The fans lined up as early as 3 a.m. to secure prime real estate in the tent cities or on the sloping main lawn. It looked as if they were leaving for a month-long vacation, towing food and creature comforts on dollies, customized wagons, and platform trucks that contractors use to haul lumber. They brought air mattresses, inflatable chaise lounges, camping beds, and even landscape lights to mark their territory.

All this for just a day at the Capital Jazz Fest at Merriweather Post Pavilion. For two decades, many area music lovers have made it a ritual to kick off the summer with some of their favorite jazz, R&B, and hip-hop artists at the festival. The venue was packed to near-capacity on Friday night and sold out Saturday and Sunday, with roughly 20,000 people swarming the 40 acres of Symphony Woods each day to hear artists ranging from Les Nubians to Michael Franks.

Adrienne Braswell of Alexandria, Va., sold 233 of those tickets to a group of enthusiasts she calls Braswell’s Circle, which stretches from Georgia to New York. Reconnecting with old friends was one of the best parts of the weekend, said members of the Charlotte, N.C., Jazz Fest Crew. “We’ve been coming every year since 2001,” said Jeannine Chandler, who traveled to Columbia, Md., from Atlanta with her husband.

Many fans were hard-pressed to pinpoint the highlight of their highlights. For some, it was hearing Erykah Badu (below) on Friday, Rick Braun on Saturday, or Keiko Matsui on Sunday. Others singled out Kem, Jeff Lorber, the O’Jays, and local favorite Marcus Johnson of Silver Spring, Md. Faith Evans invited some attendees to dance onstage, while Joe and Dwele wandered into the crowd to sing.

The weekend’s lineup also included a tribute to festival mainstay George Duke, who died last year, featuring his cousin Dianne Reeves, Al Jarreau, Jeffrey Osborne, Phil Perry and Stanley Clarke.

Bassist and host Marcus Miller said that hanging out at the festival is just as fun for the performers as it is for the fans. Will Downing, also an occasional host and last year’s opening headliner, agreed. “It’s one of the few events left around the country where I genuinely get excited,” Downing said. “The crowds are normally very appreciative.”

Johnson said that there’s nothing like hearing thousands of fans shout his name or seeing them bring multiple CDs to be autographed. “It lets you know that you’re doing something right,” says the pianist and vintner, who has performed at the festival since the mid-’90s.

One downside to this year’s festival was a moratorium on parking at the Mall in Columbia, which meant towed cars and longer walks to overflow lots. Congestion leading to the soul stage, which relocated to the north side of Merriweather from the west end, frayed some nerves. “The layout of the soul stage was a safety hazard—-one way in and out,” said Braswell.

Festivalgoers also complained about “rude” and overbearing bag searchers, inaudible artist banter between songs, and sound imbalances between the soul and jazz stages that overpowered some of the latter performances so much that Rachelle Ferrell asked “What’s that bumping?” during her set. She then made up an impromptu song about making lemonade out of lemons.

It made some longtime fans nostalgic for the one-stage, one-love days at Bull Run Regional Park in Centreville, Va., where the festival launched in 1993. Dubbed “the Woodstock of jazz” or “Smoothstock,” the festival relocated a decade ago when it outgrew the park’s 10,000-person capacity.

Johnson and others don’t miss the traffic jams on I-66, and he added that Bull Run turned into a “mud bowl” when it rained. The Chandlers are split. She prefers Merriweather, but he’s partial to Bull Run. Both, however, thought the concessions were too pricey. “I can’t get a hot dog for under $10.” Jeannine said. “With all of that, we’re still here.”

Top photo by Yanick Rice Lamb. Bottom photo by Demetrius Robinson.