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EVENT: Beaches Jazz Festival celebrates 25 years of sandy grooves

Back in 1989 when bar owner Lido Chilelli organized the first Beaches Jazz Festival, about 3,000 people showed up to sample the tunes in Toronto’s idyllic east-end neighbourhood on the sandy shores of Lake Ontario.

As the event marks its 25th year this July, close to a million people are expected to attend the 10-day sonic extravaganza, pumping about $30 million into the local economy.

Bill King has played a large part in the remarkable growth, serving as the festival’s artistic director for the last 23 years.

He’s seen a lot of changes over that span, recalling the days long before the likes of Facebook and Twitter – which the festival now embrace – even existed.

As King explains, the simple combination of good times and good music assured the crowds swelled year after year.

“Our social media has always been word of mouth,” King says.

“This is one of those festivals like Caribana and Pride that the community as a whole embraces.”

The event draws a plethora of world-class acts, but King says one of the key objectives has always been to promote and help launch local talent.

“What we did in the beginning was really feature more Canadian bands and music from here that we thought you should hear. And that hasn’t changed,” he said. “That dynamic this year is the same. We always keep an eye for talent that is coming up.”

He cites Canadian crooner Matt Dusk and Flamenco sensation Jesse Cook as examples of artists the festival helped launch, with singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist JP Sake being one of this year’s local up-and-comers to watch out for.

The free festival runs from July 19-28 and kicks off with a slew of concerts in Woodbine Park at the corner of Northern Dancer Boulevard and Lake Shore Boulevard East.

For a full lineup and list of events, click here

“At Woodbine on the Saturday night (July 20) is the Bryan Lee and The Power Blues Band from New Orleans. It’s really the cutting edge of blues. I wouldn’t miss that,” King advises.

The concerts at Woodbine run until the 24th, after which the action shifts to Kew Gardens, which is just off Queen Street East at Wheeler Avenue.

Toronto legends the Shuffle Demons will take to the main stage on July 27 at 2 p.m. and Sunday night’s lineup will be highlighted by Sugar Ray and the BlueTones at 5 p.m.

Kew Gardens will also feature a Youth Stage, with some of Canada’s most-prolific and dedicated Jazz students sounding off.

A World Beat Stage, Big Band Stage and Latin Square will also host some musical heavyweights between July 26-28 along the Beaches Boardwalk.

And you can even hone your own musical skills at numerous workshops that will take place along the Boardwalk and at the Mennonite New Life Centre (1774 Queen St. E).

The workshops are free and offer lessons in song writing, ukulele, and drumming, to name a few.

An exciting new feature seeks to satiate appetites at this year’s festival. The inaugural Taste of Jazz will turn Woodbine Park into a foodie fantasy on July 23 and 24, between 5 and 10 p.m.  An eclectic lineup of Canadian food trucks will keep music fans fueled for all that dancing.

Speaking of dancing, the area will come alive for the festival’s yearly highlight: Streetfest.

The 2 km stretch of Queen Street East between Woodbine and Beech Avenue will be closed to traffic to accommodate thousands of fans and nearly 50 bands that perform from 7 – 11 p.m. from  July 25th to 27.

Between the food, the workshops, and of course the great music, King isn’t surprised that the Beaches Jazz Festival has grown from its humble beginnings to become one of the most popular in North America.

“What we’ve created here is a blueprint for hundreds of other festivals,” he boasts.

“It’s a family festival, it’s something that people enjoy and it’s always positive.  It fits into the nature of what our city is about. It’s cross-cultural and it always has been.”