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By photojournalist Jeffrey Moellering

The 42nd annual Clearwater Jazz Holiday made a roaring return after its unfortunate 2020 cancellation due to the Covid pandemic, which left a void in the hearts of Tampa Bay residents who cherish the event each October, during a season which ushers in lower humidity and a respite from the relentless Florida summer heat.
This year’s celebration was held for the first time at BayCare Ballpark; the Clearwater spring training home of the Philadelphia Phillies, while construction is underway at the Jazz Holiday’s longtime Coachman Park location, as part of the Imagine Clearwater downtown redevelopment plan.

The stadium proved to be a fine venue for hosting the event, with plenty of room for vendors in the shaded walkways, spacious stadium seating, and a grassy outfield to accommodate a large stage and the many fans wanting an up-close experience with the performers. Weekend weather was practically “Chamber of Commerce” postcard perfect, with no rain, hot but tolerable daytime temps, beautiful blue skies, and comfortable evenings.

The annual Jazz Holiday has for many years attempted to broaden its appeal beyond jazz by bringing a range of musical talent to the four-day schedule, and this year was no exception. Saturday’s lineup featured The Clearwater Jazz Holiday / Ruth Eckerd Hall Youth Jazz Band, the Chicago blues driven Joe Marcinek Band, featuring Chris Sgammato, Taylor and Ashley Galbraith, and Tommy Shugart, funk-jam band legends Lettuce, and culminating with 70s disco queen Gloria Gaynor, making for a full day of musical fun for any taste.

The Youth Jazz Band started things off under sunny skies and wasted no time strutting their stuff, touching on a repertoire of classic jazz tunes from Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and other greats. The band ranged in age from 11 through 17, and they all played like polished vets who had diligently rehearsed for many hours to perfect their parts. I was amazed at how refined they were and it’s surely a great tribute to their teachers and family in passing along a love for the great American jazz music tradition to the next generation. If their performance is any indication, the future is indeed in good hands.

Next up was Chicago based guitar slinger Joe Marcinek, who regularly visits Tampa Bay and has a lineup of local musicians which comprise his band when he’s in the area. This always makes for a unique experience, because while all the performers know the songs, each show exhibits an interesting twist on the music, which encompasses elements of Chicago blues, New Orleans funk, psychedelia, and jazz fusion, all in a delicious bubbling stew of home cooked boogie. There’s a real genuine camaraderie between the bandmembers, who are great friends off the stage, and it shines through in their performances, with each member allowed to showcase their talents. Saturday’s lineup featured the Galbraith sisters on drums and bass, Hammond keyboard aficionado Tommy Shugart, and saxophone whiz Chris Sgammato. Their show really exuded a vibe like experienced at the vaunted New Orleans Jazz festival, right here in Clearwater.

The next act on the bill was funk festival legends Lettuce, who hail originally from the Boston area, but have been a mainstay on the jam circuit now for many years. As the sun descended over Clearwater, things got really cookin’ well beyond what their vegetarian band moniker might suggest. Lettuce seamlessly blends elements of instrumental music that include 70s funk, a la Curtis Mayfield and Earth, Wind, and Fire, jazz-like electric Herbie Hancock, and rock/jam band influences, into an infectious mix that always gets the crowd up off their seats to shake their troubles away.

Closing out the evening was beloved 70s and 80s disco/soul icon Gloria Gaynor, who has an amazing 10-piece band which is incredibly polished and classy in their showmanship. The four-time Grammy winner is now 78 years old but could easily pass for 15 years younger. Far from simply being a nostalgia act on the strength of her 1978 liberation anthem “I Will Survive”, Gloria presents a very contemporary show of classic soul hits across the decades, arranged in a very entertaining way, featuring a full horn section, backing vocals, choreography and lighting that make for an impressive presentation. There was even an eye-popping breakdance/rap routine by the trumpet player, who did a crack rendition of the Daft Punk / Pharrell Williams smash “Get Lucky”.

The day culminated with a magnificent fireworks celebration over the city, and as the evening wound down, it truly felt as if we were indeed returning to the beloved outdoor communal activities that residents of Florida have embraced with life in the Sunshine State. The Clearwater Jazz Holiday is back and here to stay.