The Jacksonville Jazz Festival begins as the Mayport and All That Jazz Festival. Seeking to reintroduce the world to the Bold New City of the South and invigorate the struggling fishing community of Mayport, Mayor Jake Godbold founds the Mayport and All That Jazz Festival. Festival producers are floored when their expected attendance of a few hundred tops nearly 25,000 spectators who turn out to see Dizzy Gillespie headline.
After the overwhelming attendance and an even higher expected turnout in year two, festival organizers move the festival to the newly opened Metropolitan Park. Local churches and organizations raise money by selling food and drinks. Thanks to low costs, the festival remains free to the public.
The piano competition, which traditionally kicks off the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, dates back to 1983, when it was called the Great American Jazz Piano Competition. It has been held at the Florida Theatre since 1984, except for a few years when the entire jazz festival took a hiatus. The event is now called the Jacksonville Jazz Piano Competition.
With their studio headquarters bordering Metropolitan Park, local public broadcasting station WJCT takes over production of the festival using it as their primary annual fundraiser for several years.
Miles Davis headlines, charging more than three times the rate of headliners just years prior. WJCT taped many of the performances for a one-hour television special that was distributed nationally by PBS, and later seen internationally.
To offset rising costs, a modest cover charge of $5 is put in place to cover shortfalls.
Despite rising attendance and admission revenue, costs outpaced sponsorship dollars and WJCT withdraws its sponsorship citing significant losses. This resulted in no festival in 2001 and 2002.
Thirsty to bring the music back, the city resurrects the festival with no admission charge and 60,000 show up to enjoy live music in the sunshine at Metropolitan Park. Tony Bennett headlined and is paid $100,000 plus $10,000 in expenses. Revenues fall short of costs and city takes a loss to the tune of half a million dollars.
Saxophonist Kenny G and legendary pianist Herbie Hancock headlined the 2006 Jacksonville Jazz Festival. General admission tickets to the Metropolitan Park shows were $10 per day, and reserved seating tickets for shows at the Ritz Theatre and Museum were $25 each. Tickets to the piano competition finals cost $16 each.
The festival is re-imagined as a street festival and moved from Metropolitan Park to the downtown core. In addition to performances from leading jazz musicians, features such as educational experiences, art vendors and talks are added to enhance the overall festival experience. Other than the piano competition and the wine tasting, free admission was brought back to the festival.
The Florida Theatre is added as a paid venue during the festival. In 2013 the first annual “Off Jazz” concert was held featuring R&B singers Brian McKnight and Avant who performed on the Friday evening. Tickets were $42 each. R&B singers Musiq Soulchild and Sebastian Mikael followed in 2014 with a performance by Grammy-winning artist Fantasia headlining the concert in 2015, tickets were $38.50. The “Off Jazz” concert was removed from the festival’s activities in 2016.
The festival moves from the downtown core to Bay Street spanning from The Shipyards to the Jacksonville Landing.
The Jacksonville Jazz Festival moves back to the urban core to much fanfare and enjoys record attendance in the modern era. With performers such as Kem, Snarky Puppy, Dr. John, and many more, the festival draws over 131,000 attendees to the streets of downtown Jacksonville over four days.
The Swingin’ Stage, presented by the Jacksonville Aviation Authority, moves to the front lawn of the Duval County Courthouse at Pearl and Adams streets, a building recognized for its stately presence and architecture. Here, jazz lovers were able to enjoy the sprawling courthouse lawn as performers such as Sheila E., Trombone Shorty, Dianne Reeves, and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy put on a show like no other!