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30 years of Clearwater Jazz Holiday

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 or (727) 445-4160.


Clearwater Jazz Holiday, Thursday through

Coachman Park, downtown Clearwater

Bring: Lawn chairs, blankets, sunscreen, still cameras

Don't bring: Coolers, food, drinks, pets, tents, backpacks, umbrellas, audio or video recording equipment, laser pointers, skateboards


5 p.m.: Gates open

5:30-6:30 p.m.: Tom Brantley

7-8 p.m.: Mike MacArthur & Nate Najar

8:30-10 p.m.:
Al Jarreau


4 p.m.:
Gates open

5-6 p.m.: The Organic Trio

6:30-7:30 p.m.: Joe Baione

8-9 p.m.:
Nicole Henry

9:30-11 p.m.:
Chris Botti


2:30 p.m.:
Gates open

3:15-4:30 p.m.: Gumbi Ortiz and the Latino Projekt

5-6:15 p.m.: Les Sabler

6:45-8:30 p.m.: Jazz Holiday 30th Anniversary Extreme Tribute Band

9-10:30 p.m.: Boney James


2 p.m.: Gates open

2:30-3:30 p.m.: Youth Jazz Band with BK Jackson

4-5:30 p.m.: Marcus Roberts Trio

6-7:30 p.m.: Brian Bromberg's "It Is What It Is" Band

8-10 p.m.: Neville Brothers

For information: Visit www.clear or call (727) 461-5200.

Through the years

1980: The inaugural 10-day music festival, sponsored by the Greater Clearwater Chamber of Commerce, includes an ice show, sailboat races, old-time movies, an art exhibition and free concerts at Coachman Park.

1982: Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie plays for a crowd of 10,000 at the third annual festival. A tight budget forces organizers to trim the event to five days.

1983: A new bandshell, the Charles Wharton Johnson Pavilion, gives the festival a permanent stage.

1984: For the first time, Jazz Holiday brings in more than one headliner. Herbie Hancock, Dave Brubeck, Nat Adderly, Richie Cole and Judy Roberts perform. The festival begins its traditional Thursday-through-Sunday schedule.

1985: Attendance at the four-day event reaches 50,000. Coachman Park is packed on the festival's third night for the Count Basie Orchestra.

1990: The nonprofit Clearwater Jazz Holiday Foundation takes over festival operation from the chamber.

1993: A steady rain forces the cancellation of the entire seven-act lineup on a Saturday, the biggest of the four-day schedule. The festival loses $25,000 in revenues.

1997: After numerous requests to sell beer and wine at the festival, the Jazz Holiday Foundation finally gets permission from Clearwater.

1999: Organizers briefly experiment with adding two more days of music on Clearwater Beach to the four-day lineup. As Hurricane Irene threatens, one speaker on the stage summons the spirit of Dizzy Gillespie's cheeks to blow away the storm.

2004: Thanks to acts like Branford Marsalis and the Neville Brothers, the festival draws 42,000 and finishes in the black for the first time in years. Another first: Organizers ask fans to donate a few dollars to help keep the festival free. They collect $10,000.

2008: Roughly 40,000 people come to see headliners like Tony Bennett and David Sanborn as the festival faces stiff competition from the Tampa Bay Rays playing in the American League Championship Series. Not a problem this year.


Share your Jazz Holiday memories

The Clearwater Jazz Holiday will celebrate its 30th anniversary Oct. 15-18 and we'd like you to help us provide some special perspective for the festivities. What are your favorite memories from Jazz Holidays past? In 100 words or less, tell us what you think. It can be focused on a particular artist or any other aspect from the 29 previous events. Perhaps you met your spouse at Jazz Holiday, use the festival as an annual gathering place to catch up with old friends or remember a particular year when your whole family was able to meet for the event. You can send your comments via e-mail to or by mail to 710 Court St., Clearwater, FL 33756. Or you can drop it off at the Times office at the Court Street address. The deadline is noon Monday.

30 years of Clearwater Jazz Holiday 10/10/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 10, 2009 3:25pm]
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