Concord is going all out this summer to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Concord Jazz Festival and the legacy the music genre and festival established in the city over the ensuing 50 years.
“All That Jazz” is the theme of the 4th of July parade, and Ellen Findlay Herdegen, a woman who has played several roles in establishing that legacy, will be the grand marshal.
Herdegen graduated from Clayton Valley High School in 1969 with the school’s highest honor for a senior, Grand Altair. Because of her various achievements at the Concord school, she also received a Diablo Scholarship. Lincoln Mercury auto dealer Carl Jefferson and Realtor Conrad Wilke started the scholarship program.
Soon after graduating, she dropped by Jefferson Motors on Willow Pass Road to thank Jefferson. Little did she know that trip to express her gratitude would set a direction for her career and life.
Getting in on the ground floor
Jefferson was a lifelong jazz fan and had convinced city officials that hosting a summer music festival in town was a good idea. The first Concord Summer Festival was scheduled for August 1969.
“When I dropped by his office, Jeff said: ‘What are you doing this summer? Wanna help out with our first music festival?’ That was the start of it all,” Herdegen vividly recalls.
That first Concord Summer Festival and five subsequent festivals through 1974 were held in Concord Blvd. Neighborhood Park (now Dave Brubeck Park) next to Concord High School.
As a jazz devotee, Jefferson programmed the Summer Festival to be heavy on jazz but also included country (Chet Atkins and Boots Randolph), comedy (Bill Cosby), rock (Carlos Santana) and classical pops (conductor Arthur Fiedler with the San Francisco Symphony). The success of the Summer Festival led to the construction of the Concord Pavilion, which opened in May 1975 as “The House That Jazz Built.”
Herdegen would come home to Concord each summer and work on the festival while attending Chico State, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and a standard elementary teaching credential.
“I sold tickets, answered phones, took photos, delivered season tickets, drove musicians to and from the airport and was a hostess in the performer’s hospitality trailer.”
Helping market the Pavilion
After college, she began her teaching career in Fort Bragg but returned in the summer to Concord and the festival. The Pavilion marketing department hired her in 1977 to write press releases, plan press conferences, recruit and train employees, take photos and give tours of the Pavilion.
“I would go ‘on the road’ to service clubs and other groups” with a Pavilion slide show, Herdegen said. She also met and became lifelong friends with Pavilion PR colleague Jill Cogan, “which opened a whole new level of goodness in my life.”
In 1979, she moved across the street from her Pavilion office at the City Hall complex to the Concord Jazz office. She worked in publicity and as national radio promotion director for 10 years on the record label Jefferson began in 1973 when he realized that many of the legendary jazz musicians who came to the festival were unable to get their music recorded and released.
Her photos were on many Concord Jazz albums.
She took a year’s hiatus in 1987 to travel the country with Jerry Herdegen, who had run a local advertising agency that, among many local clients, did the Pavilion advertising. The pair hopped in his small RV and roamed the country through 48 states covering 40,075 miles. The cramped quarters didn’t deter them, and they married that Dec. 30.
Eventually she returned to teaching, before retiring a few years ago after teaching kindergarten for 20 years.
She’s maintained her love of music, which first blossomed when her parents played music on the family “hi-fi” before she took four years of piano lessons and then classical guitar when she was 18.
Herdegen has had four cancer bouts over the past 16 years. In the aftermath of her first battle, she discovered a fascination of the ukulele, which also allows her to spend more time with her banjo and ukulele-playing mom Barbara.
Visit Concord leading Jazz Plans
The effervescent Herdegen has been part of the committee that Visit Concord organized to plan and promote the 50th anniversary of the Concord Jazz Festival with events all summer, culminating with an all-star 50th anniversary concert at the Pavilion Aug. 3 and a free jazz concert the next day at Todos Santos Plaza.
“Concord is proud of its history and looks forward to celebrating the 50th anniversary with the community,” said Elaine Schroth, Visit Concord executive director.
“Jazz has been an important part of Concord’s heritage for decades – a connection that is both inspiring and intriguing,” Schroth noted. “The anniversary events give us the opportunity to share original elements of our city with locals and visitors as they join us in celebrating 50 years of jazz in Concord.”
After her duties leading the July 4th parade down Willow Pass Road, Herdegen is the featured speaker on Saturday, July 27, at the second of three Java and Jazz presentations at the Concord Historical Society. She will share her personal jazz experiences and rare festival memorabilia. Tickets for $5, which include a commemorative coffee mug, are on sale through Eventbrite.com.
After all the jazz excitement this summer, Herdegen completes this 50-year circle of life and music at the Clayton Valley High Class of ’69 50th reunion on Sept. 14.