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Music lovers jazzed up for Clearwater festival

CLEARWATER —As the Clearwater Jazz Holiday neared its finish Sunday afternoon, relaxed music lovers sprawled out on blankets and lawn chairs to enjoy the final performances.

Some were jazz loyalists who said it was tradition to see the four-day event to its end.

Others were waiting on a favorite artist — most often, it seemed, alternative country singer Brandi Carlile or folksy rock musician Amos Lee.

"We love (Lee), we have all his CDs," said April Barrientos, 30 of Port Richey, adding that her 9-year-old daughter, Izzy, who was waving her arms and dancing nearby, was also excited. "We have never gotten to see him live."

Billed one of the biggest jazz festivals in the Southeast, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people flooded downtown Clearwater during the weekend to go to Coachman Park, where a mix of jazz and other artists performed for mostly middle-aged crowds.

The event — which uses 1,100 volunteers and operates on a budget of about $1 million — helps raise money for the Clearwater Jazz Holiday Foundation, which pays for scholarships and musical education in schools, among other things.

"I work on this year-round," said festival director Gary Hallas, who brimmed with energy even as he mentioned he would be cleaning up the park until midnight.

By his account, the event was an undoubtable success.

The annual festival, a Clearwater signature since 1980, has faced scrutiny in recent years for widening its lineup to include artists outside of jazz. The criticism mounted last year when a formerly free festival was suddenly $20 at the gate.

Sarah Evans, a board member for the Clearwater Jazz Foundation, said the changes are necessary for the festival's survival and allow for a better show.

Variety in the music lineup entices more people, she said. And admission fees allow the festival to host popular artists.

Last year, the festival included blues singer Bonnie Raitt and the up-and-coming Avett Brothers. This year, the rock band Chicago, which played Thursday night, attracted about 10,000 fans.

Cary Patrone and Patrick Faulkner — vendors who had worked the festival for decades — said they were certain it had a lower turnout than in years past.

"It used to be so crowded, I couldn't put food over the counter fast enough," said Faulkner, who owned three booths selling festival favorites, including homemade ice cream and barbecue. "This year was better. If we have a good push today, we'll be back."

Patrone said he lost money last year, but believes he did better this year.

Vickie Morgan, 51 of Tampa, who was at the festival Saturday and Sunday, said she is a true jazz fan who has attended the event since her now 30-year-old daughter was small.

Chewing a giant drumstick, she reminisced about years past, when the lineup mostly consisted of traditional jazz acts like Norman Brown and Rick Braun.

Even with the more pop-friendly lineup, she said, there is still plenty that suits her taste, including jazz and gospel singer Belinda Womack, who played Saturday.

"That's why I still come," she said. "The music soothes my soul."