NPR logo The First U.S. Jazz Festival?

The First U.S. Jazz Festival?

At the Public Square of Wilkes-Barre, Penn., there's a plaque that claims that "America's First Jazz Festival" happened there in 1951:

On February 23, 1951 history was made in Wilkes-Barre. Eight jazz bands got together for "The Cavalcade of Dixieland Jazz" which became the country's first jazz festival. On this occasion April 29, 1994 the City of Wilkes-Barre acknowledges and pays tribute to those early jazz musicians and promoters who initiated the tradition which continues today, not only here in its birthplace, but throughout the country.

This was brought to my attention by a story in The Times Leader, of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area. A group of folks are planning a jazz concert commemorating the 60th anniversary of what they believe to be the U.S. first jazz festival. The Cavalcade of Dixieland Jazz took place in two nearby hotels and featured ex-Ellington drummer Sonny Greer.

Of course, the city's claim isn't true.

Footage from the "Carnival of Swing," held at New York's Randall's Island in 1938.

YouTube

In 1930, The California Eagle reported on a local "Jazz Festival" at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. And as modern-looking outdoor music events go, the 1938 Carnival of Swing presented some 20-plus groups on New York's Randall's Island, including Basie and Ellington and a number of other legends. (See Dan Morgenstern on this and scroll down — also, the above video.) So it seems a bit weak to impute any real significance to the "first-ness" of the Wilkes-Barre event even if it were true.

But what is hip: In a relatively small jazz town like Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, some local enthusiasts thought out of the box in 1951, and made a really cool-looking event happen. And today, Scranton has its own full-fledged jazz festival.

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