Jazz Fest in search of new leadership as Hecklers plans exit

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by casey ek
After approximately 25 years, Twin Cities Jazz Fest luminaries Steve Heckler and Kristine Heckler will retire after the 2023 season. Steve is the organization’s executive director and Kristine is its project coordinator.
Next season will mark the 25th year of the festival, after which the duo will make their exit. The festival is looking for a replacement general manager. Those interested in the position can submit their resume, cover letters and three professional references to [email protected] with the subject line Last Name, First Name ED Candidate. The new executive director should take office gradually from November and become full-time next November. Interviews are scheduled to begin September 20.

History of the Jazz Festival
The history of the jazz festival begins in 1999 in Minneapolis when Steve Heckler and Steve Adams, with the help of the Minneapolis Downtown Council and Kevin Barnes of Jazz88FM, brought to life a primordial version of the festival at Peavey Plaza where 3000 guests attended presented.
Preparations for the festival’s eventual permanent move to St. Paul began in 2003 when Steve Heckler and Barnes were driving around town scouting locations for a potential site for a St. Paul wing of the then-thriving Minneapolis festival.
“We both braked when we saw Mears Park,” Steve said.
So for the next five years, the festival ran in both cities until it became clear, amid waning support in Minneapolis, that pivoting to St. Paul was the best option. In 2009, with the help of Joe Spencer, Director of Arts and Culture in Mayor Chris Coleman’s office, who connected the festival with sponsors, the Twin Cities Jazz Fest debuted solely in St. Paul .
Organizers expected the 2009 festival (led by Allen Toussaint and Esperanza Spalding) to draw several hundred people; instead, around 8,000 people showed up and it became clear that St. Paul was the festival’s rightful home for good.
Today, Kristine and Steve are content knowing that they have played at least some role in the revitalization of St. Paul’s Lowertown neighborhood, of which Mears Park is the center. When the festival first came to St. Paul, all-day parking was $1 and some buildings adjoining Mears Park were mostly vacant. Although there are plenty of vacancies in the area today, the jazz festival has remained a draw, and as the city continues to recover from COVID, the festival will no doubt play a major role in the filling in empty spaces in Lower Town. In addition to the park’s main stage being a centerpiece, the two-day festival kicking off in the summer brings audiences to nearby businesses to hear youth ensembles and participate in seminars led by headliners.
Jazz, said Steve, has a unique power to unite the community because of the freedom it allows musicians and audiences to feel. It’s partly for this reason that he thinks people return to the festival year after year.
“This [jazz] allows a musician to go places they normally couldn’t go. In a word, it is freedom of expression. Limits aren’t quite what they are in rock or blues,” Steve said.
The road ahead
Now more than a decade after the St. Paul pivot, the husband and wife pair have seen just about everything there is to see in the world of St. Paul jazz. That’s largely because for the past 24 years, the festival and its backstage have consumed their lives morning and night, the couple said.
What started as a whiteboard in their house to help track jazz festival logistics grew to two and then three over the years. When Steve is busy scouting for upcoming artists like Henry Berberi, a 17-year-old saxophonist from Morris, Minnesota, Kristine could hire volunteer coordinators and make sure e-ticket sales go smoothly.
With the festival having occupied the last two and a half decades of their lives, the couple are ready to step out of the limelight. They are assured that their exit will be smooth due to those they believe to be strong leaders within the ranks of the jazz festival and the loyalty of the festival sponsors.
Sponsor loyalty was tested during the 2020 shutdowns when the jazz festival was forced to switch to virtual shows. These virtual spots caught the attention of the national offices of AARP (formerly American Association of Retired Persons) who then partnered with the jazz festival. This sent the viewership numbers of their weekly broadcasts to over 80,000 viewers worldwide for some shows. The sponsors held on even before this exponential success, Steve said.
KJ’s Hideaway, which opened last year, has become the main venue for the concert series, which has been ongoing since 2020 and is expected to last until at least December. The establishment is a true jazz venue, although acts of all kinds light up the stage here. A flight full of craft cocktails could leave a bartender’s hands in suspenders. Dim, nearly extinguished lights give way to spotlights on a stage that was unambiguously central to the establishment’s layout. On this stage is a real Yamaha grand piano. Adding to its charm, it’s tucked away on the lower level of St. Paul’s historic Hamm building, just off Rice Park.
Kristine and Steve were among dozens of live viewers – there were nearly 1,000 remote viewers – on Henry Berberi’s August 18 show. There, the couple met the Community Reporter.
Asked about their plans after coming out of the official Jazz Fest ranks, the former social workers said they would spend time with their granddaughter and find volunteer opportunities, likely with other nonprofits in St. Paul. As for what they expect from the 2024 jazz festival, which will be the first they won’t be involved in planning, they plan to sit back and have fun.
“I’m going to watch the VIP [lounge staff] and make sure they get me another drink,” Kris said with a chuckle that mingled with the sounds of the musicians warming up on stage at the KJ.

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