Gene Arnould first heard jazz on records loaned to him by a young minister who was visiting his church in Illinois.
“Dave Brubeck, Erroll Garner, Cannonball Adderley, that’s what I grew up listening to,” Arnold said. “While my buddies were listening to rock ’n’ roll, I would listen to jazz.”
Like that young minister, Arnould served as a man of the cloth for several years, at a church in Marblehead.
He also shared his love of jazz with the community when he founded the Marblehead Summer Jazz Series, now in its 29th season.
The first concert, in 1985, featured Makoto Ozone, who at the time was a young graduate of Berklee College of Music. He was also the first pianist to replace the legendary Chick Corea in a group led by vibraphonist Gary Burton.
“He had gotten a lot of play on radio, a lot of buzz,” Arnould said. “I said to a friend of mine, wouldn’t it be neat if we could bring Makoto to Marblehead?”
Ozone was the first in a long line of distinguished performers who have played in the Marblehead series.
“I don’t think people always recognize the level of talent we have here,” Arnould said. “But they’re some of the best over the years, legends like Jack McDuff, a Hammond B3 player, and James Moody. But also some of the young lions, like Esperanza Spalding, who plays bass and got a Grammy two or three years ago for best new artist.”
The series began with an emphasis on local talent, and has always featured a performance by Boston-based vocalist Rebecca Parris, who will kick things off again this Saturday.
“She’s been in every summer series we’ve done,” Arnould said. “She sings American standards, the American songbook.”
Some audience members have been coming to the Marblehead series as long as she has, Parris said.
“There are people who have been extremely faithful,” she said. “There are people who are so faithful they travel up from Cape Cod to be there.”
Parris has performed around the world, in some cases with legendary musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich and Woody Herman, but said the Marblehead series has a unique feel that keeps her coming back.
“It’s a combination of the people that are volunteering and the space itself,” she said. “The audience in Marblehead is very special. I always feel like God waves his magic wand over the room when I’m there.”
Parris also feels the series is special because it helps to maintain the tradition of live performance.
“Live music will go away unless people come out to hear it, and we do not want to lose that aspect of our culture,” she said.
Another act with local roots, New Guitar Summit, features one of Boston’s most famous rock musicians, guitarist J. Geils of the J. Geils Band.
“He’s been playing jazz for a number of years, more actively than he played rock ’n’ roll — he’s been playing jazz for 20 years,” Arnould said.
This is the fourth time Geils has played the Marblehead series, and people who only knew him as a rocker are sometimes surprised when they see him on stage.
“He’s up there in a suit, looks like an insurance man — a cool insurance man,” Arnould said.
As the Marblehead series grew over the years, it also started to draw talent from well beyond the Boston area.
“Almost every year, we have someone from the international scene,” Arnould said. This year, that will include alto saxophonist Dmitry Baevsky, of St. Petersburg, Russia.
“I think he’s going to be one of the great saxophonists,” Arnould said.
Another act with international roots is the Amina Figarova Quintet, led by a Croatian-born pianist and composer who moved to New York in 2011 with her husband, flutist Bart Platteau.
“When they were here two years ago, they just blew everybody away,” Arnould said. “It’s pretty straight-ahead jazz, but all original compositions.”
The series will conclude with a bonus concert in September, when Chicago percussionist Yoron Israel will interpret the music of Stevie Wonder.
All performances are at the Unitarian-Universalist Church, in the same space that hosts the Me&Thee Coffeehouse, which features folk music from September through the spring.
“Acoustically it’s very sound,” Arnould said. “The musicians love it. It’s also very intimate. Musicians have sometimes surprised themselves with what they’ve produced there. I can’t tell you how many times a musician has said, ‘Why didn’t we record that?’”
Arnould is concerned that there are fewer outlets for jazz these days, whether in broadcast media or on stage, and feels this makes Marblehead Summer Jazz an important part of the music scene.
“It’s more and more difficult for people to hear jazz, particularly new jazz,” he said. “We have an audience that’s very rooted in jazz. The changing thing is building new audience. How you get younger people involved — that’s the struggle.”
If you go What: Marblehead Summer Jazz 2013 When: Saturdays at 8 p.m. July 13, Rebecca Parris; July 27, New Guitar Summit: J. Geils, Howard Alden, Gerry Beaudoin; Aug. 10, Amina Figarova Quintet; Aug. 24, Dmitry Baevsky Quartet; Sept. 21, Yoron Israel. Where: Unitarian-Universalist Church, 28 Mugford St., Marblehead Information: Tickets $26 in advance, $31 at door; preferred seating $36 in advance, $41 at door (Guitar Summit tickets $27 in advance, $32 at door, preferred seating $37 in advance, $42 at the door), available at www.marbleheadjazz.org or The Arnould Gallery, 111 Washington St., and Spirit of '76 Bookstore, 107 Pleasant St., both in Marblehead, or call 781-631-1538 or 781-631-6366.