Gasparilla Music Fest: Start the music

Founded by fans, the GMF brings bands from all over to downtown Tampa.

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This weekend sees the launch of a grassroots event that has the potential to make Tampa look real good. Hip, even.

“We feel like there’s a sleepy but about-to-wake-up market here for a real, true music festival that will, over time, put Tampa on the map,” Carter Henderson explained recently when we discussed the inaugural Gasparilla Music Festival.

Henderson is one of GMF's 13 board members, all longtime Tampa residents who supported the idea of a music event that not only drew people to town but showcased what Tampa has to offer, music, food and otherwise. The combined forces of these 13 people set the fest in motion.

The idea was originally spearheaded by Board President David Cox, who brought knowledge and experience from working on the board of the Gasparilla International Film Festival. “I spent a few years learning how the film festival ran things,” Cox said, “and at the right time, went out and found a bunch of people to help me get the music festival started.”

In addition to Henderson, this included Ty Rodriguez, who was instrumental in bringing on more than 15 local restaurants, caterers, vendors and food trucks to represent the breadth of Tampa’s culinary offerings; and Phil Benito of Brokenmold Entertainment, who scouted out the live talent on an ebb-and-flow budget.

Donations from GMF’s “Ring of Fire” Founder’s Circle, however, are what ultimately made the festival a reality. Each gave $1,000 to help get the fest off the ground. “All 13 board members are part of it, we’ve all written a check, and then we went out to our friends in the community, and said, ‘This is our goal, this is our idea, our mission is to create this community festival.’” All told, Henderson said, “We found 73 individuals around Tampa who believed in our vision and wrote $1,000 checks, who truly got this event off the ground. Once we got that base established, then the corporate sponsors came in.”

The 73 folks in the Ring of Fire didn't invest with the idea of getting any dollars in return, but they are investing in the future of their community’s cultural landscape. “They gave us the seed money, and the return they’re expecting is a long-term self-sustaining community event,” Henderson said. These one-time donors also earned a lifetime membership in the Founders’ Circle and lifetime admission to the festival, which Cox is confident will return. “We were always planning for what it would look like in five years, so we’ve kind of built it with that in mind,” Cox explained.

Tampa’s lovely under-utilized Curtis Hixon Riverfront Park (currently the site of the monthly Rock the Park concert series), and its adjacent landmarks, the Kiley Gardens and Amphitheatre, are the setting for the fest, with three stages — the main stage at Curtis Hixon, second smaller party stage at the Gardens and intimate amphitheatre — featuring a genre-spanning array of local and regional performers filling out a very impressive bill of noteworthy national acts [see schedule opposite page].

GMF isn’t officially associated with either of the other Gasparilla fests, not yet anyway. The trademark-free name was to symbolize the fact that it’s a Tampa-centric event, though it’s no secret GMF’s date was purposely scheduled in March right between the arts and film festivals, filling a musical void and tying it to the other fests down the road.

Gasparilla Music Festival Foundation is a legally established nonprofit. According to Henderson, “No one here stands to make a buck off this. We are truly a nonprofit, 100-percent volunteer organization trying to make this happen.” All proceeds from the inaugural fest go toward planning a second one.

CLICK HERE to check out the complete schedule and details about performers. CLICK HERE to read our Q&A with Lee Fields, who performs with The Expressions on the Main Stage at 7:15 p.m.

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