Dizzy Gillespie was one of the early performers at the Bakersfield Jazz Festival. 

Frank C. Curtin / AP

Thirty-one years ago, a CSUB music professor and composer coordinated a jazz festival in conjunction with Bakersfield College. Despite some early road blocks from Mother Nature, the Bakersfield Jazz Festival turned out to be a great success and has entertained thousands of spectators annually with jazz greats such as The Yellowjackets, Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea and Delfeayo Marsalis.

The Bakersfield Jazz Festival has also given back to the community in an immeasurable way through the granting of annual scholarships to CSUB students.

The community’s love affair with jazz has endured since the genre’s inception. Five decades ago, the city of Bakersfield celebrated its first incarnation of a Bakersfield jazz festival. Unrelated to the current festival, but still important to the history of the city’s celebration of all that is jazz, the Bakersfield Junior Chamber of Commerce coordinated an event that was sure to become a community tradition.

For three days during a balmy February weekend in 1963, Bakersfield became the jazz capital of the West. Visitors from across the state were expected to attend the first Bakersfield jazz festival at the Kern County Fairgrounds’ newly remodeled Albert S. Goode Auditorium. The Jan. 28, 1963 Bakersfield Californian placed the inaugural festival as on par with the famous Monterey and Newport Beach jazz festivals.

In order to live up to the reputations of California’s famous jazz festivals, a great deal of preparation went in to making the hometown show the best Bakersfield had ever experienced. One of the state’s best designers, Keith Skidmore, was hired to draw up the plans for the show. Skidmore had previously delighted Bakersfield’s crowds with his annual Christmas parade designs. Promoter Lou Southern, well-known in Hollywood for his choreography and for the creation of the Capital Jazz Festival in Sacramento, took the reins as the festival’s director. Art Tognini and Bill Elliot handled all technical aspects of the show.

The much-anticipated lineup included highly accomplished jazz performers such as Academy Award winner Andre Previn, the Cal Tjader Quintet, Julie London and Bobby Troup, bassist Red Mitchell, and Shelly Manne and his Men. Local artists also had the opportunity to exhibit their abstract and semi-abstract works keeping with the festival’s “far out” expression theme.

The 1,000 reserved seats sold out quickly and fans greatly anticipated the return of the jazz festival in 1964.

When the lineup for the second annual jazz festival was announced, the venue was also moved to the Civic Auditorium. As with the previous year, attendees were treated to a showing of modern art from local artists and the chance to experience the latest in Hi-Fi and stereo equipment.

The top billed artist, a return from the previous year, was the Cal Tjader Quintet. The crowds were also treated to the sounds of acclaimed jazz artists Les McCann, the Jazz Crusaders, Mike Melvoin and Gene McDaniels.

One thing that is certain is music runs through the blood of the people of Bakersfield. The first incarnation of the Bakersfield Jazz Festival may not have continued as planned, as the festival came to an end after its second year, but, 23 years later, under the direction of Doug Davis, Bakersfield’s greatest Jazz Festival was born. 

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