More than 30,000 people will see 72 musical acts on 22 stages over three days this week in St. Paul. And it’s free. And the musicians are paid.
How does Steve Heckler pull off the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, the metro area’s biggest annual free music event?
The only person who works full-time for the TC Jazz Fest, co-founder and executive director Heckler farms out responsibilities to part-time contractors and 200 volunteers who help stage the festival, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. And he has committee after committee of volunteers who help with everything from booking talent to ensuring diversity.
“These committees get together and formulate our plans,” said the one-man staff. “I look at myself more as a community organizer. My motive is to bring people together around the common theme of jazz as opposed to the other way around.”
The Jazz Fest is a bit like the Minnesota State Fair without a fence, gate admission or birthing center. Concentrated in the Lowertown area of St. Paul, it features a main stage in the lushly landscaped Mears Park. Food trucks and beverage vendors surround the park, not to mention several popular restaurants, bars and clubs within walking distance.
Music at Mears happens rain or shine. (Over the years, only one night of the Jazz Fest has ever been rained out.)
Headliners this year are saxophonist Tia Fuller, a Berklee College of Music professor who has toured with Beyoncé; veteran saxophonist Houston Person, who will play with the Emmet Cohen Trio; and vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, a Grammy and Tony winner who was named a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master.
“All the headliners are required to do a clinic at one of the schools. Free clinics,” Heckler explained. “We have 100 kids playing the festival. It’s all about getting the community involved.”
New York native Heckler, 60, a onetime touring rock-band keyboardist and a former social worker for Hennepin County, has been an events organizer since attending New England College.
“I blame the 1964 World’s Fair. That’s why I do events,” he said.
A regular at all the World’s Fairs since childhood, he even helped a few years ago to try to bring the fair to Minnesota. He also served as director of the Festival of Nations for eight years.
Heckler got hooked on jazz as a teenager. “I got bit by jazz in 1972 when I saw Return to Forever in a rock ’n’ roll house,” he said. “At the time, we were seeing rock bands. Santana and Canned Heat. I had no idea who Return to Forever were. What did we see?!”
Whatever it was, it made a lasting impression on Heckler. He’s been involved with the Twin Cities scene since moving here in 1985. He’s been full-time with the Jazz Fest since 2013.
This year’s festival has a budget of about $500,000, including $9,000 for insurance. About one-third of the budget comes from sponsors.
“With sponsors, we can argue ‘get your brand out there,’ but you’re really connecting with a community,” said Heckler, who has a master’s degree in social work.
A contracted firm sells the sponsorships for the festival, taking a percentage of what it raises. Sometimes Heckler, a tireless networker and skilled schmoozer, will don a coat and tie to close the deal if necessary.
There is no titular sponsor (“We’re still purist about that,” Heckler says), but sponsors’ names appear on many of the 22 stages. This year’s 45 contributors range from logical candidates (Crooners Lounge, Summit Brewing, Schmitt Music, KBEM-FM aka Jazz 88 radio) to not obvious endorsers (AARP, Xcel Energy, Pohlad Companies, UCare, Episcopal Homes, Feline Rescue, Highway Bank, BWBR architect firm).
Sponsors sign on for one year at a time, which makes budgeting a challenge and delays booking of big names until late fall.
Grants from foundations and other nonprofits are another important revenue source. “Most grants that fit us involve bringing people together,” Heckler said.
This year’s festival lost two key funders — including $75,000 from the Minnesota State Arts Board.
Heckler’s solution was to trim the festival by one day. Hence, Thursday has no big-name headliner, just an abbreviated schedule of local jazz performers on a limited number of stages.
One new wrinkle this year is a low-budget, big-reward endeavor with historian Bob DeFlores showing his vintage jazz films of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and others at the TPT building, an indoor venue with chairs and air conditioning.
To help fund the annual event, the Jazz Fest also collects profits from beverage and merchandise sales as well as fees and percentages from food-truck vendors.
Then there are individual donations, which, like grants and sponsors, account for about one-third of the festival’s budget.
“We target them at the event itself,” Heckler said of donors. “A lot of it is guerrilla marketing. And we go to wealthy people in town. It doesn’t have to be wealthy. We have lots of people give $50. That adds up. And we count the 150 VIP tickets as donations.”
This year, festival venues stretch well beyond Lowertown, embracing everything from Mancini’s Char House on W. 7th Street to the Lake Como pavilion to the Naughty Greek restaurant on University Avenue, just short of the Minneapolis border. Some stages are outdoors; most are inside. In all cases, admission is free and the musicians are paid, save for the student performers.
Didn’t start as festival
The Jazz Fest didn’t start this way. It began innocently enough with eight jazz fans, including Heckler, approaching the Minneapolis Downtown Council about having a jazz night as part of its Live After Five series on Peavey Plaza in 1999.
“We expected 300 people to show up to our little thing and 3,000 showed up,” Heckler recalled.
So the next year the one-day event became the Hot Summer Jazz Festival and then incorporated as a nonprofit in 2001 with a three-day affair. In 2004, the event expanded to embrace downtown St. Paul, as well.
In fall 2008, the board of directors decided to pull the plug on the festival, after making cutbacks and losing money. However, two months later, Joe Spencer, then St. Paul’s arts and culture director, called to see who the headliners were for ’09. Heckler told him they weren’t doing the festival.
“Yes, you are,” Spencer retorted.
With help from the city of St. Paul, the Winter Carnival and the newly formed Lowertown Entertainment District organization, the fest rebounded.
With less planning and a smaller budget than usual, Heckler booked New Orleans pop-soul legend Allen Toussaint and rising jazz newcomer Esperanza Spalding and set up Mears Park with enough portable toilets and food and beer vendors for 1,000 people.
“Something magical happened that night,” Heckler noted. “We had probably 5,000 to 7,000 people show up. We were totally unprepared for that.”
Suddenly, Lowertown had arrived and so, too, had the TC Jazz Fest.