Thousands gather to enjoy Willingboro Jazz Festival

Musicians perform at the annual Willingboro Jazz Festival, an unofficial reunion gathering, in Millcreek Park.
Musicians perform at the annual Willingboro Jazz Festival, an unofficial reunion gathering, in Millcreek Park. (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 19, 2014

They came from near and far Sunday to reacquaint with old friends, make new ones, and enjoy soulful music from gospel to hip-hop to jazz.

The annual Willingboro Jazz Festival lived up to its tradition as a popular all-day concert and unofficial reunion where thousands gathered on the grounds of Millcreek Park. Families, high school classmates, and fraternal groups made up the massive community block party.

"It has become that place where people come for reunions," said township Parks and Recreation Department manager Jill Cyrus. "It is a really great family outing."

Hours before the event began, concertgoers started arriving to stake out the best locations on the plush grass near the stage to pitch tents and set up barbecue grills and coolers. Others brought lawn chairs or spread out blankets.

"It brings the community together," retiree Terry Lucas, 63, of Willingboro, said during a break from frying crispy golden fish and tending to a smoky grill sizzling with barbecued chicken under a tent sponsored by the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. "In these days and times, we need this."

Across the park, Doreen Clark, 58, and about two dozen members of the Bid Whist Friends of Willingboro set up tents and tables, where they played cards while listening to music. The group has been meeting for about 25 years for their weekly card game.

"This is our main get-together," Clark said. "We meet here every year. We just have a good time."

Keith Palmer, 55, an insurance claims manager, said the players compete solely for bragging rights. The team with the most points at the end of the day is declared the winner. "It's a lot of trash talking," he said while waiting patiently in the wings to take a seat for the next game.

The festival began at noon, and although organizers worried the overcast sky and occasional rain would keep people away, the crowd swelled to several thousand by late afternoon. A steady line of cars pulled into the park, just off Beverly-Rancocas Road.

"I saw it on Facebook last year and said I wasn't going to miss it this year," said Michael Love, 54, of Mays Landing, who grew up in Willingboro but never attended the festival. "It's a shame all these years I lived in Willingboro and didn't come."

Stephenine Dixon, 52, of Atlantic City, enjoyed the concert while staffing a voter-registration table as a handful of volunteers worked the crowd, filling out forms. "We wanted to educate people on the importance of voting."

The township spends about $50,000 to put on the festival, Cyrus said. The cost is offset by donations from sponsors and vendors. The event is free to the public, except for a $15 parking charge. In addition to the music, there were vendors selling food, clothing, and jewelry, and games and face-painting for youngsters.

"It's a lovely event - family oriented and just beautiful," said lawyer Lori Caughman, 51, of Trenton. "The beauty of it is you can enjoy your age group's music."

Singer Karen Domino White, daughter of the great Fats Domino, said she was happy to perform at the festival for a second straight year. "The people who come out here are fantastic. It's such a tradition, just awesome."

The festival was started in the early 1980s by saxophonist Billy Keil and trumpeter Bill O'Donnell, and was held at the old Willingboro Plaza. They wanted to bring jazz to the Burlington County community in a festival style.

In 1984, the festival was moved to Broido Park, where it remained until it relocated to its current location in 1995. The festival was not held for several years, and Cyrus said there was an outcry from the community to make it an annual event.

This year, the festival again featured big-name acts, such as headliner jazz saxophonist and flautist Najee, and hip-hop artist Chubb Rock, as well as local artists like T-Chin and the Roof Top Band, and Everyday People. Between performances Sunday, a DJ played a variety of music that had young and old dancing. A VIP section and fireworks were added this year.

"I tried to get acts that people are going to enjoy and really get into," said Dennis James, president of the Ray of Light Music Group of Edgewater Park, who booked the artists. "We want to make it better every year."

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