The Catalina Island JazzTrax Festival 

The Catalina Island JazzTrax Festival 

The Catalina Island JazzTrax Festival is a premier jazz event set against the scenic backdrop of Catalina Island. It is hosted in the historic Avalon Casino Ballroom, an Art Deco masterpiece that is a testament to the island’s rich cultural heritage. With its majestic ocean views and grand architectural details, the venue adds a touch of elegance and nostalgia to the JazzTrax experience. 

History of the JazzTrax Festival

The Catalina Island JazzTrax Festival debuted in 1986 at the landmark Catalina Casino. Jazz pianist Roger Neumann founded and organized the first JazzTrax Festivals to bring his love of jazz to Catalina, a swing music mecca since the 1930s.

The Catalina Island JazzTrax Festival is the longest-running smooth jazz festival in the world, celebrating its 38th anniversary in 2024. The iconic event will span two consecutive October weekends: 10-13th and 17-20th.

The festival kicks off each weekend with the Thursday night “Unplugged Under the Stars” outdoor concert at the Descanso Beach Club. Jazz continues Friday through Sunday with performances inside the majestic 1929 Avalon Casino Ballroom featuring world-class artists.

What to Expect at the JazzTrax Festival

The Catalina Island JazzTrax Festival offers a packed schedule with diverse music experiences. Here’s a taste of what you can expect:

  • Headliner evening concerts in the exquisite Casino Ballroom featuring top jazz talent
  • Intimate afternoon shows in Avalon venues like the Catalina Island Yacht Club
  • Blues, salsa, and Latin jazz performances spice up the program.
  • Opportunities to meet the headline musicians at CD signings and mingling events
  • Jazz cruises aboard catamarans circling Avalon Bay while listening to live jazz
  • Golf cart tours visiting historic Avalon jazz landmarks like the site of Louis Armstrong’s house
  • Jazz brunch at local restaurants with live duos performing amidst the views
  • Vendor exhibits selling jazz CDs, clothes, and merchandise throughout the festival

The festival schedule balances highlighting jazz greats in major concerts with opportunities to discover new music in comfortable lounge settings.

  • Note: Attendance at the JazzTrax Festival often requires early booking, as tickets and accommodations on the island can be in high demand during the event. 

Jazz Headliners Not to Miss

The Catalina JazzTrax Festival has hosted virtually every jazz legend over its 30+ year history. While each year features different headline acts, these are some past standouts:

  • Ray Charles: The genius singer-songwriter behind “Georgia on My Mind” wowed with his bluesy vocals and piano mastery.
  • Etta James: The late, powerful R&B and blues vocalist lit up with her hits like “At Last” and “Tell Mama.”
  • George Benson: This smooth jazz guitar virtuoso impressed the Catalina crowd with his funky improvised solos and pop-jazz hits.
  • David Sanborn: The Grammy-winning sax icon and frequent David Letterman bandleader brought his famous funky saxophone solos.
  • Poncho Sanchez: The acclaimed Latin jazz percussionist and conga player got the crowd dancing with his fiery Afro-Cuban rhythms.
  • Carmen McRae: This influential jazz vocalist performed her sultry renditions of standards before passing in 1994.
  • Keiko Matsui: The groundbreaking keyboardist and composer performed her blend of jazz, classical, world music, and fusion.

Many jazz fans plan their Catalina trip around the JazzTrax Festival lineup to see their favorite acts take the island stage.

Tickets and Admission

Full weekend passes, including Thursday’s Descanso Beach Club “Unplugged Under the Stars” concert, are on sale all year starting the Tuesday of Thanksgiving week. Individual session tickets go on sale each year the Tuesday before Memorial Day once the full line-up and schedule are announced. 

Single-day tickets allow access to the following:

  • Friday evening only (1 session, 2 artists)
  • All day Saturday (2 sessions, 4 artists)  
  • All day Sunday (2 sessions, 4 artists)

Single-day tickets include all sessions for that day in the same reserved seat. Friday tickets include one evening session, while Saturday and Sunday tickets include both afternoon and evening sessions. 

Each session features full concert sets from two different artists. Afternoon sessions end around 3:30 p.m., allowing time for dinner before the 7 p.m. evening sessions. Doors open 30 minutes before start times—afternoon sessions at 11:30 a.m. and evening sessions at 6:30 p.m. 

Tips for Attending the JazzTrax Festival

Attending the Catalina Island JazzTrax Festival takes a bit of advance planning and strategy. Use these tips to maximize your jazz experience:

  • Book hotels/rooms early – Accommodations sell out fast with the festival influx.
  • Bring layers – October nights can be chilly; the ballroom can get warm.
  • Check festival updates – Schedules often change leading up to event dates.
  • Arrive early to events – Seats fill fast, especially for headliners.
  • Purchase multi-day passes in advance – Gives access to all festival events.
  • Look into VIP upgrades – Gain early access and premium perks.
  • Download the festival app – Provides schedules, maps and notifications.
  • Pack comfortable walking shoes – You’ll be on your feet between venues.

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