The 50-Year History of the Concord Jazz Festival

From a small park gathering to a giant festival-- how the Concord Jazz festival has evolved throughout the years.

The Concord Jazz Festival started as a small outdoor music event in a city park during the summer of 1969 and has since grown into one of the premier jazz events in the country. After a 15-year hiatus, the festival is returning this summer to celebrate its 50th anniversary and bring some of the biggest names in jazz to the 12,500-seat Concord Pavilion. It promises to be one of the most memorable music festivals of the year.

According to Concord Jazz Festival historian Ellen Herdegen, the idea to start a jazz festival in Concord came from a local visionary, Carl Jefferson, a Lincoln/Mercury auto dealer. He was a loyal jazz fan and an avid collector, but he wanted to go beyond simply collecting records. He envisioned bringing a cultural event to the city by transforming a local summer fair into a top showcase for jazz music.

“Carl Jefferson was just a regular guy who got very involved in the community,” said Herdegen. "He wanted something cultural for Concord, so he got his buddies who owned businesses in town, city council, and the mayor together to put the first summer festival at a park.”

The first summer music showcase was called the “Jazz in the Park Festival,” and it was held at an undeveloped 8-acre field next to Concord High School. More than 17,000 jazz enthusiasts attended the first year, and the list of performers did not disappoint. Spectators enjoyed music from Vince Guaraldi, Stan Kenton, Jean Luc Ponty, Carmen McRae, Don Ellis, Mel Torme, and the Buddy Rich Band.

Six years after the first festival, Jefferson started a record label aptly named after the city that supported his enthusiasm—the venerable Concord Jazz Records. The internationally recognized label became known for the style called straight-ahead jazz, and it offered many of Jefferson’s favorite musicians an outlet for recording. After the successful launch of the record label, he moved his attention to finding a permanent facility to hold the annual festival.

Jefferson persuaded Concord city officials to support the funding to build an outdoor summer concert amphitheater. And on May 16, 1975, sitting on the eastern edge of Concord, the Concord Pavilion officially opened with a benefit concert featuring world-renowned jazz singer Sarah Vaughan and conductor Henry Mancini. The $4.5-million venue was built on land donated by homebuilder Ken Hofmann, and it was designed by architect Frank Gehry.

“I feel really fortunate to have had a front-row seat to watch Carl Jefferson, and others involved, make things happen,” Herdegen said. “Watching this evolve from an idea to a record company, and then a summer festival. (It shows) the power of one person—and that we all can make things happen if you put your mind to it.”

Some of the most legendary jazz performers have graced the stage including Oscar Peterson, BB King, Pearl Bailey, Peter Nero, George Shearing, Ella Fitzgerald, Gerry Mulligan, Rosemary Clooney, Benny Goodman, Carlos Santana, and, of course, Concord’s native son, Dave Brubeck.

This year, Concord Jazz looks a little bit different. While we can’t come together to hear dulcet jazz tones of local performers and big names-- we can still celebrate and honor Concord’s Jazz history. 

Check out Concord’s official Jazz Festival merchandise-- all proceeds go to local non-profits which support music and the arts. Plus, join us in celebrating all things Jazz and come to our Take 5, five days of jazz and fun from home.