Mychael Wright loved jazz even before he knew its name.
As an 8-year-old, he remembers the scent of his uncle's Cuban cigars — and how the sounds of the musician's saxophone as he practiced made young Wright's heart soar. Decades later, Wright's love of jazz became more refined as he curated programming at the Glam Slam nightclub in Minneapolis.
So in 2002, when this graduate of St. Paul Central High School and owner of the newly opened Golden Thyme Coffee and Cafe was mulling ways to bring positive attention to St. Paul's Selby Avenue, hosting a jazz festival was a clear choice.
"I was looking for something to uplift the community, uplift a street overlooked, avoided, forgotten," said Wright, now 63. "I wanted to give people a vision of what can be."
On Saturday, the Selby Avenue JazzFest marks its 20th year. From the few hundred people who watched the first show years ago, the free festival has grown to 2019's prepandemic audience of 15,000 at the corner of Selby Avenue and Milton Street. After an online-only show in 2020, Cuban Latin jazz pianist and composer Ignacio "Nachito" Herrera and his Habana Jazz Social Club All-Stars headline the 2021 festival's return to performing before an in-person audience.
"It's helped to elevate and keep this community relevant," Wright said of the 2-mile stretch of Selby between Dale and Snelling. Over the past 40 years, the transformation from a place to be avoided into an increasingly thriving corridor of growing small businesses has been dramatic. And during the past 20 years, new housing and eateries — including Golden Thyme — have made that part of Selby a destination.
Greg Finzell, executive director of the Rondo Community Land Trust, credits the launching of the jazz festival by Wright and his wife, Stephanie, for starting the positive vibes.
"Mychael and Stephanie always wanted to create a festival that would be representative of the community but hopefully draw people from outside the community, to show folks that this is a thriving and good place to come," Finzell said. "Over that 20-year period, they have more than accomplished that goal."
The festival started a year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Now, after the ravages of COVID-19 and the social unrest that followed the killings of George Floyd and Daunte Wright (no relation to Mychael Wright), the uplifting power of music — and the community-building benefits of the festival — are just as important, said Braxton Haulcy, executive director of Walker West Music Academy. The school, which has taught thousands of students, has called Selby Avenue home since 1989.
"People need something to bring them joy. That, to me, is needed more than ever right now," Haulcy said. "Music has a real healing power."
Walker West, which moved less than a block from its longtime home to renovated and expanded digs in 2014, will be doing its part. The Walker West Music Academy All-Stars, made up of staff members and upper-level students, is scheduled to perform. Other scheduled performers include the Selby Avenue Brass Band and Brio Brass.
Herrera, a Grammy Award winner who will be playing in front of a live, festival audience for the first time since contracting COVID in March 2020, said he and his wife, Aurora, appreciate what the Wrights have done for their community. While he has played in venues all over the world, Herrera said he's drawn to the audience connection that festivals provide.
"I have always liked supporting this type of community event," he said, adding that he performed solo during last year's online festival. "It's important for me to get in touch with the audience and the community. And [the Wrights] work hard. They deserve support."
Wright said organizing the festival has become increasingly time-consuming and, frankly, less fun over the past few years. Security costs are rising. Recruiting sponsors, time-consuming. And while he hints at a willingness to let others take up some of the heavy lifting, he doesn't seem quite ready to hand it all off just yet.
He's even thinking of ways to expand.
"What I'd like to see is other Selby Avenue businesses do something musically, maybe on their own stage, maybe with different genres," Wright said. "Next year, God willing if we do it for one more year, I'm going to really push that. After all, it's about inclusivity."