The founder of the three-day festival was Paul Acket, a businessman and jazz lover who had made fortune in the 1960s with his pop magazine publishing company. When Acket sold his company in 1975, he was able to start up and sponsor the North Sea Jazz Festival. Acket desired to present a great diversity of jazz music to the public, from American jazz to European avant-garde. In 1976 the first edition of the North Sea Jazz Festival took place. It was an immediate success: six stages, thirty hours of music and 300 performances drew over 9000 visitors. Many great jazz legends were presented, like Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz.
Since 1985 the Bird Awards are presented at the North Sea Jazz Festival. Originally the prize was awarded in three categories: the Bird Award International, the Bird Award Netherlands and the Bird Award Special Appreciation. From 2001, however, the prize is only given in one category, and is especially meant for beginning artists that deserve more recognition. Also, from 1998 onward the Edison Jazz Awards are presented at the festival. The Edison is the award of the Dutch music industry for albums of a special quality.
In 1990 two sub-festivals were introduced: “North Sea Jazz Heats”, a free festival performed in pubs throughout Den Haag, and the exclusive “Midsummer Jazz Gala”. Both take place on the evening before the actual festival. Artists that have performed at the Midsummer Jazz Gala include; Tony Bennett, Herbie Hancock and Oscar Peterson.
The festival has grown to fifteen stages, 1200 artists and about 23,000 visitors a day. The festival is known worldwide for the many music styles it presents, from traditional New Orleans jazz to Swing, bebop, fusion, blues, gospel music, funk music, soul music and drum n bass.