Come for the music: stay for the atmosphere.
This might serve as a fitting slogan for the Twin Cities jazz festival, held every June in and around Mears Park in Lowertown Saint Paul.
The shows are free. The streets are blocked off. There are four outdoor stages and quite a few events scheduled in nearby bars and restaurants. Come early. Patronize the food trucks. It’s a good way to get to know the neighborhood.
As for the music, it’s a mixed bag of local, international, and marquee jazz performers. Too many guitars, too few keyboards and brass instruments. But that’s the way jazz has gone, and we can’t do much about it.
We arrived at 5 p.m. with collapsible camp chairs and considered ourselves lucky to stake out two spots on the east side of the plaza in front of the main stage. We caught the last two numbers of Red Planet, one of guitarist Deal McGraw’s groups. The first was a slow and slightly tedious blues number, but the group finished up with a rousing version on John Coltrane’s "India." Without much of a melody to work with, McGraw slashed through some very thoughtful and occasionally exhilarating changes.
By that point the plaza was filling but the woods and grassy knolls on the south side of the park still looked pleasantly pastoral, with picnickers here and there and children cooling their feet in the artificial stream that crosses it.
Leaving our chairs behind, we paused briefly at the small Sixth Street Stage, where Peruvian guitarist Andres Prado was fronting a band with an unlikely name: Mississippi. Then we scoped out the food trucks on the east side of the park, returning to our seats with a hot dog and some chicken curry from a self-styled Afro-Italiano truck called the Cave Café.
Now a momentous strategic issue arises: move onto the grass on the other side of the plaza path, out of the direct sunlight? Yes. The sightline isn’t quite so good and the sound might suffer a little, but it’s a far more pleasant place to sit!
A new band appears. Dave Hegedorn (vibes) and Jon Weber (piano) backed by an astute rhythm section (Steve Pikal and Phil Hey) weave their way through some tasty standards. One of the best sets of the weekend.
Friends arrive and fill in the space next to us. We wander down to the Union Depot, where the Twin Cities Latin Jazz Orchestra is playing. The wind is gusting, dusk approaches, crowds are getting thicker, and there are times when the music sounds better from a distance, wafting between buildings and trees.
By the time the Bradford Marsalis quartet took the stage, crowds were thick in the aisles and the MC had to tell the people standing four deep in front of the stage to move to the back so others could see. Marsalis immediately established a “command” on stage, and on the first number his pianist, Joey Calderazzo, played a solo so long and frantic I began to worry for the continued health of his forearms.
Marsalis himself shifted from soprano to tenor saxophone as the group canvassed a Bebop tune (was it Gillespie’s 52st Street Theme?), an original composition ( modal and intense), then a standard. Marsalis returned to the soprano for a ballad; it was dark, the conversational buzz in the park had jumped a few notches, the trees above our heads were rustling big time, and the young people sitting behind us (who appeared to have little knowledge of or interest in jazz, to judge from snippets of conversation that came our way) had gotten into party mode around the beer cooler.
Meanwhile, a couple sitting directly in front of us (inspired by the familiar rhythms of the standard, no doubt), had leapt from their chairs and begun to dance in the now-confined space they occupied. The man wore a pork pie hat, hadn’t shaved recently, and seemed to have picked up his dance steps from watching Jerry Lewis movies. His partner did her best to remain upright.
It was about time to go.
We beat the throngs out to the sidewalk and stood in the streetlight glare enjoying the encore—a soulful rendition of “St. James Infirmary.” Once again, the music seemed to come together into a coherent sound more forcefully from a distance.
Bradford’s set had been rousing, but also frustrating: so much good music had been lost to the environmental static.
* * *
Almost coincidentally, we dropped by the festival again on Saturday afternoon, on our way home from a bike ride in Washington County. The scene was pleasantly relaxed on the grass in front of Union Depot, where we heard two vocalists (Lucia Newell and Maud Hixson) shape tunes, backed by an attentive rhythm section that included pianist Rick Carlson and (once again) guitarist Dean McGraw.
On our way back to the parking lot, we passed the Jazz Education stage on Prince Street, in front of the Black Dog Café. A hip quintet of youngsters was just wrapping up a set, after which some educators summoned a group of twenty-odd teens in brown T-shirts who had been lying around on the sidewalk (the Jazz Around Minneapolis Big Band) to gather with their instruments on the east side of the stage.
They were on next!