Jazz in the Gap: 150 years of music in the Delaware Water Gap

Once upon a time visitors came to Delaware Water Gap for fresh air, sweeping vistas and plenty of open space. The Gap’s natural wonders are still there, and still a major attraction for millions each year. But these days Delaware Water Gap is famous for something more— jazz music. 

Let’s stroll back in time to the mid 1800s, as trains from New York and Philadelphia flooded the Delaware Water Gap with seasonal visitors eager to escape the heat of the city. Grand hotels like the Kittatinny Hotel, The Water Gap House and the Castle Inn dotted the craggy cliffs of the Gap, accommodating summer visitors. Live entertainment was the order of the day, and top performers made their way to the Gap to entertain the masses. Soon a cottage industry formed with top musicians and entertainers spending their summers in Delaware Water Gap, performing, collaborating and inspiring each other. Delaware Water Gap became known for its dances, concerts and musicals, featuring the finest performers and some of the biggest names in entertainment. 

In the 1840s the Deer Head Inn jazz club opened up as a place for musicians to meet, play and collaborate in a dynamic, creative environment. Today the Deer Head remains the oldest continuously running jazz club in the United States, continuing to attract top jazz talent in a laid back, rustic atmosphere in historic Delaware Water Gap. 

With local tourism in full swing, the music scene thrived. John Phillip Sousa performed to a crowd of hundreds outside The Castle Inn in 1912. Top entertainers like Jackie Gleason, Fanny Brice, Fred Astaire and Fred Waring were drawn to the area’s charm and creative energy. 

By the 1920s and 30s, the advent of the automobile and the Great Depression caused many of Delaware Water Gap’s once-grand hotels to falter.  But the music scene moved full-steam ahead, attracting followers and entertainers alike. One such famous artist was Fred Waring, whose national radio show featuring his band The Pennsylvanians, was a household name. In 1952 Fred Waring purchased the Castle Inn in Delaware Water Gap, transforming it into the headquarters for his entertainment empire.

Known as the “Man Who Taught America How to Sing”, Waring pioneered in performances featuring vocalists combined with an orchestra. Along with The Pennsylvanians, Waring recorded over 1500 songs and 100 albums. He was also recognized as one of the nation’s leading music educators, running his choral and music education workshops from the Castle Inn. Waring’s Shawnee Press published hundreds of choral arrangements for use by high school and collegiate choruses for decades. 

Through the 1960s and 70s Fred Waring toured the nation with his live show, using Delaware Water Gap as his homebase. The music community continued to thrive in the Gap as performers flocked to the area to be a part of the emerging and dynamic scene. By 1978 the jazz community came into its own with the formation of the Celebration of the Arts Festival. This annual festival invites top national and international jazz acts to perform on three stages over two days. This year’s 43rd COTA Festival will be held on September 11th and 12th, 2021 in the heart of Delaware Water Gap.