Smooth jazz. Fresh food. River view.

About 500 people gathered at St. Mary's College last week for some combination of the above at a musical tribute to jazz luminary Miles Davis. The outdoor concert was part of a series that was sponsored by the college and ends tomorrow with "Duke Ellington's 100th Birthday Big Band Bash."

The free event starts at 7:30 p.m. on the campus in St. Mary's City and wraps up the 1999 River Concert Series, featuring bluegrass numbers, Broadway show tunes, Navy sea chanters and classical music. In the first year of the series, the response has been unexpected, organizers said. Throngs of people arrive more than an hour early to stake out prime lawn chair spots.

"We had no idea," said Nell Hampton, the college's director of community relations and events. "We hoped it would be well received, but we had no idea we'd get this response."

Hampton said the continued success of the college's annual summer solstice concert led to the launching of the new series. School administrators and planners from the Arts Council of St. Mary's College decided to sponsor a string of concerts with diverse musical acts, local food vendors and a view of the river at sundown. The result was evident at Friday's concert.

"When it's dark, it's so beautiful, and you can see the water," said Shirley Rock, who lives in St. Mary's County. Rock came alone last week, but she usually caravans with friends in an over-55 singles group that has adopted the weekly concerts as a meeting place. "I drove 25 miles to get here, but in the country, you don't consider that far."

Children used hills around the college as grassy slides, tumbling down amid giggles and cheers. Parents sat in folding chairs or on blankets, drinking wine and listening to St. Mary's musicians pay homage to a jazz great.

A set of Miles Davis tunes Friday was followed by a concert by Russian pianist Maxim Anakushin. Two groups of local dancers, some of them in elaborate masks, performed interpretive ballet routines to the music. Booths set up by local community service organizations ringed the concert area, offering information about the Kiwanis Club or other groups, such as the St. Mary's River Project.

At one hillside spot, a Monopoly board was laid out, and Joan and Mike Stevens, their two children and a friend bartered for Boardwalk and Park Avenue as the pinkish-orange sun slowly slipped toward the tree-lined river.

"This is our first time out here," Joan Stevens said. "It's a great setting, and it's nice to expose the children to different kinds of music."

Hampton said the Navy chanters drew the biggest crowd, with an estimated 1,000 in attendance. Jeff Silberschlag, chairman of the college's music department and an acclaimed trumpeter, selected the lineup. This weekend's concert, in conjunction with the Governor's Cup sailing competition, is expected to lure even bigger crowds.

At Friday's concert, the Samak family had prepared a picnic of foods from their native India. Swati Samak tucked away some chicken biryani and freshly baked naan bread while her her husband and children went for a stroll. The family has attended nearly every one of these summer concerts and plans to make the last one, too.

"We'd like to go to D.C. every weekend to go to cultural events, but we can't," Swati Samak said. "So it's nice they have this here for the locals."