The long-running Suncoast Jazz Festival, its 29th edition slated for this November on Clearwater Beach in Clearwater, Fla., might best be defined by the kind of festival that it isn’t. Unlike the area’s well-known big jazz festival, it’s not a single-venue outdoors affair dominated by non-jazz acts. Nor is it a fairgrounds-style event with multiple stages devoted to multiple genres.
Instead, the Suncoast fest is more like an intimate party: 1,500 or so devoted listeners, largely skewing in the direction of 60 candles and older, hear new and old favorites on five indoor stages at a pair of comfortable hotels on the Gulf of Mexico. Festgoers listen to and mingle with jazz, swing, big-band, and blues players, and between performances break away to enjoy picture-perfect late-fall beach time. Free trolley service enables attendees to easily shuttle between the two locations.
- This year’s festival runs from Nov. 22-24
- Jason Marsalis, Wycliffe Gordon, Harry Allen, Ehud Asherie, and Molly Ryan headline
- Performances take place at venues in the Sheraton Sand Key and Marriott Sand Key hotels on Gulf Boulevard by Clearwater Beach
- Go to suncoastjazzfestival.com for more information
“It’s like a little Brigadoon,” says Nate Najar, a Tampa Bay-area straight-ahead guitarist who recently toured New York City, California, Paris, and London in support of his latest CD, Under Paris Skies. Najar has played the fest about five years consecutively. “There’s such camaraderie between the musicians and with the listeners,” he says. “Some of the finest musicians in the world are here, playing fantastic repertoire. There’s a real community vibe to this festival.”
Traditional jazz, à la early New Orleans styles, has long been the affair’s calling card. “It started out as a Dixieland festival—straw hats and banjos,” says Joan Dragon, the fest’s director for the last 14 years or so; she played banjo with various bands for the first 15 years of the event. The debut gathering notched an attendance of approximately 500, with crowds growing to as large as 2,500 at one point.
Today the festival’s focus remains on trad jazz, represented by such favorites as woodwind player Adrian Cunningham, clarinetist and multi-instrumentalist Dave Bennett, the Sierra Seven, Cornet Chop Suey, Queen City Jazz Band, Wally’s Warehouse Waifs, and Tom Hook and the Terrier Brothers. But in recent years its doors have opened to a broader mix of performers, thanks in part to Najar’s input. Drummer Jason Marsalis’ 21st-Century Trad Jazz Band (not technically a trad group), trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, tenor saxophonist Harry Allen, and singer Molly Ryan, heard on the Boardwalk Empire soundtrack, are among this year’s headliners. And the program offers room for locally based talent, including Najar, former Ellington bassist John Lamb, trumpeter James Suggs, and popular area trio La Lucha, host band for the evening jam sessions.
Originally made up entirely of self-contained bands, the fest has also evolved to feature some special one-off performances, including for this year a set by Marsalis, Suggs, Allen, bassist Tommy Cecil, and La Lucha pianist John O’Leary.
“We started as a traditional jazz festival and we will never abandon our roots,” Dragon says. “We need to pay homage to the people years ago who created jazz. But in order to be relevant, we can’t be exclusive to traditional jazz. We want to include music by younger people playing newer styles.”