Woody Herman pursed his lips and played his trumpet from the back of a rented flat bed trailer set up in Coachman Park for a crowd of about 2,000 people that first year.
A permanent bandshell for Clearwater Jazz Holiday performers was built a few years later.
The Clearwater Jazz Holiday started as a celebration of America's art form as a vehicle to lure tourists to the area to enjoy music at venues around the city over the course of 10 days. Over time the festival was shortened and big name acts were added to each day of the event.
An entry fee was added a couple of years ago as part of the evolution of the festival, which for the 35th time brings performers representing different styles of jazz and other American music to the stage. It started Thursday and goes through Sunday at Coachman Park.
"Going to paid was something that took years to decide on, but it was a matter of sustainability," said Jeni Mitchell, president of the Clearwater Jazz Foundation. "And we wanted Jazz Holiday to be here for another 35 years."
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While the premise remains constant, the lineup has been evolving since the first Clearwater Jazz Holiday in 1980. The idea is to provide a sound music education over the course of the four days — that includes getting performers who younger people know and like.
Smooth. Fusion. Dixieland. Bebop. The holiday has featured virtually all styles of jazz.
This year, main act Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros might not be pure jazz, like Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, Herbie Hancock and other past headliners, but their folksy Americana sound is akin to the roots of America's music.
"If that exposes new people to jazz, we've accomplished our goal there" said Donna Yarbrough, historian for the Clearwater Jazz Foundation. "We sort of morphed into having more variety. Had a little more indie sound the last few years, and people who attend seem to love whatever we do."
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Booking the lineup starts at least a year ahead of time. It took five years to get Earth, Wind and Fire, the headliner Thursday, because of scheduling conflicts, said Allon Fams, chair of the music committee.
The lineup also features Jazz Holiday veterans Trombone Shorty and Dirty Dozen Brass Band. They wait at least two years between Jazz Fest performances before getting the same performer again, Fams said.
"We've actually already started working on next year's lineup. That's one of the things we have to deal with — it takes months to figure out," Fams said. "We can't just say we want this act and expect to get them. Many factors have to come together. It's a tireless job. We work year-round on this."
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For Yarbrough, who has been a part of the Jazz Holiday since its beginning, the festival has grown beyond her expectations.
"Saturday was the big night — now every night is Saturday night," she said.
One thing that has remained the same all this time? A neon sign commissioned for the first Jazz Holiday will be set up by the stage, just like every year.
Contact Jared Leone at [email protected] Follow @jared_leone.