Everybody knows about Key West, where the primary industry is celebration of life. But a similar enclave exists well up the Sunshine State’s east coast. It’s a town called New Smyrna Beach, 20 miles south of Daytona Beach. The Intracoastal Waterway, a wide expanse of shimmering blue water, divides the town into two parts connected by two modern causeways.

On either side, a plethora of quaint shops, art galleries, bustling bars, and restaurants of every culinary class line both sides of select, narrow streets: Canal Street on the west, 3rd Avenue and Flagler Avenue on the east, and, to a lesser extent, Atlantic Avenue fronting the ocean. Yes, the touristy novelty and beach-wear shops also abound.

This, Charles Boyer said, is his favorite destination for a taste of old Florida. And he knows the state well, covering it as he does for his online magazine Jazz & Blues Florida, which alerted me to the event. That venture is what brought him to the seaside city on the long weekend of Sept. 20-23, where the New Smyrna Beach Jazz Festival drew thousands of visitors to revel in the music of 29 groups. You read that right: 29 combos. Even more amazing, they performed in 29 venues: restaurants, bars, hotels, an art gallery. And, unlike just about any other festival, all the performances except the two kick-off events were free.

What’s different about this festival, which marked its 18th consecutive year, is the venues. Most, such as SunFest in West Palm Beach, have a few stages, where thousands gather to hear music that gets lost in the great outdoors. Except for its early years, when it was a jazz festival, SunFest is now a pop music festival perfectly suited for the open air. Jazz is more like classical chamber music; it works best in small, intimate, indoor settings. The New Smyrna Beach affair poses a monumental organizational challenge, which producer Marc Monteson pulled off without a hitch.

A friend and I arrived Friday, regretfully missing Ray Guiser’s Volusia Saxophone Quartet that opened at the historic woman’s club the night before. Because the town’s population is only 26,000 (though adjacent Edgewater adds 22,000), I expected that most of the bands would be local, amateurish groups. I did recognize two names – Pers Danielsson and Allan Vaché, though I confused Vaché, a clarinetist, with his brother Warren, a trumpeter with a national reputation.

Boy, was I wrong. Show after show had me transfixed, agog over the exceptional quality of the music. There wasn’t a weak link among the individual musicians or the bands, which could easily hold their own against the stellar jazz players of much-higher-populated Dade and Broward counties.

As a clarinetist, I was mesmerized by Vaché’s swinging clarinet in the style of Benny Goodman. He had a purity of tone and inventiveness of execution that harked back decades to the Swing Era, when the black stick proliferated. Asked why it has virtually disappeared from jazz, Vaché said, “Jazz musicians switched to saxophone because the clarinet is too difficult.” I can testify to that. 

It was impossible to catch all of the performances, but standouts for me were the Allan Vaché Quartet at Norwood’s Tree House, a two-story restaurant; the Per Danielsson Quartet with Michelle Amato, a dynamo of a singer, at the Grille at Riverview; the Greg Parnell Group with Linda Cole at the Flagler Tavern, a huge sports bar; and The Dave Capp Project at the Grille, where we looked out at the boats docking and departing in the Intracoastal. Most of the venues were packed, and it was standing room only. The whole scene reverberated with excitement, and strangers often became friends, if only for a moment in time.

Where do all of these wonderful musicians come from, I wanted to know. A photographer with Hometown News of South Daytona Beach said there are a number of clubs in Orlando, only an hour away, that host jazz, and the University of Central Florida has a stellar music program with outstanding jazz musicians on the faculty, including Danielsson, an international jazz pianist from Sweden. And then there are the hotels and restaurants at Disney World that offer musical entertainment. Heidi’s Jazz Club in nearby Cocoa Beach has been an outlet for jazz musicians for decades.

But you don’t have to like jazz to enjoy New Smyrna Beach. Residents said some festival or other was featured every weekend. Like Key West, this funky community is a year-round celebration, a real find for Floridians, Northerners and foreigners alike.