By F. Norman Vickers, Volunteer Executive Director Emeritus
Stirrings of interest in starting a jazz society in Pensacola, Florida was begun in the 1960s with jazz enthusiasts and some jazz musicians, but it was decided that it would require too much work. However, in 1982, the University of West Florida’s new radio station had begun broadcasting and jazz was part of its stated mission. The Pensacola Arts Council had just been organized. So, I invited Pat Crawford, WUWF-FM director, and Arts Council Director Diane Magie (pronounced Magee) to my home after a musical event at our local Pensacola Junior College. I suggested that Pensacola needed a jazz festival; Crawford was in favor. If Ms. Magie had been an experienced executive director, likely she would have responded, “Good idea. I’ll present it to my board.” Instead, she responded, “Great idea; let’s do it!” So, that was the impetus necessary to begin organizing a jazz society. The idea was that the Arts Council would be the lead organization, with the University radio station and the newly formed jazz society in support positions.
Local saxophonist and bandleader Joe Occhipinti had been doing a Friday Jazz at Noon event at a local restaurant; so, approximately 100 known jazz enthusiasts were invited to attend the 2 p.m. meeting after the close of the jazz event. Approximately 40 persons attended and enthusiastically endorsed the idea. We planned to have annual membership dues and make a reasonable charge for our jazz events.
Details for organizing the Jazz Society of Pensacola Inc. as a not-for-profit were proceeding at the same time as plans for our first Pensacola JazzFest would be presented in the spring of 1983. Letters went out to approximately 40 known jazz organizations asking for advice about how best to proceed. The response was enthusiastic, and the two best pieces of advice were: 1. Rest assured that a small number in your organization will do most of the work. 2. Don’t depend on musicians to make your organization succeed; they have another agenda.
The Jazz Society organization moved along smoothly. A board of five members was elected. It was planned that one member would retire and one new director would be elected each year. So, initially, staggered terms for board members were initiated to make the process work. My election was for three years. The Jazz Society would operate from my medical office; so, our main office expenses were merely office supplies, stamps, etc. The joke in the community was that when one called to speak with Dr. Vickers, the question was, “Is it musical or medical?”
The first Pensacola JazzFest was held in the spring of 1983, with the Pensacola Arts Council as primary sponsor and WUWF-FM and Jazz Society of Pensacola as support. It was held in shaded, downtown historic Seville Square.
About the same time as our local jazz society was getting started, there was a movement to have a national jazz organization. Jazz Times Magazine was having a convention in New York City. Some of the prime movers in that get-together were Warren Vache Sr. of New Jersey Jazz Society, Harold Gray of Potomac River Jazz Club and Hal Davis, newly retired New York publicist who had just moved to Sarasota with view to starting a jazz society there. So, I attended the Jazz Times event and, as a bonus, I sat in the hotel room with the jazz elders at the beginning of American Federation of Jazz Societies (AFJS).
The following year, the first AFJS convention was held in Savannah, Georgia, and I was elected to the board of directors. Because initially the AFJS board was heavily weighted toward the U.S. East Coast, I dropped off the board and was re-elected a few years later when the AFJS convention was held in New Orleans.
The AFJS Board was dynamic, to say the least. Usually, board members had been effective with their local societies as president, newsletter editor or other responsible job(s). And usually, board members traveled at their own expense. One person that deserves special mention is the late Mat Domber, founder of Arbors Records. Mat sponsored some excellent jazz parties in Clearwater, Florida. AFJS sponsored Statesmen of Jazz, a group of musicians, each over 50-years-old. The question of liability insurance came up, and Domber volunteered that his company would be responsible for liability insurance for that group. Board meetings were usually held with other jazz events, for example, I had an opportunity to visit the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee and attend the AFJS board meeting during the same visit.
