By F. Norman Vickers
Stirrings of a jazz organization were discussed among jazz enthusiasts here beginning in the mid-1960s. Some of the principals were Frank Horne, Ray Parker, Joe Occhipinti, Harvey Etheridge, Roy Russell and Norman Vickers.
In 1982, WUWF had just begun its broadcasting and jazz was part of its mission. The Pensacola Arts Council (later changed name to Northwest Florida Arts Council) had just hired Diane Magie (pronounced Magee) as their first paid, full-time executive director.
After a performance at PJC and I invited Pat Crawford, WUWF station manager, and Diane Magie to my house for conversation. The subject of a local jazz festival came up. If Diane had been a seasoned executive and good bureaucrat, she’s have said, “Good idea; I’ll discuss it with my board.” Instead, she said, “Good idea; let’s do it!”
It was decided that there would be a community board under the auspices of the Arts Council and representatives from WUWF and the jazz community would participate.
Previously nobody was brave enough to start a jazz organization fearing that it would be too much work; now there was an immediate need for a jazz support group. Joe Occhipinti had been doing a “Jazz at Noon” event on Fridays, patterned after a long-running effort in New York City. We had identified about 100 persons who might be interested in working toward this goal. Invitations were mailed and on a Friday in early December (1982) approximately 40 persons attended. Joe’s group finished their gig at 2 p.m. My initial idea was that each person would contribute $100 and we’d see how much music we could buy for one year. (This was the formula for Community Concerts—sell subscriptions, then arrange concerts within that budget.) Roy Russell, trumpeter, bandleader and employee of the Postal Service, spoke up and said that he would be unable to participate if this were the formula. However, he said that he would gladly pay lesser dues and then pay an admission charge to each live jazz event. As we all know, this was the formula we adopted.
Planning for the first Pensacola JazzFest, held in the spring of 1983 went reasonably well. Harvey Etheridge and Joe Occhipinti recruited the musicians who donated their time. Our first headliner was guitarist Chuck Wayne of New York City. Jimmy Grimes, a broadcasting executive at WEAR obtained a donated round-trip ticket, courtesy of Delta Airlines and came up with $700 to pay Wayne. Housing and transportation was also donated by Grimes, as Wayne was his house-guest. Harvey was bassist for Wayne and Joe helped with big band. Musicians of the Past (MOPs), a loosely organized group of local musicians including Frank Horne, Henry Grad, Buddy Wilkerson and Charlie Hardin also performed.
At this point in the story, I need to describe the progress of Pensacola JazzFest. Then we will go back and pick up the growth and development of the Jazz Society of Pensacola.
For the first six years, Pensacola JazzFest was under the auspices of the Arts Council. Dale Riegle and other staffers at WUWF were active with planning. Also representing WUWF were staffers Linda Kohanov and Kevin Janser. A chairperson was selected each year from the community. Occhipinti, Etheridge and Vickers were representatives from the newly-formed Jazz Society of Pensacola. There were some drawbacks to the arrangement in that Arts Council had no expertise in running a jazzfest and a community chair was selected, but in that period of time, there was no chair willing to accept the position the second year. Also, Arts Council didn’t have staff to make a JazzFest run effectively.
Then Pat Crawford suggested that WUWF be presenter of the JazzFest. That ran more efficiently as they had both staff and expertise. Dale Riegle and John Macdonel provided continuity and other staff helped with fund-raising. The Jazz Society functioned in a supporting role.
Now let’s go back to the early development of the Jazz Society. We incorporated in 1983 as a not-for-profit charitable organization—501 c 3. First board members were George Evans, wholesale grocer and amateur banjo player, Harvey Etheridge, J. Holliday Veal, Frank Bozeman and Norman Vickers. The organization functioned from Vickers’ medical office with occasional assistance from his staff. The joke was that his was the only office where, when someone called for Norman, staff would ask, “Is it musical or medical?”
Original plan was that one board member would rotate off each year and that the senior board member would be presiding officer for that year. That was never a really workable plan so we improvised. When Vickers’ term was up—all terms were staggered initially in order to have someone rotate off the board yearly—at three years, board decided to give him a title to keep him working, so they invented the title—Executive Director. Vickers insisted that the term be Volunteer Executive Director to avoid the implication that it was a salaried position.
