Idlewild Jazz Festival

Idlewild Jazz Festival

Date Observed: Mid-August weekend
Location: Idlewild, Michigan

The Idlewild Jazz Festival is an annual August event in historic Idlewild, Michigan, known as the "Black Eden." The festival features outdoor entertainment, jazz movies, local documentaries, and workshops for high school students.

Historical Background

Idlewild is one of the oldest African-American resorts in the United States. Founded in 1912, the community is on an island with foot bridges connecting it to the mainland. Idlewild was established as a place where black urban professionals, most of them affluent, could relax and enjoy recreational activities - hunting, fishing, swimming, boating - far from the racism and discrimination so prevalent elsewhere during the early part of the 20th century.

In 1912 white developers formed the Idlewild Resort Company (IRC) and bought 2,700 acres of land and the island. The developers organized train and bus tours to bring African Americans from midwestern cities like Chicago, Illinois; Detroit, Michigan; and St. Louis, Missouri, to the resort.

In the mid-1920s the IRC turned the island over to prominent African Americans who formed the Idlewild Improvement Association (IIA). The IIA then sold property to such well-known African Americans as W. E. B. Du Bois, millionaire businesswoman Madame C. J. Walker, and novelist Charles Waddell Chesnutt.

As an increasing number of African Americans visited or bought property in and around Idlewild, the area became known as "Black Eden." A dozen jazz clubs, such as the Flamingo and the Paradise Club, and other businesses developed. By the 1950s, numerous black entertainers were appearing at the night spots. Among the nationally known performers were Della Reese, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughn, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and many more (see also Satchmo SummerFest). Idlewild historians say it is likely that every major African-American entertainer visited the resort at one time or another. In addition, a variety of political activists visited, including members of Marcus Garvey's organization (see also Marcus Garvey's Birthday).

During the late 1960s and through the 1970s, the resort area began to decline. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, African Americans began to find more choices in where and how they could vacation. The Idlewild resort seemed to be of little interest to a younger generation.

By the 1990s, however, the resort began to revive. Businessman John O. Meeks formed the Idlewild African-American Chamber of Commerce in 2000. The Idlewild Jazz Festival is also part of the effort to carry on revitalization and to attract new businesses and tourists.

Creation of the Festival

The festival was originated in 2002 by Idlewild history buffs who hoped that they could help connect the present with the past. They wanted a celebration that would replicate the resort's heyday. One of the events linked to times past was an amateur hour on the first night, and top blues and jazz performers on Saturday. Gospel music took center stage on Sunday.


The annual Idlewild Jazz Festival held in mid-August includes jazz, blues, and soul performances. It has featured such artists as Eric Alexander, Rod Hicks, and harpist Onita Sanders. At the 2005 festival Eric Alexander arrived by boat on Lake Idlewild, and trumpeter Jim Rotondi left the stage to walk aboard a boat, playing while sailing away. High school musicians, food vendors, jazz movies, a marketplace, writers' workshops, and a book tent are also part of the festivities.

Festivalgoers may visit the Idlewild Museum, where they can learn about the founders of the resort. Exhibits also show how famous African Americans from many walks of life built summer homes or permanent residences in Idlewild.

Contacts and Web Sites

Friends of Historic Idlewild Idlewild Museum P.O. Box 221 Idlewild, MI 49642

Idlewild African-American Chamber of Commerce P.O. Box 435 Idlewild, MI 49642 800-745-2611

Idlewild Foundation 1150 Griswold, Ste. 2100 Detroit, MI 48226

Idlewild Historic & Cultural Center 5583 Broadway Ave. Idlewild, MI 49642 231-745-7541

Further Reading

Stevens, Ronald. Idlewild: Black Eden of Michigan. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishers, 2001. Walker, Lewis, and Benjamin C. Wilson. Black Eden: The Idlewild Community. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2002.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007

Idlewild Jazz Festival

Third Saturday in July
Sponsored by the nonprofit Idlewild Foundation, the Idlewild Jazz Festival is a one-day, outdoor event. It recalls the Jazz Age flourishing of Idlewild, Mich., a resort area in the northwestern part of the state. Known as the "Black Eden" during its heyday in the mid-20th century, Idlewild was a favorite vacation destination for African Americans from such Midwestern cities as Chicago and Detroit. With nearly 25,000 visitors each summer, the area grew to include entertainment venues such as the Flamingo and Paradise jazz clubs, where luminaries including Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Sammy Davis Jr., and Count Basie performed during the 1950s.
The festival was conceived in 2002 as a means of paying tribute to that heritage and offering a new generation a connection with the past. The festival takes place in a wooded, lakeside setting on Williams Island and includes a program of music that begins at noon and runs well into the night. In addition, related activities include an art fair, marketplace, and writers' workshop. Food vendors offer refreshments ranging from Jamaican specialties and fish to barbecued wings.
Idlewild Foundation
1150 Griswold, Ste. 2100
Detroit, MI 48226
Idlewild African-American Chamber of Commerce
P.O. Box 435
Idlewild, MI 49642
AAH-2007, p. 223
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.