Selby JazzFest
Selby Ave. JazzFest impresario Michael Wright (second from left) and members of the Selby Avenue Brass Band warm up for the 20th edition of the annual street festival on September 11. Photo by Brad Stauffer

When Mychael Wright and Tom Wells became neighbors in 2003, they had no idea where it would lead. Wright had founded the Selby Ave. JazzFest a couple years earlier, just after he and his wife Stephanie opened Golden Thyme Coffee & Cafe at the corner of Selby and Milton Street. Wells was a musician, and the two men soon discovered they shared a love of jazz. Wells has been a part of the JazzFest ever since, with his band leading the parade that opens the festival and later performing on stage.

Scheduled from 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 11, at the corner of Selby and Milton, the Selby Ave. JazzFest is marking its 20th year in 2021. Unlike the virtual festival in 2020, this year’s fest will be live and in person.

“This year’s celebration is a celebration of life,” said Wright, who with the festival and his coffee shop at 934 Selby Ave. has been credited with inspiring the rebirth of that part of the Summit-University neighborhood.

Twenty years ago, Wright said, he was not sure that JazzFest would be around in 2021, much less have a national reputation among musicians and listeners alike. From an attendance of just a few hundred people in the early years, the event drew over 15,000 before COVID-19 forced it off the streets. Wright is hoping the September 11 event will mark a new beginning for the JazzFest.

So much talent close to home

“We’re keeping it local this year,” he said. In addition to Wells’ Selby Avenue Brass Band (formerly known as Dick and Jane’s Big Brass Band), the JazzFest will feature Ignacio “Nachito” Herrera and the Habana Jazz Social Club All-Stars, singer Thomasina Petrus, the Walker West Music Academy All-Stars and Brio Brass.

This year’s lineup highlights the fact that there are unsurpassed jazz musicians just around the corner, Wright said, and that there is no place like home when it comes to the enthusiasm of jazz lovers.

For 2021, it seemed especially fitting to feature Herrera, Wright said. The Cuban Latin jazz pianist, arranger and composer is celebrating his 20th year living in Minnesota. Herrera has appeared in two previous JazzFests, including the virtual festival in 2020. At the time, he had just recovered from a bout of COVID-19.

From humble beginnings

As Wells prepared for his 18th JazzFest appearance, he recalled the early years when the electricity for the stage traveled through extension cords plugged into outlets at his house. That worked, he said, except for the time his wife started a load of laundry and the power suddenly dropped precipitously.

“One of the musicians ran over and asked if we had something running in the house,” he said. “We quickly turned the washer off.”

Wells’ home also served as the “green room” for the JazzFest. Eventually, Golden Thyme took over that role, but having artists in his home was an extraordinary experience for Wells. “There was a whole lot of fun happening in and in front of our house,” he said.

What to expect on September 11

This year the Selby Avenue Brass Band will play upbeat jazz standards during its traditional march up Selby from Victoria to Milton streets. On stage, it will branch out into other brass band repertoire, including pieces that Wells has composed, such as “Rondo, Rondo” and “Selby Street.”

The Walker West All-Stars are exceptionally happy to be a part of JazzFest 2021, supporting an event that is just down the street from their home at 760 Selby Ave. Wells teaches brass and conducts jazz clinics at Walker West Music Academy. Jack Breen will be directing the All-Stars at JazzFest. Breen, who plays saxophone and flute, grew up in Saint Paul and took lessons at Walker West from grade 3 through high school. Now he teaches private lessons and coaches jazz ensembles there.

Coming back for a seventh year is Brio Brass. Since its founding in 1999, the 50-piece ensemble has mastered a broad range of musical styles, from ballads and show tunes to pop, funk, rock and plenty of jazz.

As always, JazzFest will serve up a variety of food and crafts at booths up and down the street, although the number of vendors is expected to be slightly lower this year due to the challenges of COVID.

For more information on JazzFest 2021, visit selbyavejazzfest.com.

— Anne Murphy

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