SPRING HILL — Patti Cotter says she learned a lot from organizing last year's inaugural Taste of Jazz festival. Mainly, that there's a lot of work involved in putting together a two-day event showcasing area jazz artists and local restaurants.
"I think everyone was exhausted afterward, but happy to know that we had pulled it off pretty well," said Cotter, who is chairwoman of the event sponsored by the Hernando Fine Arts Council.
This year's Taste of Jazz will be held Saturday and Sunday at the Weeki Wachee Springs.
It coincides with a piece of Florida history as the famous mermaid attraction officially becomes a state park Saturday.
The change in stature came as part of a legal settlement between the private firm that managed the attraction and Southwest Florida Water Management District, which owns the property.
The transition is still under way but the state's new park manager, Tommy Ervin, will be on hand for the event.
"Weeki Wachee Springs is a unique attraction that will add a special touch to the state park system," said Jessica Kemper, a spokeswoman for the Florida Park Service.
Organizers expect the festival to draw a good turnout and Cotter said she is looking to have an army of volunteers to help out.
"We're expecting a much bigger crowd this year," Cotter said. "The slow economy has caused some things to be canceled. I think people in Hernando County are starved for some culture right now."
Such optimism, Cotter said, is based not just on the expectation of nice weather, great music and delicious food. She truly believes that the jazz festival may eventually become the largest public event in the county.
She cites a similar event called Taste of Chicago, which she attended several times as a resident of that city, as proof that a well-produced festival will attract a loyal following,
"People here are willing to get behind something if they think it's worth their while," she said. "That's why we've worked so hard in making improvements on last year's event."
In an effort to make the festival more family-friendly, the Fine Arts Council has added a number of kids activities to this year's Taste of Jazz. A "musical petting zoo" will allow youngsters to touch various jazz instruments. In addition, they will be able to make their own instruments from recycled materials and join in a Dixieland-style jazz parade.
Cotter said the musical focus has been expanded to include more contemporary jazz groups on the festival's three stages.
Headlining Saturday will be Late Night Brass, a 10-piece Tampa group that plays contemporary jazz. Another central Florida contemporary jazz band, the Robert Harris Group, will headline Sunday's performances. Local jazz performers will include the Allen Breighaupt Trio, Matt Cucinotto, the Eddie Graham Quartet, the Hernando Jazz Society band, Southern Exposure, plus the Nature Coast Technical High School and Springstead High jazz bands.
The number of food vendors has grown as well, with 10 local restaurants serving up sample-sized tastes of the finest fare.
In anticipation of large crowds, off-site parking will be available at Northcliffe Boulevard and Commercial Way with free shuttles to ferry visitors to the park.
"We're supposed to have great weather so there's no excuse for anyone to stay home," Cotter offered.
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or 848-1435.