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The Beat Goes On



If you visit Saugatuck/Douglas in the summer months, you’ll catch hints of reggae, country, and rock tunes drifting across the water. The area has long been known for its music scene, with local bands providing a lively soundtrack for people partying on outdoor patios. But did you know that in the 1950s and 1960s, Saugatuck was a major destination for jazz and rock fans? The area was home to two festivals that garnered national attention, famous headliners, including Dizzy Gillespie and Alice Cooper, and plenty of local scandals.

Be-Bop at the Big Pavilion

Known as the brightest spot on the Great Lakes, the dazzling, eight-story-high Big Pavilion was a hotspot for music and dancing in the 1950s. Chicagoans flocked to the pavilion in the summer, with thousands of people bunny hopping, drinking cocktails, and taking in stunning lake views. 

On July 4, 1959, the Big Pavilion hosted the First Annual Saugatuck Jazz Festival. Local club owners with impressive connections booked Be-Bop impresario and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, trombonist Kai Winding, and popular pianist and vocalist Barbara Carroll. The musicians entertained the crowded theater for almost six hours, leaving jazz enthusiasts and concert promoters eager for a repeat performance the following year.

Advertised in jazz publications across the country, the Saugatuck Jazz Festival of 1960 would feature jazz icons, including Duke Ellington, Della Reese, and the Ramsey Lewis Trio. But the festival’s time at the Big Pavilion was short-lived. The structure caught fire on May 6, 1960, and in less than an hour, the once vibrant pavilion was nothing but embers. 

Not to be deterred, festival promoters quickly pivoted and moved the venue to a stockcar track and airfield known as the Airpark Speedway. This would be home to the festival in 1960 and 1961 when the Saugatuck town council stopped the music for good. With thousands flocking to the area for the festival and summertime fun, Saugatuck/Douglas was quickly overrun. Concerned about riots and unruly behavior, local leaders canceled future plans for the festival.

Saugatuck’s Summer of Love 

San Francisco wasn’t the only place people headed in the late 1960s. Saugatuck was booming in the summer, with bumper-to-bumper traffic and people flooding hotels and camping in the woods and dunes.

Part of the draw was the Saugatuck Pop Festival, held July 4 at the Potawatomi campgrounds at Goshorn Lake. The festival featured Michigan bands, including MC5, Frigid Pink, and The Amboy Dukes. A Detroit band, The Amboy Dukes, would eventually launch the career of guitarist Ted Nugent.

The festival was a hit; in 1969, three times more people attended than the previous year. The new lineup was packed with nationally known Michigan bands, including Bob Seger and Iggy and the Stooges. British rock band Procol Harem played their famous song, “Whiter Shade of Pale.”

The psychedelic posters for the event, designed by Michigander Carl Lundgren, left one important group off the list. Future metal band Alice Cooper had just abandoned sunny California for Detroit, where the hard-edged band felt more at home. After playing the Saugatuck Pop Festival, Cooper said, “This is our audience right here!”.

The two-day festival was an undeniable hit, but the small town couldn’t handle the 30,000 people who flooded the area. Over 1,000 cars parked along the busy Blue Star Highway, and roads from Oval Beach into Saugatuck were completely jammed. Locals filed complaints about the youth who attended the festival, citing illegal activities, and the festival owners agreed not to host the festival the following year.

The Day the Music Lived 

The music scene in Saugatuck/Douglas didn’t die with the jazz and pop festivals. Today, visitors to the area can watch symphonies, musicals, and popular musicians at the Saugatuck Center for the Arts. During the summer, free live music events, like “Music in the Park,” which happens every Wednesday at Wicks Park Gazebo, “Thursdays in the Park,” which takes place in downtown Fennville, and the Felt Estate’s outdoor concert series, "Thursdays at the Felt," provide a rhythmic escape. And numerous restaurants, bars, vineyards, and breweries feature local artists and concert series throughout the year. We guarantee you’ll feel the music when you take a trip to the Art Coast—and maybe a little magic from the free-wheeling 50s and 60s, too.

Source and Photo Credit: Saugatuck-Douglas History Center

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