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Carla and Craig Torrey, Ocean City Jazz Festival Co-Chairs 

by Pat Fontana

Cool jazz on a warm July evening brings music lovers from across the country to North Topsail Beach for a weekend of world-class entertainment. A summer ocean breeze carries the enticing aroma of freshly prepared local dishes and the sounds of expertly played saxophones, trumpets, and guitars through the crowd. Sultry vocals complete this unique cultural scene, that can only be found at the Ocean City Jazz Festival.

At the corner of Island Drive and Carver Street in North Topsail Beach, hundreds of people come together to enjoy a weekend of eclectic jazz along with food, fellowship, and a lot of fun on the first weekend in July every year. Planned to coincide with the July 4th holiday weekend, the festival includes a lineup of the best jazz groups in the country as well as local food trucks, artists, and other vendors.

The party starts with the Friday evening kick-off event, which usually features something special for everyone to enjoy. From the Grammy nominee jazz vocalist Nnnenna Freelon to the smooth jazz saxophonist of Grammy nominee performer Gerald Albright, you will not soon forget this incredible lineup of music, food, and fun. You can even enjoy a jazz filled church service on Sunday morning under the tent.

Festival organizers Carla and Craig Torrey want you to feel like family coming to visit for the weekend. It’s easy to get here and to stay in the area for the entire weekend, without worrying about traffic or parking. Travel packages provide transportation from Raleigh, Durham, and Fayetteville, hotel accommodations in Jacksonville, and a convenient shuttle out of Wilmington.

Carla says that “together we’re both working on making it a pleasant experience.” She adds that “Craig reminds me that it should be like a small celebration at someone’s home.” Each night they focus on having “the right combination of entertainment, is that something that would be attractive, are they comfortable, is there food, is there a way to keep them safe and entertained.”

The Ocean City Jazz Festival began in 2009, during the community’s 60th anniversary celebration. Dr. John Griffin, from Fayetteville, spearheaded the event, which featured saxophonist Ray Codrington, also from Fayetteville. Held on the deck of the community center behind what is now the Wade Chestnut Memorial Chapel, Carla says that everyone “had such a good time they decided they would make it an annual event.”

Some fan favorites return each year, including John Brown, who “usually brings someone who does straight ahead jazz or bebop,” Carla says. Showcasing different styles and instruments adds to the enjoyment of the music and can be a learning experience, as it “gives you all the varieties and styles of jazz,” she adds.

Ocean City is rich in history. Carla’s ties to Ocean City go back to the days when her father, William Eaton, built houses in the newly formed community on Topsail Island. Her recent work led to the community’s inclusion on the North Carolina Civil Rights Trail, celebrated at the 2022 Jazz Festival celebrated.

The community is also focused on a sustainable future so visitors can continue to enjoy all it has to offer for many years. The iconic Jazz Festival participates in the Leave No Trace initiative and is recognized as a NC Green Travel destination.

Craig says the support of the Town of North Topsail Beach is “absolutely a big part of our success.” The town helps with security and traffic control, along with many other logistical areas such as prepping the site. In 2023, the town’s fire department “also helped us physically set up chairs and take them down.” He adds that the “town has been invaluable.”

So mark your calendars to join in the “celebration of inclusion and meet some very nice people who love music.” You won’t want to miss this exciting weekend of “world class jazz in a beautiful beach setting.” Check out their website to start planning your visit!

Pat Fontana is a  local freelance writer. Photos by Onslow County Tourism.

Together we’re both working on making it a pleasant experience. It should be like a small celebration at someone’s home.

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