When Suzan McDowell’s company was hired as the marketing agency for the Jazz in the Gardens Music Fest in 2006, she remembers passing out free tickets and pleading with people to come. Now the multi-day festival is one of the year’s most anticipated events and easily attracts an average of 60,000 people to the City of Miami Gardens every March.
The growth isn’t by luck or happenstance. It came from years of hard work and grinding.
“I am so proud to have been there at the very beginning when it sounded like a crazy idea. When Mayor Shirley Gibson called asking for my help, Jazz In The Gardens had just eight tickets sold just a few weeks before the festival. We ended up with about 1000 people after a bunch of hustling,” McDowell told Moguldom Nation. “Then in year two, the attendance quadruped. That’s when we knew we were on to something.”
Gibson was the first mayor of Miami Gardens and founder of the festival, but JITG continued to grow under the leadership of her successors, Mayor Oliver Gilbert and current Miami Gardens Mayor Rodney Harris. For the last 16 years, city officials have intentionally curated a talented event team and partnered with local businesses to drive the festival’s evolution. It’s something Harris takes immense pride in.
“We started Jazz in the Gardens as a concert in the parking lot and in dirt fields out here in Mami Gardens. Now it has grown into not just a music festival, but it’s an experience,” Harris told Moguldom Nation in an exclusive interview. “People just enjoy coming out and experiencing the hospitality that the residents of Miami Gardens put on.”
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The festival went from taking place on one afternoon and solely featuring local artists to bringing audiences some of the most iconic artists in music history. This year’s festival boasts Jill Scott, Jodeci, Ari Lennox, Adam Blackstone, El Debarge, Erykah Badu, Charlie Wilson, Keyshia Cole, Sean Paul, Mike Phillips, Kierra Shear, Chandler Moore and Pastor Mike Jr. Comedian Deon Cole will serve as the festival’s host.
It also now hosts four days of events, including a poetry contest, opening night party and Women’s Impact Luncheon.
Harris said the festival hasn’t reached its peak yet. “We’re still growing. We’re still looking at it, trying to get it to a point where we can have events during the whole week,” Harris said. “So, we still have things planned and look forward to growing Jazz In The Gardens even bigger, but time will tell.”
Planning for the next festival begins almost immediately after the current one ends because it is a yearlong undertaking, Harris added. He cited critical tasks like securing artists, managing partnerships with the Miami Dolphins and the Hard Rock Stadium, paying bills from the previous festival, soliciting participation from hotels and restaurants, etc. as the reasons so much pre-planning is needed.
“A few days after Jazz is over, they’ll start getting ready for next year’s Jazz,” Harris said. He credits his Assistant City Manager, Vernita Nelson, the executive producer for Jazz In The Gardens, as the “superwoman” and driving force behind the event’s success.
“Vernita does a great job. For her to take on this role and really make this thing go off is just incredible,” Harris said. “Her and her team, they do a great job; and all of the people in the marketing department, Suzan McDowell, she does a great job with getting everything taken care of; and it’s an ongoing process.”
Nelson, who isn’t big on the spotlight and prefers to work diligently in the background, told Moguldom she’s honored to serve her community by coordinating Jazz In the Gardens. However, she and Mayor Harris are careful to note that they couldn’t do it on their own. “Team” is a word they both use often.
“The annual production of Jazz in the Gardens Music Festival is truly a labor of love for me and the team. I grew up and still live in Miami Gardens, so producing a top-tier festival for my city is the goal every year,” Nelson said in an emailed statement. “Our ‘line-up formula’ of old and new school R&B, Neo Soul, Hip-Hop/Rap, Gospel, and Jazz – with a dope host – keeps JITG ranked among the top spring festivals in the nation.”
She admitted some challenges arise during the planning process, noting time management and ensuring they have a pleasant guest experience are extremely important.
“With many moving parts, the most challenging aspect is time management. If one element is delayed, it affects three to four related elements of the festival implementation process,” Nelson said. “The guest experience and safety have always been top priority. However, post-COVID efforts took our safety efforts to another level. … This may be a second thought for most, but having ample restroom facilities and sufficient bandwidth/Wi-Fi is essential to the guest experience.”
In addition to Nelson, city employees and McDowell’s team at Circle of One Marketing, the Jazz In The Gardens event team includes a coalition of local businesses.
They include Melvin Roane of Roane Consulting Group, whose team manages sponsorships and corporate partnerships; Flora Sweet of Sweet Plans, whose team coordinates the Women’s Impact Luncheon; LaShannon Petit of PRPL whose team manages social media; Merdie Lane, who manages volunteers; and Vannis R. Lopes, who manages vendors.
Despite the festival’s growth to a national event, Miami Gardens is still very committed to spotlighting local artists and business owners.
“It’s important to include them because they are our local talent. They are the future of our music industry and we want to make sure that we help them,” Harris said. “Jazz In The Gardens can help them propel to a higher level in the music industry. We want to get them the exposure they’ll need. We also reach out to get our small businesses active.”
Harris also touted the economic impact and exposure the festival brings. He said he’s seen businesses go from having food trucks to purchasing brick-and-mortar buildings after participating in Jazz In The Gardens. He further noted that some entrepreneurs have even given him testimonials that they’ve made enough money at Jazz In The Gardens to cover their annual costs.
“It’s not just Miami Gardens that benefits from Jazz In The Gardens; it has an economic impact on the entire region of South Florida,” Harris said.
Cliff Samuels owns a namesake restaurant with locations in Miami and Hollywood, Florida. He said he’s had a positive experience at the festival.
“Jazz in the Gardens has helped to establish Cliff’s restaurant in South Florida over the years. The vendor process is easy and smooth and we are proud to be a featured food vendor at this important event,” Samuels said.
Connie Kinnard is the Senior Vice President of Multicultural Tourism & Development for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. She agreed with Harris about the “direct power” Jazz In The Gardens infuses into South Florida’s economy and shared data from their research department from 2019 that showed the event generated nearly $12.3 million in revenue for the region.
According to researchers, over 4,000 jobs were created or supported and over $500,000 in local taxes were generated.
“It is one of our most recognized events nationally and the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau will continue to be a significant sponsor partner,” Kinnard told Moguldom.
Harris wants JITG partners like Kinnard, residents, and visitors alike to feel like family.
“Jazz In The Gardens gives us the opportunity to have like a big family reunion where everybody can enjoy themselves and have a great time,” Harris said. “It’s been a wonderful event for the last 15 years and this year is not going to be any different. We want everyone to come out and not just enjoy the festival, but enjoy the City of Miami Gardens.”