Taking a look back at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival in its 43rd year
As Memorial Day weekend approaches, many Jacksonville residents prepare for one of the most anticipated events of the year. The Jacksonville Jazz Festival has provided the city with a long weekend of music, food, and fun for over 40 years. Take a look at how this festival began.
The first Jacksonville Jazz Festival was held on October 24, 1980, in the Mayport area. Jacksonville’s mayor at the time, Jake Godbold, founded The Mayport and All That Jazz Festival in order to bring attention to and assist the struggling fishing village of Mayport. This music festival was free of charge and was headlined by Dizzy Gillespie. While Mayor Godbold anticipated a good turnout of probably a few hundred people, roughly 25,000 people would attend this single-day event.
Following the unprecedented success of the first festival, it became clear that the annual Jazz Festival would need to grow and upgrade in order to keep up with the number of attendees it would have. The following year, in October 1981, the Jazz Festival would move from Mayport to Metropolitan Park. Over the next decade or so, the Jazz Festival would see several changes, including the 1983 addition of The Great American Jazz Piano Contest, now called The Jacksonville Jazz Piano Contest, the taking over of production by WJCT in 1985, the implementation of a general admission fee of $5 in 1995, and the subsequent withdrawal of WJCT as sponsor and producer in 2000.
By the early 2000s, the Jacksonville Jazz Festival would return to being a free admission event, seeing nearly 60,000 attendees in 2003 when it was headlined by Tony Bennett. However, due to the growing size of the festival, the City of Jacksonville lost nearly half a million dollars by hosting this 2003 event. Learning from the major financial losses of the previous years, the Jacksonville Jazz Festival would implement an admission fee in 2006. Admission fees varied by type and level, with general admission of $10 per day, reserved seating for performances at The Ritz Theatre and Museum at $25, and admission to the Piano Contest at $16. All the while, the festival would flourish, gaining further support from the city and its residents.
After spending nearly 30 years in Metropolitan Park, in 2009 the Jazz Festival would transition to a street-fest hosted in the downtown core of the city and would return to a free general admission event. For a short while, from 2013-2016, the Jazz Festival would host an “Off Jazz” concert featuring non-jazz artists such as R&B singers Brian McKnight and Avant. For a single year, 2015, the festivities were relocated from the downtown core to Bay Street but would return to the downtown area the following year.
Unfortunately, as the COVID-19 pandemic struck the city, it struck the Jacksonville Jazz Festival as well. In 2020, the festival was cancelled and rescheduled for the end of 2021. From September 29-October 3, the Jacksonville Jazz Festival was held at the Riverfront site of the former Landing, and celebrated the event’s 40th year. In 2022 and 2023, the festival continued its stay in the Riverfront area. Enjoy live music, great food, and cold beverages, and take a moment to think about the journey this festival has gone through to become what it is today.
Jacksonville Interim Archivist
To buy tickets or learn more about The Jacksonville Jazz Festival, visit https://jacksonvillejazzfest.com/
To see more artifacts from The Jacksonville Jazz Festival, visit The Jacksonville Historical Society Archives.