My year as president of AFJS was by default. In 1991, pianist Ed Metz Sr. was due to be president. He had just retired from an industrial position. He also was bandleader in New Jersey. He had just successfully contracted with the Bob Crosby family to use the Bob Crosby name for his band. So, he announced that he would be unable to accept the presidency. Hence, Vickers got the job! I had been editor of our quarterly newsletter, so I continued that job during my presidency of AFSJ since it was easier just to do it than to find someone to whom to hand it off. Special mention, too, should be to Bill Gottlieb. He was jazz photographer for the Washington Post in the late 1930s to 1948, except for a couple of years off for military service during WWII. He was a board member retired from the publishing industry who was enjoying touring the world with his jazz photography exhibits. We became good friends and would discuss jazz and jazz photography. Harold Gray of Potomac River Jazz Club was best AFJS president during my time. He was lobbyist for independent grocers, independent truckers etc. He’d assign one a job and then call about 10 days later to inquire how it was going. Usually, I hadn’t done anything (and he suspected as much.) But I’d promise to get on it and would do so in order to avoid embarrassment when he was due to call about 10 days later.
A highlight of my year as AFJS President came in spring of 1991. Our convention was in Kansas City and new marble slab gravestones had been installed on the graves of Charlie “Bird” Parker and his mother. These were to replace the small gravestones that had been stolen from the gravesite. Local plans were to have a 21-sax salute on a Sunday morning when the gravestones were to be dedicated. The AFJS board was in attendance as were radio and TV representatives, but not a single saxophonist showed up. Not to be outdone, I took out my three-octave, chromatic harmonica and played a 48-reed salute on a Charlie Parker tune. I never got to see the TV on the Sunday evening news as I was on my way back to Pensacola to be ready for Monday morning medical practice!
As most readers know, AFJS died a death of attrition in the early 2000s after a 20-year run. Individual societies reduced their financial support shortsightedly, in my view, by withdrawing their financial support. Although our AFJS expenses were minimal, there were costs of producing a newsletter and paying certain office expenses. In the period, however, a series of manuals were produced and consultation was available to individual societies. Although the Jazz Education Network is an effective organization, it does not speak to the unique needs of jazz societies. So, an unmet need still exists.
Back to Jazz Pensacola — our shorter name for Jazz Society of Pensacola Inc. In 1996, in preparation for eventual retirement from medical practice, I sold my practice to our local Baptist Hospital. Nothing materially changed in my medical practice, but I could no longer justify using medical staff for part-time jazz work. Consequently, we found an affordable office and hired a part-time administrator. In about 2004, I stepped down as volunteer executive director. Currently, the board has governed successfully with help of part-time Administrator Alice Crann Good.
In 1999, Jazz Pensacola assumed direction of Pensacola JazzFest after administration by the Arts Council for seven and WUWF-FM radio for 10 years, respectively. Hence, Jazz Pensacola has history of running our JazzFest longer than the previous two. We have missed two years of producing a JazzFest. The first was in 1997 when WUWF moved the JazzFest to the fall instead of the usual spring event. So, when they announced they were no longer going to sponsor JazzFest, there was not time for a spring 1998 festival. The other was in spring 2020 when Covid-19 shut down many activities.
Happily, our free 2021 Pensacola JazzFest was held mid-May with good music and good crowds. Because national artists were still unsettled about traveling and long-term commitments, artists were drawn from local and regional groups, thereby saving some travel and hotel expenses. So, outlook is good for Jazz Pensacola as we resume our monthly Jazz Gumbo programs and our separate monthly Jazz Jams. We continue our support of an annual jazz scholarship competition for high school and college jazz students. Also, we have an endowment fund for visiting jazz artists. We have previously had guitarist Gene Bertoncini as a visiting jazz artist who gave a jazz class for guitar students from University of West Florida and Pensacola State College; a public jazz concert at Pensacola State College and a fundraising-concert for Jazz Pensacola. We have funds reserved for a repeat visiting jazz artist program in the near future. So, our board and entire membership are enthusiastic about the future!