Local Current Blog

15 artists of color to know on the Twin Cities jazz scene

Babatunde Lea (Jennifer Simonson/MPR)

While the Twin Cities may be known for a vibrant jazz scene, it’s no secret that many of the musicians playing the music in Minnesota are white. But even though the Twin Cities jazz scene might not be as diverse as other scenes, there are many artists of color here who work hard and bring a lot to their community. Here are just some of the best local jazz musicians to check out.

Lucia Sarmiento

Born and raised in Lima, Peru, saxophonist Lucia Sarmiento grew up immersed in jazz and Latin music. She studied jazz harmony and improvisation there with guitarist Andres Prado before moving to Buenos Aires to study at the Conservatorio de Musica Manuel de Falla, and then McNally Smith College of Music here in St. Paul. She often played in Solomon Parham’s former Solomon’s Sessions. Currently she is part of New Sound Underground and leads the Lucia Sarmiento Quintet.

Babatunde Lea

A master percussionist, Babatunde Lea plays what he calls the “traponga,” which is made up of three congas, a cajete or cow bell, trap drums and upright cymbals. Lea’s music is often inspired by African and Caribbean rhythms even combined with the modern sound of other jazz musicians in the Twin Cities. Throughout his career he has worked with jazz greats like Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tynner and Randy Weston. For Lea, African drumming is also a spiritual experience for him and he enjoys passing on what he’s learned through drumming workshops in the Twin Cities.

Aja Parham

With a wide vocal range and a deep knowledge of music, you can find Aja Parham singing anything from jazz standards to pop tunes, R&B, gospel, and Motown on any given night. She has sung with many of the Twin Cities’ best jazz musicians and performed with internationally known musicians like trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis and drummer Francisco Mela. Here in the Twin Cities you can often find her working as a freelance vocalist and singing in groups with her husband, Solomon Parham.

Solomon Parham

Trumpeter Solomon Parham is a gem in the Twin Cities jazz community. He’s shared the stage with nationally known musicians, Delfeayo Marsalis, Eric Alexander and Roy Hangrove, but what he’s most known for is building a community here in Minnesota. Parham has spent a lot of time bringing up the next generation of jazz musicians in the Twin cities, and specifically other young musicians of color. He teaches at the Walker West Music Academy and has given new artists a chance to shine in his former series, Solomon’s Sessions.

Viviana Pintado

Born and raised in Havana, Cuba, Pintado studied music at one of the country’s top music conservatories before moving to Miami, Fla. She’s toured around the world with many of the best Latin musicians from Albita Rodriguez to Celia Cruz and Gloria Estefan. Since she moved to Minnesota in 2004, Pintado has established herself as a powerful force on the Twin Cities Latin jazz scene with her incredible technique and style. She performs with groups like Seven Steps To Havana, Charanga Tropical, Salsabrosa, and more.

Sarah Greer

You can often find vocalist Sarah Greer performing with a cappella ensemble, Give Get Sistet and jazz quintet BLU-7. She also collaborates with other Minnesota jazz musicians like Anthony Cox and Jay Young. Her debut album, What the Music Says Do, was released this past year.

Pippi Ardennia

Originally from Chicago, Pippi Ardennia began working has been working as a singer when she was 13 years old and performed in some of the city’s most respected jazz clubs, playing with some of jazz’s most well-known figures. Since moving to Minnesota, she’s played around town with some of the areas top players and leads the Pip Jazz organization, which provides opportunities for students to perform and learn from professional musicians. Update 2/25: Pippi Ardennia has left the Twin Cities.

Eric Kamau Gravatt

A former member of Weather Report and the bands of many well internationally known jazz musicians like Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard and Blue Mitchell, drummer Eric Kamau Gravatt has had a pretty notable career. At one point, Miles Davis invited him to join his band, but Gravatt turned him down, instead joining Wayne Shorter in Weather Report. After moving on from Weather Report, he moved to the Twin Cities and took a break from music to raise his family. He later returned to music touring again with McCoy Tyner and now leading his own groups in the Twin Cities. Update 2/25: Eric Kamau Gravatt has left the Twin Cities. 

Charmin Michelle

Singer Charmin Michelle has been touring internationally since the 1980s. Here in Minnesota you can typically find her performing in duos with guitarists Joel Shapira and Sam Miltich. With Billie Holiday as an influence, Michelle often sings softly, but it doesn’t stop her from pouring her soul into her music. When Michelle sings she puts her own unique style on all her tunes while still paying tribute to its creators.

Debbie Duncan

A veteran jazz vocalist, Debbie Duncan is known for her vibrant personality, energy and range. She’s opened for many of jazz’s most famous musicians, from Miles Davis to Herbie Hancock and Joe Henderson and has established herself as one of the best jazz vocalists here in Minnesota. Duncan is more than just a singer, she’s a storyteller, with her powerful voice and her funny commentary keeping audience members come back time after time. Her latest album, Full Circle, was released this past spring.

Jay Young

Having played with many of the world’s most well known players, Jay Young has shared the stage with Dizzy Gillespie and Harry Connick Jr. In Minneapolis you can find him freelancing for other musicians and playing with his group Jay Young & Lyric Factory.

Donald Washington

Donald Washington has been a staple of the Twin Cities music scene for the past three decades. On stage he generates energy with groups he plays with and is looked up to be many other local musicians in the Twin Cities. A longtime music teacher in the Minneapolis Public Schools system, he is passionate about passing on the music on to his students and keeping the tradition alive.

Davu Seru

Inspired by a wide variety of genres from blues to free improvisational mucic, jazz and avant-garde music, drummer and composer Davu Seru incorporates different elements of what he hears into his work.  Also a published writer and a professor of English and African American literature, Seru is often inspired by what he reads. He tries to tell his own stories through his music and find meaning in what he plays.

Kevin Washington

One of the Twin Cities most versatile musicians, drummer Kevin Washington doesn’t stick to the jazz of the past. He takes the music to a new level, often incorporating other genres from Afro-Latin to hip hop and R&B beats. The son of saxophonist Donald Washington and singer Faye Washington, Kevin Washington grew up in Detroit immersed in learning music and listening to the jazz greats who came before him. Since moving to the Twin Cities in his teens, Washington continues to capture the spirit of the African and African American music, while making it his own.

Anthony Cox

Well known locally and nationally, Anthony Cox has played with the musicians  from John Scofield to Joe Lovano, Pat Metheny and Dewey Redman, Here in in Minneapolis he mostly plays post-bop avant-garde and traditional jazz and is one of the Twin Cities most seasoned and sought out musicians.

Simone Cazares is a student at St. Catherine University. Originally from Miami, Fla., she survives Minnesota’s cruel winters by immersing herself in the Twin Cities music scene.