jazz Fest Live, and new friendships are formed.
Heckler’s approach to jazz has always been arms-spread-wide inclusivity. “You don’t even have to like jazz,” he says. “If your significant other or family is dragging you down to Jazz Fest, know that it’s meant to be enjoyable. 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’ll hate. It’s a personal taste thing, and that’s OK.”
His purpose — along with paying the artists — has always been clear. “The genre of jazz is a big umbrella,” he says. “It covers a lot, in my opinion, and it should. Many folks feel jazz is just big band, or jazz is avant-garde, or jazz is whatever. Defining it. And I don’t want it to be looked at that way. The whole point of how we book Jazz Fest Live is to show the extent of the umbrella, to make the series eclectic and approachable and diverse.”
Pamela Espeland is an arts journalist in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with a passion for jazz. She has written about jazz for MinnPost, the Star Tribune, NPR, the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Walker Art Center and her blog, Bebopified.
Getting to Know: Minnesota’s Jazz Fest Live Performers
Members Only Access is featuring exclusive interviews with four acts from Jazz Fest Live, along with videos of their performances.
Based in St. Paul, Minnesota, Maud Hixson is the cofounder of the continental jazz sextet French 75 with clarinetist Tony Balluff. Hixson’s style is cool and light, and she favors classic jazz standards from the Great American Songbook.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Charmin Michelle moved to Minnesota while still a child and has called it home ever since. Michelle has a conversational style reminiscent of Billie Holiday and other legendary women of jazz.
Salsa del Soul is a nine-piece orchestra performing various styles of dance music from the Spanish-speaking regions of the Caribbean, including son, son montuno, plena, cha-cha-cha, bachata, timba and salsa.
Formed in 1986 and based in Minnesota, Moore By Four is fronted by four singers and has performed with Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie and Harry Connick Jr. The group has a soulful sound, and has been compared to Manhattan Transfer, a Grammy Award-winning jazz vocal group founded in 1969.
Jazz Staples Playlist
Unsure where to start with jazz? The genre is far and encompassing, but Steve Heckler, who helped create the Twin Cities Jazz Festival and Jazz Fest Live, is here to help. Here are his favorite jazz and R&B classics that he keeps coming back to.
See instructions below on how to add the playlist to your phone or tablet.
GET THE PLAYLIST
Every playlist on Spotify has its own unique code, similar to a QR code. Called Spotify Codes, these bars make it easy to add a playlist to your Spotify app on your device. Here's how:
- Download and open the free Spotify app on your phone or tablet.
- In the app, tap Search.
- Click the camera icon.
- Scan the barcode above, then tap the arrow to listen.
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