The Jacksonville Jazz Festival, evolving over 38 years, is bigger than ever
The fact that our city hosts one of the largest free jazz festivals in the country is impressive. The legendary names that have visited here to headline over the years — think Miles Davis, Tony Bennett, Dizzy Gillespie, and Harry Connick, Jr. — is even more so. That the festival has creatively evolved over three decades alongside the growing city, spurred on by feedback from its hundreds of thousands of attendees, is perhaps the most impressive aspect to this annual event. Each year brings new and beloved performers, and now-staple ancillary events, but also invariably includes new surprises.
This year, the big change announced by the City of Jacksonville is to the location of two out of three of the festival stages. The main stage, referred to as the Swingin’ Stage presented by Jacksonville Aviation Authority, is moving to the front of the Duval County Courthouse, offering a unique setting for guests as they watch performers on the lush, green lawn of the iconic, recently-raised building.
As in recent years, there are three Downtown stages in total. The Breezin’ Stage has moved to the corner of Adams and Main Streets, and the Groovin’ Stage presented by Jacksonville Acura Dealers will remain in Hemming Park. This new, more streamlined layout allows for easy walkability.
Mainstay signature events, such as the Piano Competition held at the Florida Theatre on opening night and the Sacred Jazz Brunch held at the Omni Hotel on the final day, remain, and newer additions like the Jazz Marketplace heighten the lively, street festival vibe throughout the Downtown core, consolidating artisan wares and al fresco dining into distinct, walkable areas. The entire festival footprint of fifteen blocks is closed to traffic and open to walking, sitting, listening, dancing, eating and drinking, and even jumping in to join a parade.
The festival has seen many production and location changes since its inception as Mayport & All That Jazz, a one-day music and seafood festival held in Mayport in 1980. It was just the following year that Dizzy Gillespie and the Phil Woods Quartet came to perform and momentum was charged for growth. Two years later, the festival moved to the new Metropolitan Park and renamed Jacksonville & All That Jazz. Gillespie returned, along with Wynton Marsalis, and The Great American Jazz Piano Competition was born — Marcus Roberts was named the winner, and a sixteen-year-old Harry Connick, Jr., was a finalist.
1985 saw local public broadcasting station WJCT take on sole production, with the festival becoming its main annual fundraising event, and the name changed to what it is today — Jacksonville Jazz Festival. After fifteen years at the helm, WJCT stepped down as producer in 2000, and three years later, the City of Jacksonville rejuvenated the festival in large fashion, introducing the concept of multiple venues throughout the Downtown core, which is now the heartbeat of the Memorial Day weekend event.
2018 will be a expansive street party, from Ocean west to Broad Street and Forsyth north to Duval Street, full of free, live entertainment by way of state-of-the-art light and sound, and artists as varied and creative as the genre itself. Patrons can browse, listen to music, enjoy drinks and food, and peruse the Jazz Marketplace, where approximately thirty vendors will display their handcrafted items. Brent Fine, manager for the Office of Special Events, City of Jacksonville, says there are lots of new performing artists this year, as well as those returning by popular demand. “The Sunday night headliners — Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue — have been a request from many attendees for years, and it has been over five years since they’ve been here,” says Fine. Calling them incredibly high energy, he says the group “will rock the closing of the festival.”
Fine also mentions world-famous drummer Sheila E, her father Pete Escovedo, and the popular Big Bad Voodoo Daddy as performers he’s excited about. “It’s a huge mix, which is what we’re really proud of; you can see a big band, a Latin band, a drummer, saxophonist, vocalist … they’re all there.”
Kicking off the festival each year is the Jacksonville Jazz Piano Competition held at the Florida Theatre at 7 p.m. Thursday evening. A staple of the weekend, all attendees can see the competition winner perform Saturday afternoon on the Main Stage. Happening early on Saturday is the Jazz Clinic at the Ritz Theatre and Museum. Geared toward anyone who wants to improve their chops, once registered, participants can bring their instrument and get small group or one-on-one training with some of the festival’s performing artists. “It’s essentially a jazz master class,” says Fine.
Later on Saturday there is another unique way to experience the festival: the Second Line Jazz Parade, an organic parade led by Terry Parker High School’s band, that winds through the streets. The parade begins at 4 p.m. at the Main Stage and will roll all the way to the Hemming Park Stage, growing in size as it goes. “You can just jump right in off the street,” says Fine. “It’ll start with a couple of hundred people and grow to five- or six-hundred by the time it reaches the park. People will literally jump from the sidewalk, grab some beads from our volunteers and join.”
Finally, the sell-out mainstay on the final day is the Sacred Jazz Brunch at the Omni Hotel. With two brunch seatings, Fine says you can enjoy a full buffet of “everything you can imagine” while listening to a unique blend of jazz and traditional gospel music performed by
the well-known Noel Freidline Quintet and Maria Howell. This calmer sensory experience is a good way to close out the wild weekend.
Fine says the event involves hundreds of volunteers who put in thousands of hours to help the city produce the festival. “Volunteering is a great way to get involved and to meet people here in your community,” he says. The city is anticipating crowds well above one-hundred-thousand again this year, and VIP packages were nearly sold out within the first week of online sales. “With the artist line up that we have and the ancillary events that we produce it definitely will be another great year,” says Fine. Jump in on the fun and be part of Jacksonville’s massive, thirty-eight-year musical tradition.
The 2018 Jacksonville Jazz Festival takes place Thursday, May 24 through Sunday, May 27. For more information on volunteer opportunities, VIP packages, the festival lineup and special events, visit jacksonvillejazzfest.com.