A lot has changed in the 34 years since a modest crowd gathered in the historic Mayport fishing village for the first ever Jacksonville Jazz Festival. Growing pains paved the way to venue changes, an expanded festival schedule and booming attendance throughout the years. One constant that has remained relentlessly intact is the caliber of artistry at the festival and the unwavering commitment to jazz in all of its forms.
Formerly billed as the Mayport and All That Jazz Festival, the Jacksonville Jazz Fest evolved from a small, single day event to a nationally recognized destination at Metropolitan Park produced by WJCT and partners. The City of Jacksonville took the reigns in 2003 and the festival footprint has continued to expand in the city’s downtown core, bringing in such artists as Dizzy Gillespie, Al Jarreau, Chick Corea, Spyro Gyra, Chris Botti and more.
Held May 22-24, the lineup for the 2015 Jacksonville Jazz Festival continues to demonstrate an unparalleled level of performer, unlike any other free music festival in the country. This year, Peabo Bryson is joined by the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra and exciting newcomers Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox. The lineup also features Tito Pieente Jr., Snarky Puppy, The Soul Rebels, Lisa McClendon, Kellylee Evans, Joy Dennis, Elisha Atlas Parris, Mama Blue, Ignacio Berroa Quartet and Felix Peikli.
In addition to the festival performances, Grammy-winning artist Fantasia Barrino will headline the Jacksonville Jazz Festival Off Jazz Concert on Friday, May 22, at the Florida Theatre and Jazz Fest After Dark held at nine participating venues including Underbelly, 1904 Music Hall, Burro Bar, the Parlour, Rain Dogs and the Volstead.
Over 60 acts will be featured during the Jazz After Dark series such as Whole Wheat Bread, Grandpa’s Cough Medicine, Inspection 12, Greenhouse Lounge, Steve Swell, Parker Urban Band, Jamison Williams, Willie Evans Jr., Herd of Watts, Fjord Explorer, Squeedlepuss, The Dog Apollo, JacksonVegas, Firewater Tent Revival and more.
“We are really excited to bring the event back and keep people entertained,” says the city’s Special Events Director Tonisha Gaines. “We’ve got about 30 artists that will be performing on three stages plus the Pulse in the Park in Hemming Park on Saturday as well. And then the Jazz After Dark which is in its third year and gives people something to do when they want to stay Downtown just a little bit longer.”
The inaugural jazz festival was founded by former Mayor Jake Godbold in 1979. The single-day event drew approximately 25,000 people to the quaint Mayport Fishing Village. The festival quickly outgrew the site and was relocated to the newly-opened Metropolitan Park in 1982. Control of the jazz fest changed hands throughout the years. Funding waned and attendance dropped, resulting in no festival in 2001 and 2002.
In 2003, festival organizers shelled out an unprecedented $100,000 to secure the legendary Tony Bennett to headline the event. This fee also included $10,000 for expenses for a 75-minute performance. Just to put that number in perspective, Dizzy Gillespie headlined the festival in 1981 for a paltry $7,500.
Today, the Jacksonville Jazz Festival remains a free, three-day event with a juried art exhibit, piano competition, jazz jam and Jazz Brunch. The festival boasts three stages and draws impressive crowds each year. As the downtown renaissance continues to bloom, Gaines says she and her team must address the festival’s future growth potential each year.
“It’s a great thing that the city is growing and the businesses have the opportunity to participate in big events and festivals like the Jazz Festival and One Spark,” Gaines says. “The business owners really embrace the culture Downtown, and it really gives them the opportunity to engage as well.”
Gaines says she has received nothing but positive feedback from the business owners and restaurateurs. Last year, when the festival footprint was moved to include more of the city’s entertainment district, “those business owners were excited to receive some of the love from the jazz festival,” she says. “The Pulse in the Park happening Saturday activates the downtown core as well, so there is some love all around Downtown.”
Once the jazz festival gets underway, Gaines and members of her special events production team will be at ground zero to experience first-hand what is working and what needs tweaking. They will hear stories from people who live in Jacksonville and those who have travelled to attend, and they will feel the pinch when and if the event reaches maximum capacity.
“That would be an awesome problem to have, to outgrow the downtown area. Time will definitely tell as we are attracting new people. We are still a free festival in the southeast, and there are very few of those out there, so I think that’s an interesting dynamic and keeps people coming back,” says Gaines.
“We continue to evaluate what is going be the best for the growth of the festival moving forward and what is going to keep it interesting, so when people are visiting from other areas of town or from outside of the region, they see something unique and enjoy the character of Jacksonville, specifically Downtown.”
Get map, transportation and more information HERE.