History of the Festival

The Salem Jazz and Soul Festival is recreating and renewing the vibrant jazz scene that began at the Salem Willows in the early 20th century, when Duke Ellington and other musicians from the Big Band era played at the seaside park in Salem, Mass. The festival builds on this rich jazz history — adding soul, blues and funk to the mix — by offering a series of annual free concerts to the public, concluding with our annual main festival at the Willows, the third weekend in August.

The idea for the Salem Jazz and Soul Festival was hatched in 2003, when several creative-minded Salem residents discussed starting a music festival in Salem,  home to dozens of talented musicians. The core group, Henley Douglas Jr. and Jonathan and Jennifer Reardon, envisioned the concert to serve as a catalyst for educating the city’s young musicians and dreamed of constructing a performance space and music education center in the city.

A few years later, at a  2006 New Years party in Beverly Farms, Douglas told Larry Claflin Jr. about the dormant jazz festival idea, to which Claflin replied, “let’s do it.”

The two met the following Monday with Sarah Corbett, and in the next few weeks, more volunteers joined the group. Each week, another talented person would be invited until the Salem Jazz and Soul Festival was built into a board of directors made up of North Shore musicians, actors, writers, concert promoters and business people. Within just 10 weeks, the festival was on track. On April 21, 2007, the inaugural Salem Jazz and Soul Festival fundraiser took place. The show was a sell-out.

The festival followed that August at the Willows and it has been an annual event for North Shore residents since.

The Salem Jazz and Soul Festival attracts more than 6,000 people to the Salem Willows each year for a free two-day concert. There’s also an SJSF/Berklee Summer Series — in partnership with Berklee College of Music — in downtown Salem on Saturdays in May June, July and August; a City of Salem Jazz Appreciation Day in April;  and an annual fundraiser, our only ticketed event all year.

It total, SJSF has produced more than 60 free concerts and raised more than $55,000 for music-education causes throughout the North Shore.