For 35 years, the Jacksonville Jazz Festival has tried on more looks than the most finicky of celebrities: homegrown celebration at Mayport Village. WJCT-produced bonanza at Metropolitan Park. Urban block party celebrating Jacksonville’s Downtown revitalization. Profile-raiser for The Shipyards’ potential. Trad-jazz moneymaker. Pop-savvy loss leader. And, depending on whom in town you ask (and when you ask), every other point on the spectrum between rootsy artist-centric excellence and crass corporate cash grabs aimed strictly at boosting attendance.

This year’s festival, however, has two major things going for it: 1) a stellar lineup that spans nearly every strand of jazz, classical, R&B, and funk currently being heard in the United States, and 2) a return to the Downtown core, with a 15-block footprint encompassing three stages, a new Jazz Marketplace and Jazz Eats & Drinks set-up, and the usual Jazz Jam, Piano Competition, and Jazz Brunch auxiliary options.

Folio Weekly Magazine checked in with Jacksonville Jazz Festival staple and native son Longineu Parsons to talk about this year’s lineup, the evolution of the event, and how free jazz can in fact change the world.

Folio Weekly Magazine: You’re performing as The Longineu Parsons Ensemble this year. What does that lineup look like?
Longineu Parsons: It’s a five-piece group with my son Longineu “LP” Parsons III on drums, Zac Chester on piano and keyboards, Delorean Fullington on bass, and my partner in Tribal Records, Neil Faison, on guitar.

Your career has charted so much creative ground. Will the Ensemble home in on any particular slice of it?
We’re opening for Benny Golson, one of the great saxophone masters, and God — that’s how I look at McCoy Tyner. He’s the greatest pianist of the 20th century. So if we’re not at our absolute best, presenting hard-hitting jazz music that still retains my multicultural outlook, we’ll be swept away by the incredible tide of music that will follow us.

You have a strong personal connection to McCoy and Benny, right?
The first time I went to New York as a musician, McCoy let me sit in with him one night at the Half Note. I’ll never forget that — it was one of the most memorable performances of my life. Also, when McCoy was still in Benny Golson’s band The Jazztet, he needed a ride from New York to Philadelphia. Benny thought about who could do it, called Coltrane, and the story goes that by the time John and McCoy got to Philadelphia, Benny Golson had lost his piano player. It will be interesting to ask them about that.

Closer to home — we understand yours is among the oldest families in Jacksonville. Tell us more about that.
I’m a descendant, on my mother’s side, of George J.F. Clark, who was the surveyor general for Florida under the Spanish. He owned 29,950 acres of what is now Jacksonville and Green Cove Springs, and he founded the city of Fernandina Beach. Once Florida became part of the Confederacy, because many of our family members were mixed race, they weren’t allowed to do business or own property. They had to have white guardians, who of course disposed of all of our land — and then named it after a slaveholding Indian-killer, Andrew Jackson. My mother’s family gradually moved away; the boys would work from the time they were small, and when they turned 16, they were given all the money they had made and told to get the hell out of the South — and to never come back. They became doctors, generals in the U.S. Army, judges … But they never came back to Florida. The first person from Jacksonville to win any kind of medal in the Olympics was one of my relatives, Edward Gourdin — he got second-place in the broad jump, even though he couldn’t train for two years because he was busy at Harvard Law School.

How did you grapple with that urge to leave the South — and your decision to move back in the ’80s?
My father’s family had close connections to Florida A&M, where I went to school when I left Jacksonville. I was one of the kids [who desegregated] Ribault High School in the ’60s, so after that, I definitely didn’t want to come back. After Florida A&M, I went to Boston and studied at Berklee, started touring with a Broadway show and lived in New York, then moved to Paris, then back to New York, then down to the Caribbean. I did come back to Jacksonville for family reasons in 1986, but I had been away for so long that the city had changed considerably. And I made a nice home for myself — I was the principal soloist in the St. Johns River City Band, even though I had trouble getting in because word got out that I didn’t know how to read music. I’m college-educated as a musician, played with Cab Calloway, and still the stereotype is that black jazz musicians can’t read music. But I’m a classical player! That’ll be the interesting thing about opening for McCoy Tyner: I won’t have to restrain myself — I can really play like I play. And that was always difficult when I was living in Jacksonville, because there are all these expectations, along with a rather conservative attitude toward jazz.

Do you think things are moving in the right direction with Jazz Fest?
I’ve played the festival almost every year since 1981, when Dizzy Gillespie was the headliner. One thing that helped the festival along was [co-founder] Mike Tolbert — he admitted that he didn’t know anything about jazz, so he went to the library and studied. I dig on that in life. To think you know is a poisonous thought. He didn’t know how to put on a jazz festival, but he learned. And all the musicians I know who played there agreed it was a tremendous festival. The festival eventually came under different leadership, and many of them chose jazz people who were not real because they knew it would attract more crowds. And I understand that — the name of the game is to get people there, because if no one’s there, what value does it have? The festival moved in that direction of less and less real jazz for several years, but in 2016, the lineup looks incredible.

As an educator, how important do you think it is to have a free event like the Jazz Festival giving so many people an entrance point for jazz music?
Jazz is America’s classical music. And if we don’t take care of rebuilding our own culture, why should anybody else give a damn about it? People like what they’re exposed to, and young people are coming up thinking, “Oh, I don’t like jazz.” But I see it all the time in classes at Florida A&M: “I got to this class and I hated jazz — now it’s all I want to listen to.” This helps to up-end the fallacy that mass media only plays “what the people like.” But the mass media makes people like what they like, even though most of it is dumbed-down. It’s insulting as an American to look at this stuff and think, “This is what I’m supposed to be entertained by.” In general, what’s out there is meant to keep people from thinking and moving forward. But exposing people to jazz not for commercial benefit but for cultural enrichment is going to help them think and understand. And that is a seriously critical function.