Sustaining the Twin Cities’ African-American heritage: The Selby Avenue Jazz Fest


Late last summer, St. Paul’s vaunted Selby Avenue Jazz Fest endured overcast weather, with drizzle. People still showed up. Some three thousand strong. And were glad they did, digging on a killer lineup of Wenso Ashby featuring Zsamé, Yohannes Tona, the John Raymond Project, Salsa Del Soul, headliner Jason “Malletman” Taylor, and more. Slated for this year’s Jazz Fest—which takes place today, Saturday, September 12—are the LexHam Community Band, Pippi Ardennia, Brio Brass, Patty Lacy-Aiken, Hagos Berhane, and headliner Kim Waters. Show up early for a decent view of the stage. Very early.

To hear folk talk about the Selby Avenue Jazz Fest, you’d think it’s been going on since they invented dirt, one of those venerable, decades-old institutions. It’s only been six years, though—a smashing success each time out. Scholar, historian, and community griot Mahmoud El-Kati, despite a dawn-to-dusk schedule, makes it on down for the festivities every year. Hasn’t missed a one. “It is a significant event,” he says. “Its ambiance is unmatched. Mychael Wright has done a sterling job, bringing together local and national talent. Kudos is all I can say for Mychael and the Jazz Fest. One hopes it will be around for a long, long time. It’s a [strong] piece of spirituality. The cultural consequence is not to be denied. The Selby Jazz Fest sustains the heritage of the African-American Twin Cities.”

Each of the past 6 years, at the start of September, the intersection of Selby and Milton in St. Paul is the spot for music, food, and general good fun (including kids). Founder Mychael Wright has invested in his community for quite some time. Long before the event, he established Golden Thyme Coffee Café, a cornerstone fixture for socializing. From all walks of life—some in business, some in the arts, some in education—folk get to congregate, network, and just in general be about a community.

“I didn’t have a grand opening celebration for my business, Golden Thyme Coffee Café,” says Wright. “As we got up and running, I wanted to see how the community would react to a yearly music fest-type of event.” The first Selby Avenue Jazz Fest was at Milton Avenue between Dayton and Selby Avenues and drew about 700 people for an afternoon of music and food. This year, they expect in the neighborhood of 5,000. Mychael Wright has his own description of the festivities. He dubs it “the biggest backyard party in St. Paul.”

You’re the “Father of the Festival.” When was the first one organized? Was it right away with the expectation that this would be an annual event?
The first one was my second year of opening the coffee shop business. September of 2001. I did it as my grand opening and had an idea of jazz with a hint of R&B. Year after year the response grew. I like to put things together in the hope that I connect with like-minded, smooth people. The expectation grew from the response. Kind of like the mother of invention.

Why did you start the thing?
The response from the community keep it alive. People after the first small test keep coming up to me to do the following year and it took off.

Were you met with skepticism? Encouragement? Did it matter to you, either way?
No skepticism at all. I tried out for the Gladiators and got pretty far in that endeavor. I entered [the Gladiators] at the U of M back in the 80s. It was an obstacle course setting, set for television, that pit you against some tough opposition. I made it through three events at the U. Out of hundreds. It was a great outlet to see how far you can push yourself though I trained myself for it. How about 35 full pull-ups in one minute, for starters? It was a fantastic challenge and fed into my over-achieving personality. So, tell me “No” and I do my best to prove you wrong. Not to be arrogant. I just don’t like when some try to diminish another’s vision or dream.

How did the first festival come to be? How did you make it happen? What where the headaches? How rewarding was it once everything was accomplished?
Moving on, having my grand opening. I had help, with a small nonprofit that’s no longer in the area assisting me. Once I realized that the community loved it, it became a worthwhile event to do.

How do you select artists to appear at the festival?
I like to promote the many talented people of the Twin Cities first and foremost. I have my pulse on the rhythm of our area. I feel what they people want. I mix things up to broaden the jazz influences and traditions.

How pleased are you with the success to date?
I very pleased. The small group of people that work on the Fest have done a great job.

Your wife, Stephanie—what’s her role at Golden Thyme?
She is the one who brings the hammer down when folks don’t act right. No, she is the personality who day-to-day customers get to know. I’m there to deal with them when they’re still half asleep, in the early AM. She gets them when they’re wide awake. So she keeps the customer service on its toes while I then become the gopher: go for this and go get that.

Well, the last time I was there, she was managing. Ask Mahmoud, ’cause she sure managed to stop me and him from fussin’ long enough so folk could enjoy the film that was playing.
That’s what I meant, when I said she brings the hammer down when folks don’t act right. I heard about that. I cracked up.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.

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