11th annual Selby Avenue JazzFest brings music, pride

Abdul Zuhri
Guitarist Abdul Zuhri performs Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012, at the Selby Avenue JazzFest in St. Paul, Minn.
Photo courtesy TMO Entertainment

The Selby Avenue JazzFest takes place on Saturday in St. Paul, with a variety of performances that ends with a contemporary and soulful conclusion.

When guitarist Abdul Zuhri takes the stage about 6 p.m. at Milton and Shelby avenues, jazz fans will hear an entertaining blend of jazz, funk, rock and blues. Sharing the stage will be R&B and gospel singer Cheryl Pepsii Riley.

The music is a bit of a departure from the kind of modern improvisational jazz popular in much of the Twin Cities, but it's a natural for JazzFest founder and director Mychael Wright, who describes himself as "kind of a smooth jazz person."

In some jazz circles, that style is frowned upon, particularly among those who favor the intricate music of jazz musicians who demonstrate improvisational prowess. But those complex sounds demand more of listeners and can turn some off.

Recognizing that, Wright aims to present older styles earlier in the day, among them the Dick and Jane's Brass Band and the Walker West Music Academy band. To close the festival, he wants a funky performer who can please the Selby Avenue crowd.

"What I try to do is come up with a jazz band that is going to excite people in a positive way," he said. What I try to do is raise the energy as we go into the headliner. If I can find some danceable funky jazz I'll go with that. Our event doesn't really lend itself to being quiet. We have to have that energy."

That doesn't mean the festival will ignore other styles. Also performing will be Salsabrosa, a Latin band led by remarkable Cuban pianist Viviana Pintado.

Singers Pippi Ardennia and Yolande Bruce will perform in one jazz heritage showcase and Timotha Lanae in another that strive to honor jazz performers who paved the way for today's artists.

For Ardennia, the headliner or the genre isn't the point. Instead, she said, what's important about the Selby Avenue JazzFest is its ability to draw people to Selby Avenue for great music and food, an event championed by Wright and his wife Stephanie.

"What the Selby Jazz Festival is, is more than the music," Ardennia said. "It's the largest African-American jazz festival in Minnesota. It's an old school block party that brings family, friends, community and businesses together in celebration."

The festival has been a big boost to Selby Avenue, a once-suffering area that has undergone a transformation in recent years as businesses opened and residents reclaimed troubled streets.

"You could have put this area in any seriously challenged city in the country at one time," Wright said. "We've definitely come a long way."

Wright launched the event in 2002, with one stage at Milton and Shelby that featured organist Billy Holloman performing a tribute to Jack McDuff. The first festival attracted about 400 people, but the following year, the audience was three times larger.

This year, more than 12,000 people are expected to attend, Wright said.

"It just gathered so much momentum, he said. "People want to be part of the festival now. It just galvanized the community. It's a blessing -- a lot of hard work, but a blessing."

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