About the same time that JSOP was getting started, there was a need for a national umbrella jazz organization. Harvey Etheridge attended an organizational meeting in Sarasota. The leader was New York City advertising executive Hal Davis, who had recently retired to Sarasota. Davis has been Benny Goodman’s manager for twenty-five years. Norman happened to be present at a meeting in NYC with Davis; Warren Vache’, Sr. bassist, longtime editor of newsletter of the New Jersey Jazz Society and father of musicians Warren and Allen; and Harold Gray, lobbyist and president of the DC Potomac River Jazz Club. That auspicious meeting resulted in agreement that a national umbrella organization should be formed. In 1984 the first meeting of the American Federation of Jazz Societies was held in Savannah, GA and Norman was elected as a board member.
He served one year and then dropped out in order to give wider representation to members from the West. Initially, we were heavily represented on the East Coast. Norman was re- elected to the AFJS Board in 1992 and served as VP that year. In 1994 he was elected AFJS president. For the previous 5 years he had served as editor of the AFJS quarterly newsletter, Federation Jazz. Affiliation with other jazz clubs nationally, helped generate enthusiasm for our local JSOP.
The decision to call our organization Jazz Society of Pensacola was predicated on a couple of factors. When jazz people travel, they sometimes look in the phone book for a Jazz Hot-Line. But if we were Pensacola Friends of Jazz, or some other name, they might not be able to find us. Also, if we called ourselves a “Club” it might give the mistaken impression of a “night-club.”
Other early board members, partial list, included Bob Ashton, Don Snowden, Joe Occhipinti, Thom Botsford, Jim Etherton, Roy Russell, Mike Lynch, Marilyn Freeman and Sallye Ledbetter. About this time, Pat Ashton was willing to function as (volunteer) secretary. She was attentive to the needs of the organization and was a good executive. She also functioned as a much-needed volunteer coordinator, in that she genuinely liked people, and enjoyed talking on the telephone.
First paid administrator: Andy Metzger had worked at the Arts Council office beginning about 1983. When he became available in October 2001, he was hired part-time as administrator for JSOP. He and Pat Ashton made a great team. About 2002, the JSOP office moved from the medical building on W. Jordan Street to current location in the Brent Building. Pat and Andy helped supervise that move.
In the meantime, WUWF wearied of administering the JazzFest. They had done so for 10 years. Whereas it was initially a free festival, during part of that time they decided to make a charge for admission (less than $10/day). This necessitated putting up a temporary chain-link fence around the park and other administrative changes. The last JazzFest produced by WUWF was in 1997. At the suggestion of the Chamber of Commerce and others, it was moved to the first weekend- in November, so that it would be a tourist “destination.” It was thought that tourists would come for Pensacola JazzFest and then stay for the Great Gulf Coast Arts Festival the following weekend. Our November JazzFest was on a cold weekend and attendance was small.
Consequently, announcement was made in January 1998 that UWF would no longer administer the JazzFest.
The Jazz Society then had to decide whether they wanted to accept the administrative and fiscal responsibility of running the JazzFest. The board took two months to decide that they would take the risk. Whereas before, JSOP had paid its own way and didn’t need to ask for grants, now with doubling our budget and assuming all the financial risk of JazzFest, we had to get busy with grant writing and soliciting for individual donors and corporate sponsors.
JSOP had a year to plan its first jazzfest as we had to skip spring of 1998. Harvey Etheridge had returned to Pensacola and was re-elected to the board. He was music director with Crystal Joy Albert and Vickers also serving on the music committee. In 2000 and subsequently, Crystal has served as JazzFest Music Director.
Since JSOP has produced 11 jazz festivals, we have directed more festivals than each of the previous producers—Arts Council and WUWF.
Vickers stepped down as Volunteer Executive Director after the 2006 Jazz Fest. (He had given his two-year notice). Board member Roger Villines accepted the position as JSOP president and has served in that capacity since. His board term ended this year but he will serve in an ex officio capacity and will continue to lead the Jazz Jam sessions.
With the recent change in by-laws allowing increase in the board from five members to nine, it is hoped and expected that our leadership and effectiveness as an organization will be proportionately improved.