James L. (Jimmy) Lyons, 78; Monterey Jazz Fest Founder


James L. (Jimmy) Lyons, founder of the legendary Monterey Jazz Festival and its manager from 1958 until his retirement in 1992, died Sunday in San Luis Obispo. He was 78.

Lyons suffered a heart attack and died at Sierra Vista Hospital, according to jazz festival spokesman Paul Fingerote.

The son of a Presbyterian missionary, Lyons was born in China in 1916. His family moved to Cleveland in 1922 and later settled in California.


He entered the jazz scene in 1941 as the publicity agent for the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, where an unknown young pianist and arranger named Stan Kenton was trying to get his new band off the ground.

Lyons, impressed by the Kenton sound, persuaded the manager of Santa Ana radio station KVOE, where he had recently landed a job as a deejay, to put the band on the air live. He gave away tickets to attract audiences to the broadcasts, while spreading the word about his jazz radio program.

After two years in Santa Ana, Lyons went to New York, where he produced radio shows for NBC.

During World War II, his “The Jubilee Show” was heard worldwide on Armed Forces Radio, and featured a stream of jazz legends, including Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

After the war, Lyons resettled in California, where his “Discapades” program on NBC produced from San Francisco played a major role in disseminating the typical West Coast jazz of the 1950s.

In 1958, Lyons put together the first Monterey Jazz Festival with Gillespie, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Billie Holiday, Dave Brubeck, Harry James and other performers. Phenomenally successful, it soon joined the Newport Jazz Festival, which had begun in 1954, as one of the nation’s premier annual outdoor jazz events.


Initially a creative bastion that featured cutting-edge artists and commissioned new works from Ellington and others, the festival in its final years under Lyons’ direction was criticized as having become too predictable, with many of the same legendary jazz performers invited back year after year.

At the behest of festival officials, Lyons announced his retirement in 1992, and settled into a quiet life in Morro Bay.

Once asked if he was concerned about the future of jazz with so many of its great artists having disappeared, he replied: “What, me worry? As long as there’s a single giant left on the scene to inspire us all, jazz is never going to die.”

He is survived by his wife, Laurel, and three children. At his request, there will be no services.