Just received the sad news about death of jazz vocalist Carol Leigh (Whitman). She was one of the guest artists for the second of three Pensacola Jazz Parties (1989-1991) held at the (then) Pensacola Hilton Hotel. These were produced in conjunction with record producer Gus Statiras. Gus was a native New Yorker who met his bride during WWII and moved to wife’s hometown of Tifton, Georgia. Because of Gus’ connections to the music world, we were able to get a variety of jazz artists, many of whom Gus had recorded, for our jazz event.
Carol Leigh was a soprano who was particularly interested in early jazz. In fact, she frequently performed in 1920’s style dress. By the time she appeared at our 1990 event, her reputation was well established. She had married trombonist Russ Whitman of the Salty Dogs group. She had gained an international reputation and had traveled both to Europe and the Orient. She had recorded with GHB, Stomp Off and Arbors Labels. In fact, I called Rachel Domber of Arbors Records seeking a copy, but the supply was exhausted. Ms. Leigh had recorded up until the early 2000s. Because of demands of the many details of the Jazz Party, I didn’t have opportunity to visit with Ms. Leigh. But, at a subsequent event where I was a guest and she was a performer, we both had leisure time to visit.
This leads me to discuss our three jazz parties and why they didn’t continue. These weekend jazz events have been successful in various parts of the country. In fact, West Texas jazz parties have been continuous for more than 50 years. Our situation was suitable in that The Pensacola Hilton, now Pensacola Grand Hotel, had an ideal seating space with a large stage. As locals know, it was originally a passenger train depot and the hotel tower was added. It also had large lot for parking.
So, it was up to us in the Jazz Society to make local arrangements, advertising, and sound crew. Gus Statiras made the arrangements with the musicians and helped with the scheduling and announcing. We advertised nationally and held the event in January. This was beneficial since many tourists bound for South Florida for winter vacation would be coming through the area. We were successful nationally in that we had patrons from as far away as California and Maine. Cost for the three days of jazz events was about $200. Patrons made own arrangements about accommodations and meals but most stayed and dined at the Hilton. However, we had minimal turn-out from locals. In fact, I had one or two persons stop me and ask, “How can the Jazz Society justify asking $200 for a musical weekend?” My reply was, “That’s what our overall costs require; but, if you can put this on for less, we’ll let you produce it!”
Our third Pensacola Jazz Party lost a little money. It was held the weekend which began the first Iraq War and Eastern Air Lines died that same weekend! Gus had invited New York record producer and Commodore Record Shop owner Milt Gabler for a press conference. Gus had worked for Mr. Gabler as a young man and had interesting stories to tell. Of course, there were no press people attending since all personnel were out doing local stories related to security precautions at the military stations as related to the declaration of war. But Gus did the interview to the delight of many attendees. And, as a bonus, I had opportunity to interview him privately for a weekly publication, now out of business.
So, you might logically ask why the Pensacola Jazz Parties didn’t continue. The logic of our board was such that we felt that energies should be placed on building our local Jazz Society first. And this was the correct answer because we assumed full responsibility for Pensacola JazzFest in 1999 and this requires year-round effort to assure success. However, the Atlanta Jazz Party picked up where we left off and produced an excellent annual party for 27 years thereafter, closing in 2016.
Thanks, Gus Statiras and Carol Leigh. We still miss you!