Sweet sounds of summer: For three days, jazz takes center stage in St. Paul

Chris Bates performs on the main stage at the 2013 Twin Cities Jazz Festival, an important showcase for local jazz musicians. The annual festival in St. Paul’s Mears Park draws about 30,000 people.
Photo By: Simone Cazares
"(Jazz) doesn't have to be intellectualized the way a lot of the players think about it. We have all of this intricate stuff that we think about, and most people just hear music." -- Chris Bates

For jazz fans and musicians alike, summer means the arrival of the highly anticipated Twin Cities Jazz Festival. Founded in 1998, the free festival takes place June 26 to 28 at Mears Park in the Lowertown neighborhood of St. Paul.

“There’s something about St. Paul and jazz in the summer that just go together so well,” said teen jazz pianist Will Kjeer. “There’s so much music to pick from at any given time during the weekend, and finding exactly what you want isn’t difficult.”

Thanks to donations and grants from various art boards such as the City Star, the Legacy Fund and the State Arts Board, the festival has been able to remain free, as well as expand and hire more musicians over the years.

That’s good for local musicians like Twin Cities bassist Chris Bates. With locals making up about 75 percent of the festival roster, Bates has noticed that more available gigs means less competition—allowing the artists to come together as a community.

“I think that’s a big deal for the people who run it,” Bates said. “I think they want to keep it free because … you get more people coming to check it out who wouldn’t have otherwise taken a chance if they had to pay.”

The extra funds also give aspiring jazz musicians like Kjeer the chance to play in a festival setting.

“Being able to share the stage with such established artists is definitely very cool,” Kjeer said. “It’s a great thing that I can listen to a national group play in Mears Park and then immediately go perform at a nearby stage, which may then attract the same crowd.”


Although Minnesota’s jazz scene has been named one of the best in the country by national publications, the genre doesn’t get as much attention as rock and hip-hop—especially among young people. Its declining numbers led to the closing of one of the region’s most well-known jazz venues, St. Paul’s Artist’s Quarter, in January.

“What numbers?” Bates said, laughing. “It’s true that jazz audiences are smaller, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t appeal to people when they hear it. It just doesn’t get the same level of exposure that obviously a lot of other music does.”

Bates has seen a build-up in audiences because of the jazz festival, with the exposure in summer helping artists expand their reach.

“In the summer, (audiences are) huge because you can be outside at 9 p.m. and it’s nice out,” he said. “It’s a good way to grow an audience … because you have the talent and a really great band with great energy. You can play on a lot of different stages. People can enjoy that music, who maybe haven’t heard it before. Especially younger audiences.”


Youth involvement at the festival is essential, said Alden Drew, head of the Twin Cities Jazz Festival Board. For many young people, the festival is the first time they’ve been exposed to jazz.

“It’s kind of coming back around, where 16 to 20-something year-olds are actually paying attention to jazz,” Drew said.

That’s something Bates knows all too well.

“I know there were a lot of kids when I was in high school who didn’t know (about jazz). It was the same story. They haven’t heard the music. They don’t have a perspective on that,” he said.

“But I know … people who have been out of high school for almost 25 years talk to me and are like, ‘That CD you put out was really great.’ And it’s something that I put out 15 years ago. I don’t sound anything like that anymore, and they talk about how they still listen to that and feel connected to that band because it represented a thing … that got them passionate about art and creating.”

To encourage young musicians breaking into jazz, the festival will have a Youth Stage where teens like Kjeer can play. This year, he will be leading his own group of high school aged musicians while also playing in the Dakota Combo, made up of the region’s top high school musicians. Additionally, McNally Smith College of Music, located in downtown St. Paul, hosts workshops that youth can attend with visiting artists.

“In the past, I’ve been able to attend one with Jon Weber, who is one of my all-time favorite pianists and who has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things jazz,” Kjeer said. “They’re definitely worth checking out for anyone who is interested in learning more about jazz or just hearing some really great music.”

“That’s really our mission of the jazz festival is to promote jazz in Minnesota,” Drew said.


Kjeer said that he’s always liked jazz and got into the genre by watching the Peanuts’ TV specials. The music, composed by Vince Guaraldi, is what Kjeer considers “bottom line accessible jazz.”

“When’s the last time you heard someone say they don’t like the Charlie Brown music? Probably never,” Kjeer said. “I think a lot of people who get into jazz get so deep into it that they sort of forget that we live in a culture where in order to attract a larger audience, it’s important to keep the music accessible to those who don’t understand exactly what’s going on … just by listening to it.”

Bates agrees that jazz may be intimidating because of its esoteric nature.

“(Jazz) doesn’t have to be intellectualized the way a lot of the players think about it. We have all of this intricate stuff that we think about, and most people just hear music,” he said.

“I mean, sometimes all it takes is you playing a ballad, and someone being like, ‘What’s this?’ And finding out that it’s ‘My Funny Valentine.’ ‘Oh, wow! That’s a cool song.’”

No matter your comfort level with jazz, Kjeer believes the Twin Cities Jazz Festival is a great opportunity to sample something new from a wide-ranging genre.

“If you think of yourself as liking music, go,” he said. “It’s free, there’s food, the weather is always nice,. It’s outdoors, the bands are always absolutely mind-blowing … You won’t find a better day to sit in the sun and listen to music anywhere.”


The 16th annual Twin Cities Jazz Festival takes place from June 26 to 28 at Mears Park in the Lowertown neighborhood of St. Paul. Each year, about 30,000 people attend.

Headliners at the free festival include Grammy-winning vocalist Dianne Reeves and jazz master saxophonist Branford Marsalis. You can also see Will Kjeer and Chris Bates at the following times:

• Kjeer performs with the Dakota Combo at the Dakota Foundation for Jazz Education, Prince Street Stage, at 7 p.m. Saturday, June 28.

• Bates performs at the Mears Park Stage with Atlantis Quartet at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 26 and at Red Planet at 4 p.m. Friday, June 27. Bates, along with other Twin Cities jazz musicians, will also be debuting a piece written for Zeitgeist—a new music ensemble—at 5 p.m. Thursday and Friday at Studio Z.

For more information about the festival and artists, or to see full schedules, visit www.hotsummerjazz.com.