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Our Jazz Hero, Steve Heckler

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Our Jazz Hero, Steve Heckler

The Jazz Journalists Association annually recognizes individuals “who go beyond their job titles to have have significant impact in their local communities by supporting jazz music, musicians and musical culture.” For 2024, JJA has named  33 “activists, advocates, altruists, aiders and abettors of jazz” as the 2024 Jazz Heroes, including Steve Heckler, founding Executive Director of the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, and so much more.  This is the text of the nomination submitted to JJA by Andrea Canter, Steve Kenny, and Patty Peterson, past recipients of the Twin Cities “Jazz Hero” Award, with assistance from perennial festival volunteer Paul Juhl.

It is an honor to nominate Steve Heckler as Minnesota’s JJA Jazz Hero for 2024.  Yes, Minnesota, not MinneapolisAs Executive Director of the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, Steve has been our jazz hero for the past 25 years, reaching musicians, students, and music lovers throughout the state with opportunities to hear, perform and learn.

A New York native, Steve came to the Twin Cities in 1985, serving as a county social worker for the next 20 years. He was always drawn to music, touring with a rock band and getting hooked on jazz in his teens . He was also hooked on event organizing from the time he first attended a World’s Fair. In addition to the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, Steve has directed numerous music and cultural events and festivals, and served as the Executive Director of JazzMN Orchestra.

As the founding Executive Director of the Twin Cities Jazz Festival (retiring after the 2023 fest), Steve led the organization since its accidental birth as a one-afternoon jazz event in 1999 through its early years in downtown Minneapolis, its expansion to St Paul,  a 2008 funding crisis, and a new partnership with the city of St Paul, all while the festival grew in number of venues, musicians, student ensembles, master classes, and number of attendees—from 3000 in 1999 to 30,000-40,000 today. Musicians are always paid and attendance is always free, due to Steve’s commitment to bring jazz to all through partnerships, sponsors, and fundraising. When COVID knocked out the live festival in 2020, Steve launched “Keep Music Alive,” streaming initially from musicians’ home locations, later from live performances on area stages.

Running a big festival every year not only requires building relationships with musicians, venues, sponsors, and donors, but also with a large cadre of staff and volunteers. “To have the inspiration and drive to plan the first one, and then keep it going for 24 more, takes an immense amount of energy and joy,” notes volunteer Paul Juhl.  Energy and joy—and a lot of jazz love–sums up Steve Heckler.

Steve Heckler retired as TCJF director following the 2023 festival. He will be officially honored as JJA Jazz Hero at the 2024 Twin Cities Jazz Festival. Stay tuned for details.