For a 33rd year, music enthusiasts will devote a long weekend to jazz.
Smooth jazz. Bluesy jazz. Latin jazz. Jazz with a little bit of Americana. Jazz with a touch of funk.
But for the first time in the history of the Clearwater Jazz Holiday, the four-day event is shedding its status as one of the last remaining free jazz festivals in the country. This year, patrons will pay to listen to the music.
"With the economy, it's just so hard to keep the quality of acts up there," said Allon Sams, the event's music selection chairman. "It gave us a little more money to work with."
Starting at $10 for a one-day general admission ticket, the new fee meant organizers could book hotter headliners, Sams said, amping up the buzz around the festival.
This year's lineup includes two Grammy Award winners — Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bonnie Raitt and fierce up-and-comer Esperanza Spalding — as well as the chart-climbing Avett Brothers. Local jazz saxophonist Mindi Abair also stars.
"It's pretty cool," Sams said, "a pretty cool mixture of stuff."
The hit acts appear to have stifled most of the groans over the opening of wallets, organizers said.
Sams arranged the diverse acts with each night featuring a certain style of jazz. Organizers expect capacity crowds, with the reserved seating section already sold out for Thursday with Bonnie Raitt and Sunday with the Avett Brothers.
In recent years, the Clearwater Jazz Holiday has drawn about 40,000 visitors over its four days.
If that's not enough jazz, Sams will also help host a Friday after-party at the Capitol Theatre. For the second year, musicians — including some festival acts — will jam from 10 p.m. into the early-morning hours.
Since tickets and sponsors cover the cost of the event, any donations collected at the festival can go toward educational outreach, said Clearwater Jazz Holiday Foundation president Bob Childress.
The foundation has expanded into more local schools, he said, giving more students opportunities to come to the festival and enhance their own music programs. More interns will also have a hand in running the event.
The festival's transition to a paid event has elicited "99 percent satisfaction," as Childress put it. People don't seem to mind paying for what they love. But the switch to tickets means patrons will lose another perk they once enjoyed.
Ticket descriptions say there's no re-entry into the festival if guests leave. Now that tickets are required, it's too much work to monitor people coming and going, said event official Michelle Gallagher.
"There's really no reason to leave," she said, since musical acts will constantly take the stage and vendors will sell food.
That doesn't sit well with longtime Clearwater Jazz Holiday attendee Rob Ross. The New Port Richey jazz lover has gone to the festival nearly every year since its inception.
When festival days run as long as nearly 10 hours, Ross says, he has always stepped out to retrieve a forgotten jacket or umbrella from the car. Or he leaves to go home to take care of the dog.
With no re-entry, "you're going to have to pick and choose what it is you're going to see," said Ross, 64. "I think it will probably be a black eye on an otherwise terrific festival."
The early outlook for the weather stays true to Florida fall. High temperatures forecasted in the 80s will cool to 70s at night on the first two days of the festival, said Bay News 9 meteorologist Mike Clay. Rain chances hover around 20 percent.
Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or [email protected]