As parents sipped local brews from AARP cozies, kids ran around with Mardi Gras beads and pendants displaying the Twin Cities Jazz Festival logo.
On June 23, the first evening of the three-day festival, everything was running smoothly at Mears Park in downtown St. Paul. A cool breeze blew, dogs were well behaved and no children had fallen into the park’s river — yet.
Craig Eichhorn has been curating the festival since its inception. He assures that the festival is a walk in the park for everyone else. For him, it’s more like a sprint. On a single day at the festival, Eichhorn puts over 34,000 steps on his pedometer.
“You’ve doubly surpassed your goal,” his body monitoring watch reminded him.
Eichhorn has a pretty good idea of why the festival works so well.
“It’s just because of the people that are working on it all year long. Everyone’s really passionate about it, and it’s important to them. St. Paul is very gracious. The parks are beautiful, and you feel at home while you’re there,” Eichhorn said.
The festival is a nonprofit organization, so sponsors and donations are crucial. Behind the stage, a number of local sponsors had set up tents, with abundant amounts of festoons and information sign-up sheets.
Headlining on Thursday at Mears Park was the Joey Alexander Trio. Members of the trio include Grammy-nominated Joey Alexander on piano, Dan Chmielinski on bass and Ulysses Owens Jr. on drums.
Lots of buzz surrounded Thursday’s headliner, but not for the normal celebrity reasons — Alexander is, as of Saturday, 13 years old.
Dressed in a gray sports coat and hunched over his piano, Alexander’s fingers flew. He played both covers and original compositions in a new-school style, pausing every once in a while to coyly address the audience. His raw, musical bravado is not like his soft-spoken voice, however.
While Alexander will eventually settle into a genre — and likely dominate it — he is still finding a groove for himself. As for now, he thrives on stage.
Throughout the entire performance, Owens never stopped smiling. He looked at Alexander in awe of what he was witnessing, harnessing the energy in his own performance.
Upon standing up between his partners for a bow, Alexander was dwarfed. The audience was once again reminded of Alexander’s age, but it didn’t matter. After an encore, he was offered a standing ovation.
“I’m so happy to be here for the first time. Thank you,” Alexander said.
After the show, attendees were urged to explore the other Jazz Festival events in the coming days, including a jam session later in the night.
“Check out our road map to happiness — the Jazz Festival program,” someone on stage said.
After the show, Alexander stood backstage signing autographs. Chmielinski and Owens chatted with fans as well.
“You were just as fun to watch as [Alexander]; I hope you know that,” a fan said to Chmielinski. He accepted the comment graciously.
Chmielinski is young to be so far in his career as well — at 21 years old, he is still a student at Julliard. He has known Alexander for two years, and they have been playing together a little over a year.
The group showed up in the Cities Thursday afternoon and headed to the St. Paul Grill for some walleye — a Minnesota specialty, they were told. They came to the festival early to see Ellis Marsalis before taking the stage.
When asked how it is to play with Alexander, Chmielinski smiled.
“We play off of his energy,” he said.