The Clearwater Jazz Holiday is back, now 32 years old and barely missing a beat.
The free jazz festival, one of the biggest of its kind in the Southeast, plays Thursday through Sunday at Coachman Park on the downtown waterfront.
Among this year's acts: Trombone Shorty, a New Orleans brass virtuoso who appeared in HBO's Treme; Kevin Eubanks, a guitarist and former band leader of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno; Dianne Reeves, four-time Grammy winner who sang for the closing ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympics; and Maceo Parker, a saxophonist who worked with James Brown and George Clinton's Parliament Funkadelic.
Over three decades, jazz acts like Tony Bennett, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, Buddy Rich and Stan Getz helped the Jazz Holiday ascend from the flatbed of a truck into one of the country's preeminent jazz events.
Critics say the event's luster has faded in recent years with the lack of high-profile headliners. But operations manager Michelle Gallagher said economic times have made it hard to lure top jazz talents.
"We're happy to still be able to present a free event," she said.
Though the show is kept free in part by grants, donors and corporate sponsors, including the St. Petersburg Times, the Jazz Holiday sells reserved-seating tickets for about $20 a day.
Visitors can bring lawn chairs and blankets, but no pets, tents, grills, coolers, glass, weapons or fireworks are allowed. Organizers this year expect a crowd of 50,000.
The first Jazz Holiday, in 1980, was a 10-day marathon of ice shows, sailboat races, old movies and jazz musicians playing from the flatbed of a truck. Volunteers slept overnight at Coachman Park to guard equipment, and an organizer sold the crowd 50-cents nachos and cheese.
The opening act ended with clarinetist Bob Draga floating off in a hot-air balloon to the tune of Up, Up and Away.
"We didn't know what we were doing," Don Mains, who helped organize the event, said in 2009. "So we did everything imaginable."
Yet for all its pep and popularity, the festival didn't earn a profit: Organizers lost money for the first six years. However, increasing attention from media outlets like USA Today and performances by jazz legends such Dave Brubeck and Richie Cole helped turn the Jazz Holiday into a player on the national jazz circuit.
By 1995, attendance had broken 100,000. By 1999, the event had expanded to include a $100-a-plate dinner benefit. The volunteer night watch and nacho stand were replaced by paid security guards and professional vendors. One sold a skewer of shark meat for $4.95.
One of the festival's few constants, it seems, is bellyaching over the lineup. In the '80s, lovers of Dixieland and traditional New Orleans jazz decried the event's focus on mainstream and progressive acts. Others questioned why the festival featured repeat acts — even when they were stars like Tito Puente.
"There are so many different genres of jazz that it's hard to please everybody," Gallagher said. "But this year has something for everyone."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or [email protected]