Suncoast Jazz Festival Evolves to Widen its Audience

October 7, 2023

For a jazz festival to be continuously successful over the course of time, it needs to evolve to fit the tastes of its audience, booking acts to please its existing fans while also adding different ones to attract new people. The Suncoast Jazz Festival, being held November 17-19 in Clearwater, FL, is a case in point.

Formed more than 30 years ago as a traditional-based jazz event, the Festival has gradually developed into a more broad-based program, encompassing everything from jazz education to swing dancing, with heavy helpings of New Orleans, bebop, Latin, and mainstream jazz.

While most people might be getting ready to stuff turkeys the weekend before Thanksgiving, jazz fans in Florida are stuffing themselves full of music.

Even though November weather in Florida can be nice, nearly all of the festival is held indoors at two hotels, save for a sunny opening jam session and second line parade around the pool at the Sheraton Sand Key, the main hotel. Otherwise, performances are held in three ballrooms and two bars divided between the Sheraton and the Marriott across the street.

Returning favorites include multi-reedist Adrian Cunningham’s Old School and guitarist Diego Figueiredo (photo above), who incidentally, performed in a very successful Jersey Jazz LIVE! performance with cornetist Warren Vache Jr. earlier this year. Figueiredo has a new album that is nominated for a handful of Grammys. Reedman Cunningham was also previously featured at a New Jersey Jazz Society Jersey Jazz LIVE! concert in June 2022.

Swing xylophonist and Canadian expat Heather Thorn, a local favorite, will be returning with her group Vivacity, which always seems to be augmented by several of the other musicians featured in the festival. Violinist (to call him a fiddler would be an understatement) Tom Rigney will be back from California with his group Flambeau. Benny Goodman-esque clarinetist Dave Bennett, who deftly keeps feet firmly planted in both swing and rockabilly (different sets), is also one of those returning musicians who has developed a large following.

An example of the festival’s willingness to expand last year was the addition of New Orleans trumpeter Kermit Ruffins for one show. He’s back this year with for more sets with his band, the Barbecue Swingers. New to festival is the Group Ranky Panky, a Charleston, SC, band heavily influenced by the Gullah music of the Lowcountry region of the Southeast.

And what would a jazz festival be without a Marsalis? In this case, it’s vibraphonist Jason (photo below), another Crescent City native who’s also among the returnees. Bluesman Tom Hook also returns from New Orleans for the event.

The festival continues to honor it trad roots, featuring banjoist Cynthia Sayer and Her Joyride band, the Galvanized Jazz Band, and even Garden State transplant Betty Comora with her washboard, voice and sound effects. 

The festival also features several of its headliners at a swing dance on Friday. Other activities are performances by local award-winning student big bands and master classes for the youngsters with some of the featured festival stars.

Tickets for the event range from $60 for Sunday to $250 for all three days. For more information go to – STORY AND PHOTOS BY MITCHELL SEIDEL

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