CLEARWATER — At the first Clearwater Jazz Holiday, bands played on the bed of a flatbed truck at a beach tiki bar. Over three decades, the festival has evolved into the city's signature event.
Tonight the magic begins again.
For four days and nights, downtown's population will swell by some 50,000 souls. With a hot lineup of talent playing at the free festival, organizers are praying for good weather and looking forward to a packed Coachman Park.
Tonight's main attraction is living legend Tony Bennett. Other headliners this weekend will include alto saxophonist David Sanborn, funky pianist Joe Sample, swing combo Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Grammy winner Patti Austin. And that's not even mentioning all the locally based bands and solo artists.
"It's a great lineup — something for everyone. We're expecting a capacity crowd every day," said Jazz Holiday administrator Michelle Gallagher. "With Tony Bennett on opening night, we're telling everybody to get there early."
Now in its 29th year, this remains one of the longest-running free jazz events in the country.
New this year: an outdoor art show Saturday and Sunday along the 400 block of newly renovated Cleveland Street, between Fort Harrison and Osceola avenues.
"The premise is to continue to grow and evolve — to bring something new and fresh to the event," said Gary Hallas, the Jazz Holiday's consultant. "What better way to showcase the redevelopment of downtown Clearwater than with an art show?"
Lining the block will be 25 artists from around the country displaying their works. Dubbed Clearwater Jazz 'N Art Walk, the juried art show will run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Street performers will play music throughout the day. And one winning artist will be commissioned to create the poster for next year's 30th annual festival.
Still, the focus of Jazz Holiday is the jazz.
The festival's organizers seek a lineup of musicians that will appeal to a broad base of fans. Typically, throngs of people flock to the waterfront park. It gets more crowded during the evenings, filling to capacity by the end of each night.
This evening, the gates open at 5 p.m., and the music starts at 5:30. Parking is available at City Hall, the Garden Avenue parking garage and the Municipal Services Building, among other places.
"There's free parking around Jazz Holiday if you get there early enough. You just have to be willing to walk a few blocks," said city spokeswoman Joelle Castelli.
Another thing: Some people object to having to buy food and alcohol from the huge concession tents ringing the park, instead of being allowed to bring it from home, picnic-style. Organizers say those tents help keep the Jazz Holiday free.
"That's usually the big hang-up: People try to bring in coolers," Gallagher said. "There's no outside food or beverages allowed in the park."
The other reason Jazz Holiday is free: The army of more than a thousand local volunteers who make it all happen.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.