The inaugural edition of Kaunas Jazz took place from April 19-21, 1991, a little more than a year after Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union and was re-established as a sovereign state. Despite a shaky economic and political situation in the country, a group of enthusiasts led by Jonas Jučas organized a jazz festival. They were supported by the Department of Culture and Education of the City of Kaunas, the music agency Litus, and the Kaunas Philharmonic Society.
The first Kaunas Jazz Festival lasted for three days. Its program included five concerts held in the Concert Hall of Vytautas Magnus University and two jam sessions in one of the city’s restaurants. The festival featured jazz musicians from Lithuania and seven European countries (Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Poland, Russia and Switzerland).
The first festival was a great success but the organizers were not sure whether to make it an annual event or to hold the festival every two years. In the end, they chose the first option, and the Kaunas Jazz Festival has been held every year ever since. The festival takes place in April in honor of International Jazz Day celebrated on April 30. Along with the main festival, its team organizes a series of jazz concerts throughout the year.
Over the years, Kaunas Jazz has welcomed participants from over 20 countries, both established artists and up-and-coming musicians. Past participants have included renowned artists such as John Abercrombie, Marc Copland, Al Di Meola, Chico Freeman, Jan Garbarek, Trilok Gurtu, Elvin Jones, Nils Landgren, Charles Lloyd, Palle Mikkelborg, Nils Petter Molvaer, Greg Osby, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Courtney Pine, Bobby Previte, Dave Sanborn, John Scofield, Bobo Stenson, and Mike Stern.
The festival presents the annual Kaunas Jazz Award. It is awarded to a musician selected by an independent committee made up of music journalists.