Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Make that the St Paul Jazz Festival!

© Andrea Canter

We used to call it the Hot Summer Jazz Festival. Then, perhaps to call attention to the location, it became the Twin Cities Jazz Festival. But last fall, it almost became another casualty of economic downturns, as Festival Director Steve Heckler was on the brink of announcing that the area's biggest jazz event of the year would be canceled for lack of sponsors.

In recent years, the TC Jazz Festival covered two long weekends on either side of the Mississippi, centered on Mears Park in St. Paul and on Peavy Plaza in Minneapolis. But sponsors like Mercedes Benz, Caribou Coffee and Summit Brewing gradually dropped out. And where was the city of Minneapolis? Jazz apparently just wasn’t a big enough draw despite the 25,000 or so who typically crowded both venues each June. But in winter 2009, with the annual Winter Jazz Festival scratched for similar lack of support, a funny thing happened. The city of St. Paul, specifically the office of Mayor Chris Coleman, decided a jazz festival was important to the community. They found sponsors, the city offered support, and Mears Park was soon designated as the epicenter of the 2009 Twin Cities Jazz Festival, scaled back to one weekend, in one city. Steve Heckler jumped on the opportunity to make this a festival of quality if not quantity. So who needs Minneapolis or Peavy Plaza?

With only a thirty-minute shower neatly falling between Friday night’s last sets, even the weather seemed to bless the festival. There was already a good crowd when the young Turks of the Dakota Combo opened on Friday afternoon, and by the time Irv Williams took his final bows, there literally was not even standing room at Mears Park to welcome Allen Toussaint to the stage. Much the same pattern emerged on Saturday, with more and more gathering for each set until, again, folks stood five rows deep to holler and whistle at Esperanza Spalding, whose talent outshines her near cult status. Legend and fast-rising star sparked equal interest.

I can’t estimate the size of a crowd larger than a fully loaded elevator. But if the quality of music, enthusiasm and lack of elbow room are any indication, the 2009 Twin Cities Jazz Festival of St. Paul was as successful as any I’ve attended. Irv Williams, the New Standards, Terence Hughes, the Klondike Kates, Jon Weber, Allen Toussaint and the Southside Aces are all well established with their own large followings. The Dakota Combo, Walker West ensembles, Esperanza Spalding, and the weekend's upstager of them all, 21-year-old saxman Alex Han, injected the youthful spirit that any festival needs to keep the energy (and beer) flowing and sponsors happy. Give Steve Heckler, and Chris Coleman, a high five and grand cadenza!

Photos: (top to bottom) Carson King-Fournier and the Dakota Combo opened the Mears Park stage on Friday afternoon; the crowd packed the space in front of the stage at Mears Park for Jon Weber and Alex Han; Allen Toussaint headlined Friday night; Esperanza Spalding was the best night cap on Saturday night. Photos by Andrea Canter at the 2009 TC Jazz Festival.