Back in Fall of 2010, Jazz Pensacola leadership decided it was time to take a dive into some jazz education initiatives. One of the them that is still happening is the annual Student Jazz Competition. The first planning meetings comprised Jazz Pensacola leaders plus some local music educators and included Steve Ferry, Joe Spaniola, Cynthia and Fred Domulot, Joshua and Ron Kaye, Kathy Lyon, Mike Philly, Mike Loftis, Sandy Spivey and myself, Roger Villines. David Shelander soon joined the planning group, and Bob Byrnes, Katy Fritz and others were most helpful by donating generously to the cause.
Our first contest was in March 2011, with the live finals held at the Ashmore Fine Arts Auditorium on the campus of Pensacola State College (PSC). In the process that evolved the student applicants would submit recorded performances of specified tunes that would be prejudged in a preliminary round to chose who would go on to perform in the live finals in the 3 divisions: College Instrumental, High School Instrumental and Jazz Vocalist. The finals performances were in front of a live audience, and 3 judges would deliberate to rank the group into placings for the monetary awards ranging from $100 to $500.
The contests have turned out to be truly memorable, high quality events, and the student performances continue to wow the audiences. Here are a few facts about the ten contests to date: The 30 finals judges have included great jazz performers such as Longineu Parsons, David Shelander, Gary Wofsey, Bob Maksymkow, Bobby van Deusen and Steve Gilmore and educators such as Larry Panella from the University of Southern Mississippi and Raymond Smith from Troy University. A total of 90 finalists have received awards totaling over $30,000. Awards have helped pay college tuitions, attend special jazz camps/schools and purchase instruments, computers and other music equipment. Many winners have gone on to greater heights in the jazz/music world to include prestigious jazz schools, military bands and performance successes.
In 2019, we changed the venue from the PSC Ashmore Auditorium to Phineas Phogg’s in Seville Quarter. It worked very nicely, adding more of a jazz-club vibe to the experience.
The 2020 finals last year were not done in a live setting due to the COVID concerns. Instead, the finalists submitted recordings of tunes of their choice according to contest guidance, and the recordings were sent to the judges for critique and placing determination. It worked, not as good for students or listeners as live finals, but it did get the job done to keep the contest alive.
This year we returned to live finals, which happened on Monday, March 15, at Phineas Phogg’s in Seville Quarter. The performances started at 6:30 p.m. Unfortunately, we received fewer applicants this year, no doubt attributed to the COVID affect. The contest presented four college and one high school instrumentalists accompanied by a professional rhythm section comprised of George Petropoulos on keyboard, Dr. Bob Andrews on bass and Steve Maniscola on drums. The two excellent judges (Rebecca Barry could not participate due to non-COVID flu), Allen Beeson and Steve Gilmore, ranked the winners (they are all winners) and monetary awards ranging from $100 to $500 were presented followed by spontaneous jam by all. It was a very fine evening of student jazz.