By Ann Hoevel
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(CNN) -- The Monterey Jazz Festival can't claim that it's the biggest or oldest jazz festival in the world, but it can claim the devotion of jazz royalty.
For 49 years, the biggest names in jazz have come to the sawdust-covered fairgrounds in Monterey, California, to jam together, be seen by large audiences and debut groundbreaking music.
Long-time jazz producer and record label owner Orrin Keepnews has attended Monterey many times and remembers some of the performances that help set the festival apart.
"Opening night of the very first 1958 concert ... was one of the very last of Billie Holiday's appearances, and I think that was memorable in itself. So was the night when the concert opened with Dizzy Gillespie playing the 'Star Spangled Banner,' " he said.
"In 1965 the Ellington orchestra had a wonderful appearance there, but also in 1965 there was a pretty memorable Charlie Mingus appearance. They had Wynton Marsalis there as early as 1983. That's kind of impressive, they caught on to him awful early. In 1994 there were individual appearances from ... Shirley Horn and Sonny Rollins."
Some fans travel to Monterey every year to see their favorite artists and to run into old friends. And as the festival expands, so does its audience.
Last year, the festival set an attendance record of more than 40,000, selling out all five major concerts on the main stage arena. This year's festival, which runs from September 15 to 17, boasts 500 artists on seven stages.
Keepnews describes the festival as a seminal event.
"On occasion, I've accused them of having sold a full load of tickets before they've even announced who's going to appear," he said. "It's not a matter of who are the big attractions this year as opposed to last year, because it's gotten to the point now where the main attraction is the festival itself."
With a growing number of festival venues, Keepnews said, "you're not going to be able to catch everything that's going on, although acts do appear maybe two or even three times over the course of the weekend at different venues. It's got that continuous feeling to it."
Jazz goes outside
Monterey is the longest consecutive running jazz festival in the world, but it's not the oldest. That distinction goes to the festival in Newport, Rhode Island. Jazz impresario George Wein started the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954.
With the advent of festivals, jazz music and performances came out of the clubs and the bars and became accessible to a much wider audience.
Howard Mandel, president of the Jazz Journalists Association and author of "Future Jazz," said both Newport and Monterey "offered a great place to go, a vacation destination: something to do when you got there, copacetic strangers you could just bump into, and some proximity to the musicians that they might not have in a concert situation."
Half a century ago, summertime music events were few and far between.
"Not all of the big presenting organizations' theaters were air conditioned," said Mandel. "Large venues like Carnegie Hall [and] Lincoln Center [were] standing empty during the summer. People generally got out of town and the institutions didn't book anything.
"[Wein] found that he could pitch concerts -- lots of concerts -- to the people who stayed in town, who were generally jazz fans anyway, and do well with it. And then do that for a multiday thing, a week or two weeks."
Jazz festivals gained successful footing for another reason, says documentary maker and jazz fan Ken Burns.
"The whole world was changing, and all of these venues for musicians ... all of the bars, all of the nightclubs suddenly started disappearing," he said.
"That had been around even during the Depression, had been that escapist outlet for people with no money. They could lose themselves at least once a week in a dance club or a bar. [That] was suddenly drying up. And there was competition from television, and people's lives changed.
"So I think that these festivals and the concert stage were a new way to codify ... not only where [jazz] was going but what it had been, as a replacement, alternative for the clubs," he said.
Monterey is a model
Since its inception, Monterey has emerged as an inspiration for hundreds of jazz festivals around the world. Large festivals like Montreal, North Sea and Umbria take a page from Monterey founder Jimmy Lyons' organizational skills.
"Montreal is probably as organized as any festival of any sort," said jazz journalist, radio host and emcee Herb Wong. "It's so well-oiled it's unbelievable."
Smaller festivals like those in Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and San Francisco also follow Lyon's example in crafting themes with deliberately related lineups that cross genres and push musical boundaries.
Wong said Lyons "always wanted to have something fresh and something that was organized into a statement."
For example, Saturday afternoons at Monterey are devoted to the blues, and one year Lyons titled the show, "The Masters of the Blues."
"I remember 1968 there was a list of people that was just untouchable, like Jimmy Rushing, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Big Mama Thornton, they were all on this program. Dynamite! Just mouth those names and say, 'They were all there at the same time on that afternoon.' Can you believe that? It was carving living history. That's what Monterey was doing, it was a vanguard, it was a model, it is a model," Wong said.
Jimmy's festival family
Wong and Lyons were friends and San Francisco jazz radio broadcasters in the early 1950s when Lyons was thinking about starting a jazz festival.
Wong, who has been to every Monterey Jazz Festival and emceed many of them, remembers when Lyons came up with the concept.
"When Jimmy started to take the idea into reality, he and I spoke frequently," Wong said. "He told me about this dream, and he went and gathered all these people ... and had them float his festival financially, and he was on his way.
"Organizationally he had the right pieces together early on. He didn't mess around. He knew pretty well the components necessary for early success ... He had no questions about [the music], the guy was very informed."
Part of Monterey's evolution is the familial quality it nurtured.
"There is some kind of a magical magnetism about this festival," Wong said. "It brings and it brought people together who became lifetime friends. It was like a huge family affair. Jimmy used to open up on Friday nights welcoming the audience and expressing that he was 'delighted to have them join again in our family,' as he said."
Lyons retired as general manager of the festival in 1992 and died in 1994 at age 77.
It's also well known for its production standards. Lee Mergner, editor-in-chief of Jazz Times, said the experienced staff at the Monterey helps make theirs one of the top jazz festivals in the world.
"I just couldn't believe how smoothly things ran, the sets were right on time, everything was just so well done," said Mergner, whose magazine and Web site compiles a yearly guide to jazz festivals. "They really know what they're doing, and that's where that experience comes in and why it's so valuable."
While the artists who play Monterey enjoy state-of-the-art support, they're interested in jamming there for another reason as well.
"There's a certain cachet in being there," Keepnews said. "By now this is established as being one of the peak events all year. 'Hey, I'm playing Monterey this year' -- that's a sure sign that someone respects me."
Billie Holiday appeared at the Monterey Jazz Festival in October 1958, nine months before she died.