Thursday, June 23, 2011

St. Paul, Minnesota: Where a jazz festival is still a jazz festival

The 13th Annual Twin Cities Jazz Festival starts today. And guess what: It’s an actual jazz festival. Not just in name, but in the artists booked to perform. And not just the artists who will play on the main stages, but those being featured at other downtown St. Paul clubs during the festival. 

It seems that everyone is on board with the idea of throwing a real jazz party, not a so-called jazz party fronted by rock-and-roll bands. Our headliners are Danilo Perez (playing with John Patitucci and Adam Cruz) and Gary Burton (Scott Colley, Antonio Sanchez, Julian Lage). Heavy hitters and respected jazz musicians.

It’s our own little miracle. If I were wearing a hat, I’d tip it to festival president/executive director Steve Heckler and his board. Since I’m not wearing a hat, I’ll blow them all kisses.

Admittedly, ours is a small festival. Just one weekend in a small city park (Mears Park is the size of a city block). And yet, it must have been tempting to the festival organizers to see what big names outside of jazz might be available. Why not? Everybody’s doing it. The Montreal Jazz Festival recently added Prince to its lineup and announced it would give this year’s Spirit Award to Robert Plant.

Robert Plant? WTF? Writing on Facebook, Ted Gioia was far more eloquent than I about this:
I have no objections to white rockers. But jazz festivals should honor jazz artists, even if they occasionally book other artists to help pay the bills. In the last few years, the balance has tilted too far--with the music industry now seizing the very term “jazz” with all its powerful associations and connotations, and forcing it to do homage to artists who have no connection to jazz. I intend no criticism of Robert Plant, but this award is a bit of a joke, no? Certainly he already has plenty of honors, cash & acclaim, while many jazz stars are still scuffling and could use the boost.
(In fact, the Spirit Award, launched in 2006, has never once gone to a jazz artist. It's all about popular artists.)

At, Anthony Dean-Harris is using his own version of the Project Triangle to explore whether a jazz festival can be "good, pure, and cheap." (Short answer: Probably not without city/corporate funding. The lack of city support and the loss of corporate sponsors drove the Twin Cities Jazz Festival out of Minneapolis and almost killed it. Then St. Paul stepped up, and the citizens of Minnesota made Legacy Funding available. The festival has also picked up sponsors including Travelers Insurance, Dyson, and Jim Beam.)

At, the Ottawa Citizen’s Peter Hum recently had a “jazz guy vs. rock chick” discussion with the paper’s rock critic about the Ottawa International Jazz Festival, which features many of the same non-jazz artists as Montreal. It begins:
Peter Hum: Have fun in Confederation Park this month. I know I won’t.
Lynn Saxberg: You sound … bitter.
PH: That’s not the right word. But it does feel odd that after a dozen or so years of covering the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival’s outdoors mainstage shows in the park, I’m turning that duty over to you and my other rock-and-blues loving colleagues….What do you think about Jazzfest’s programming shift, and your new chores?
LS: Bring it on! I love reviewing the jazz festival — when it’s not jazz.
The estimable Hum later threw out this question to jazz artists: Do you have an opinion on the practice of some jazz festivals to give great prominence to rock and pop acts on their main stages, and if so, can you share it? So far, he has published responses from Brad Mehldau, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Christian McBride. (I don’t know if he has asked even more people. Check back on his blog.)

Brief quotes from each (please read the whole articles if you have time):

Mehldau: “To get snobby about it is a bit disingenuous because in a way they are subsidizing the jazz acts—a bit like Lady Gaga is subsidizing the whole record industry right now! Go figure.”

Hum also quotes Mehldau from Lloyd Peterson’s book of jazz interviews, Music and the Creative Spirit: “The ill will starts when people trade on the term ‘jazz.’” (So says Ted Gioia above.)

Mahanthappa: “I’m trying not to be too judgmental in the current economic climate. But yeah, it’s definitely a bummer…. I guess at some point you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. Because we certainly know that a lot of places have just closed up shop.”

We could take a long digression right here about jazz clubs, but we won't.

McBride would prefer that what Hum calls “an overly eclectic jazz festival” re-brand as simply a music festival, “instead of insulting the legacy of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk…. I just wish the word ‘jazz’ wasn’t exploited.”

It is very curious that the word "jazz," considered poison in so many quarters, draws huge crowds to festivals in New Orleans and Montreal, where the actual music is becoming harder to find. It's as if pairing "Jazz" with "Festival" has become some kind of secret code for inauthenticity. Like "cheese food."

I want to mention that this year’s Twin Cities Jazz Festival even includes some free jazz/improvised music. Not on the main stage or even the nearby 6th Street Stage, but only two blocks away, at Studio Z, home of the new music ensemble Zeitgeist

And while we’re on the topic of actual jazz festivals, hat tips and kisses to Iowa City’s, whose headliners this year include John Ellis and Double-Wide (who performed at last year’s Twin Cities Jazz Festival), the Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet, and Randy Weston.


  1. This does a very nice job of summing up the current discussion of jazz festival programming and tying it back to local events, Pamela.

    St. Louis remains without a jazz festival of any sort in June, after the St. Louis Jazz and Heritage Festival, which started the same year as the now-burgeoning Rochester fest, expired a couple of years ago. By that standard, Perez and Burton are very nice headliners indeed!

  2. Indeed, nice summary, Pamela.

    If I may digress about jazz clubs and nomenclature, I was struck by Lowell Pickett's recent preview of future shows and his repeated description of shows such as, say, Toad the Wet Sprocket, as "unusual" for the Dakota. But can the programming be "unusual" for a so-called jazz club if it's become the norm? Are jazz clubs in denial?

    And Mr. Minderman: I'll happily trade our little weekend jazz festival for Jazz at the Bistro. Deal? I find myself planning more and more trips down the Mississippi. An actual jazz club that's an actual listening room is a treasure. And, sadly, a nearly-extinct creature.

  3. P.S. Mr. Minderman: after stunning performances by Burton and Perez, St. Louis may need to throw in Colby Rasmus to get the above proposed deal done.