How popular is America's Classic Dixieland Jazz Festival? The 20th annual festival, happening this weekend on the campus of Saint Martin's University in Lacey, draws fans of traditional jazz from all over the United States and beyond.
“We have a national audience,” said Walt Bowen, the festival’s assistant director. “About 97 percent of the people come from out of town. Last year, they came from 22 states and seven countries.”
“This year, we have a couple coming from Australia,” said festival director Charlotte Dickison of Olympia. “We’ve had people from Japan and Switzerland and Scotland and Russia.
“Jazz is all over the world.”
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Although the festival does feature some British traditional jazz (abbreviated to “trad jazz”), jazz itself is a uniquely American form, Dickison said.
“It’s America’s music that was developed here in the United States way back when,” she said. “This is the music of Louis Armstrong and Jellyroll Morton.”
Part of the mission of the Greater Olympia Dixieland Jazz Society, which organizes the festival, is to bring those classic sounds to a new generation. Proceeds support scholarships that send local music students to jazz camps.
The festival, which began Thursday, features three large dance floors and lessons in the foxtrot and the Charleston. About half of the crowd is usually dancing, Dickison said.
While the revival of swing dance has attracted a younger crowd, the most common age of festivalgoers is in their 70s. “We have people here well into their 90s dancing,” Dickison said.
They’re not just dancing; they’re partying. Many come in recreational vehicles and arrive early to jam.
“Vehicles start coming in as early as Tuesday, and people get their instruments out and jam, and people line up to listen in the parking lot,” Bowen said.
This year, some festivalgoers will head out of town Sunday on an associated cruise to Alaska along with three of the festival’s attractions: the High Sierra Jazz Band, Titan Hot 7, and Tom Rigney & Flambeau.
“There are 500 people on the cruise,” Dickison said.
Many of them will be at the festival; a package associated with the cruise offered rooms at the Phoenix Inn for the festival nights, and 40 of those were booked.
“Hotel rooms are pretty much taken up in town,” Bowen added. “We help the local economy in ways that probably are not super-visible.”
Many in Olympia don’t realize the scope and popularity of the festival, the organizers said.
“About 5,000 people go through our gates through the weekend,” Dickison said. “It’s a pretty big affair.
“We’ve had people here who’ve been here all 20 years.”