The Winter Park Jazz Festival is celebrating 40 years this weekend.
It began as a quaint little festival with a jazz music lineup held on the side of a mountain at the Winter Park Resort. Over the years the annual festival began incorporating performers from other genres of music and eventually relocated to its permanent home at Rendezvous Event Center, a much bigger venue.
It now annually draws some of the biggest names in the music industry, such as Chaka Khan, Kool & The Gang, Charlie Wilson, Babyface and Kem.
“It is the most anticipated festival of the summer,” said Becky Taylor, the festival's host and emcee for the past 30 years. “That's what makes it grow, not only Coloradans. We're starting to get people in from all across the country. It feels great [to celebrate] 40 years!”
Longtime fans say the musical lineup, which has included jazz favorites such as Brian Culbertson, George Duke, Pieces of a Dream, Boney James and Colorado's own Gerald Albright, is what keeps them coming back each year, many for decades. They say what makes the festival unique is the effort put into featuring other genres of music, including traditional and contemporary R&B acts. Headliners have included The Average White Band, Fantasia, Bell Biv Devoe, Charlie Wilson, Kem and Babyface.
Sisters Tracy and Stephanie Williams of Aurora say the festival has been the highlight of their summer for more than 30 years. They haven’t missed one since their mother insisted they attended with her in 1990. Now every year they take the lead on plans, renting a condominium within walking distance of the venue and staying in Winter Park for an extended weekend, with their children and extended family members in tow.
“Now we're inviting her up,” said Tracy Williams of their mother. “She'll be coming with us this year. It's really a family affair.”
Tracy Williams says her and her sister’s deep love for the festival has been passed on to their children who also attend, including her 11-year-old twins. They asked to start playing the violin, after watching violinist Damien Escobor, who is on this year’s lineup, play at the festival a few years ago. The boys recently made their debut playing on the children’s stage at the Colorado Black Arts Festival.
Stephanie Williams says the festival is both nostalgic and endearing.
“It's something about the clouds up against the mountains and it is beautiful. Sometimes it looks a little rainy and then you have this amazing music and the food. It’s just a total vibe.”
Other longtime fans of the festival say, along with amazing music, they love the “family reunion” ambience.
“Winter Park is a premier event and to me it's probably one of Colorado’s – if not Colorado's most – unifying event,” said Tony Exum, Jr., a Denver native and national recording artist. “There are people from every major city in the state, from all walks of life, Black, white, Hispanic, who come together one weekend and just enjoy an incredible amount of music and seeing the best entertainers in contemporary jazz and R&B and old school.”
Exum, a saxophonist, says opening the festival in 2019 is among the highlights of his career.
“I saw a lot of looks of pride on people's faces while I was on that stage and that felt amazing,” he said. “All the energy they were giving me allowed me to harness that and return it to everyone on stage. Musically, a lot of great festivals have come and gone. So, for Winter Park to be able to hold on and remain an institution for 40 years speaks volumes to not just Winter Park, but the community of Colorado for keeping it going.”
The Winter Park Jazz Festival runs July 15-16 at Rendezvous Event Center in Winter Park. The festival features Jazz Funk Soul, Dave Koz Summer Horns with Candy Dulpher, Brothers of Brass, Leela James and Grammy-winning singer Maxwell.
You want to know what is really going on these days, especially in Colorado. We can help you keep up. The Lookout is a free, daily email newsletter with news and happenings from all over Colorado. Sign up here and we will see you in the morning!