CLEARWATER — Thirty years ago, the first Clearwater Jazz Holiday was a little different.
The stage was a decorated flatbed truck. Volunteers slept on it overnight to guard the equipment. Organizers recruited their first sponsor by leaving a note on his car windshield.
The headliner, clarinetist Woody Herman, agreed to come mainly because one of his band member's parents happened to live here. Some 2,000 people showed up. For concessions, one of the festival's founders set up a makeshift stand and sold nachos for 50 cents.
Since then, things have definitely changed. Jazz Holiday has evolved into Clearwater's signature event, routinely drawing 40,000 to 50,000 fans to Coachman Park over its four-night span.
But as things gear up for the 30th Jazz Holiday, which runs from Thursday through next Sunday, some facts remain the same. Volunteers still do the bulk of the work, from moving pianos to selling beer to picking up trash. And it remains one of the last free jazz festivals left in the country.
"The whole reason for Jazz Holiday was to take advantage of a beautiful time of year in late October, and to draw European travelers to this place on the water," says Cary Stiff, one of its founders. "It's taken a cast of thousands to make it successful."
A packed house
This year's biggest headliner is the Neville Brothers, New Orleans' first family of funk, who have a bit of a history with Jazz Holiday.
The last time they played here, five years ago, they filled Coachman Park well past capacity on the biggest Saturday night in the festival's history. It was the first and only time the fire marshal had ever ordered the gates closed during a Jazz Holiday show.
The Nevilles will close out this year's festival in fiery fashion on Sunday night. Other nightly headliners include seven-time Grammy Award-winning singer Al Jarreau, smooth jazz saxophonist Boney James, and the soaring sounds of trumpeter Chris Botti.
Saturday night will offer a couple of extra treats besides the headliner. There will be a fireworks display as well as a huge jam band billed as the "Jazz Holiday 30th Anniversary Extreme Tribute Band."
"It will be 30 performers, most of whom have performed at Jazz Holiday previously. They're all getting together for this fantastic set — sax, clarinet, trumpet, keyboards, classical piano and singers," said the event's administrator, Michelle Gallagher. "I think that's what everybody is going to be talking about afterwards, besides the headliners."
Another attraction will be the second year of the Clearwater Jazz 'N Art Walk, an outdoor art show on the 500 and 600 blocks of Cleveland Street in downtown Clearwater.
Running from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, it will feature live entertainment and children's activities. The Dunedin Fine Art Center will run a "Kids Educational Zone" at Station Square Park, with hands-on creative activities to introduce children to the arts experience.
Still, the main focus of Jazz Holiday is the jazz, with a lineup of musicians intended to appeal to a broad base of fans. The waterfront park gets more crowded during the evenings, filling to capacity or near-capacity by the end of each night.
"The top two questions are always, 'Can I bring a cooler?' and, 'Can I bring chairs?' The answer is no coolers, and yes to chairs," Gallagher said. "There are plenty of food and beverage vendors in the park."
Jazz Holiday's roots
So how did Clearwater become a bastion of jazz?
It all goes back to 1980, when Don Mains and Cary Stiff first got this thing going.
Mains was tourism coordinator for Clearwater's Chamber of Commerce. Stiff was a real estate broker and president of a Downtown Merchants Association. They wanted to create an event that would bring people downtown.
They chose the word "holiday" to attract European tourists. Unlike Americans who take a vacation, Europeans go on holiday.
And jazz lovers can thank a group of British travel writers for the festival's choice of music. As a chamber official, Mains took them to a local Fun 'N Sun parade in 1980, where a Dixieland jazz band riveted their attention.
"Ah, that's America," one said.
So jazz it was.
The first Jazz Holiday lasted 10 days. In addition to music, the festival included an ice show, sailboat races, old-time movies, an art exhibition, porch parties and a clarinetist performing while taking off in a hot air balloon. It was roughly modeled after the annual 17-day Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C.
"It almost killed us," Stiff recalls.
"We didn't know what we were doing," Mains jokes now, "so we did everything imaginable."
Within a few years, the Holiday got whittled down to a more manageable four-day weekend.
That has been a key to its longevity, says Donna Yarbrough, a Jazz Holiday Foundation board member who has been involved from the beginning.
"People can come for one day or four days if they want. They're not locked in," she says. "People look forward to the change of weather in the third week of October, and they look for the festival to be held at that time."
The Holiday's founders marvel at how far their baby has come.
"Fun is in short supply these days," Stiff says. "We need to give people the opportunity to come out and take a break and enjoy themselves."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.