Ready to swing and groove? Jazz Fest returns after pandemic hiatus

The first Jacksonville Jazz Fest since 2019 is this weekend. Last year's was canceled because of COVID-19. The festival has a lot to celebrate this year.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The first Jacksonville Jazz Fest since 2019 begins Friday. Last year’s was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is the festival’s 40th anniversary and it is celebrating in a big way, with 27 concerts.

There will be two stages: The “Swingin’” stage is at Riverfront Plaza -- where The Landing used to be -- and the “Groovin’” stage is at Ford On Bay, just a few blocks away.

Organizers say they are thrilled to be back and recognize jazz’s impact on Jacksonville.

The comeback is special for Paola Lorenzo, who is part of the city of Jacksonville’s division of sports and entertainment.

“To be able to provide an event where anybody can come out and listen to the music in person live is something that really hasn’t been around in the past year due to the pandemic is really exciting,” she said.

Organizers are excited to celebrate the start of the festival’s fourth decade, but the genre has been part of Jacksonville for much longer than that.

“There’s even some debate that some of blues and jazz actually had its roots here,” said Adonnica Toler, the Ritz Theatre and Museum’s Administrator.

The museum showcases the talent Jacksonville birthed, like the Johnson brothers, James Weldon and John Rosamond.

James wrote “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” a revered song that was originally a poem. John was the person who put music to it.

“Ma Rainey and Jelly Roll Morton actually got their start here in Jacksonville as part of “Rabbit’s Foot,” Toler said. “It was a minstrel show started by someone named Pat Chapelle, who is a resident of the [historic] LaVilla neighborhood.”

Plenty of artists were either born in Jacksonville or spent a part of their lives in the River City. Those included the members of the jazz quartet “The Ravens” and Marie Buggs, who was a popular blues and jazz singer. She worked at the Apollo Theatre in New York City and toured with Josephine Baker in Paris.

Billy Daniels was a well-known musician singer, actor and was one of the first African American men to have his own television show. He has a Hollywood star on the Walk of Fame.

“Despite the challenges of race, segregation, discrimination, sexism and all those things, they pursued and persevered,” Toler said of those icons. “Because of that, we are enjoying jazz today.”

They paved the way for the household names who are headlining this year’s Jacksonville Jazz Festival: Lalah Hathaway, Sheila E., Stanley Clarke and Babyface.

“The importance of the history of jazz as a music genre to our city is very important and we are going to celebrate with a bang,” Lorenzo said.

The Jazz Festival is free.

The schedule is:

  • Friday: 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.
  • Saturday: 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. (Fireworks display following Sheila E.’s performance)
  • Sunday: 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.

For a full schedule of performances and a map of the venues, click here.

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