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Jazz Fest Part Of “Jazz Hero” Norman Vickers’ Legacy

Sandra Averhart profiles Dr. Norman Vickers. The founding member and executive director emeritus of Jazz Pensacola has been named a 2021 Jazz Hero by the Jazz Journalists Association.

After a one-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the 37th annual Pensacola Jazz Fest was held at Historic Seville Square last weekend (May 15-16).

It was a successful return, much to the delight of Dr. Norman Vickers, one of the driving forces behind the music festival for nearly 40 years — and counting.

For his efforts, Vickers has been named a 2021 Jazz Hero.

About mid-day Saturday, under the canopy of the park’s many large oaks, the Jack Zoesch Quartet is performing and Dr. Vickers, Executive Director Emeritus of Jazz Pensacola, is enjoying the music at the VIP tent.

He’s catching a quick lunch before heading over to the musicians’ tent for an interview with Zoesch.

Vickers turned over the reins of the local jazz society in 2006, but at 90 years old, but he continues to play a significant role with the organization.

“He is the dean of the college of jazz knowledge. He is the Godfather of local jazz,” begins the Jazz Fest master of ceremonies, as he calls Vickers to the stage to present a gift to fellow founding member Joe Occhipinti.

“The doctor is in; Dr. Norm Vickers,” proclaims the announcer as makes the introduction and hands over the microphone.

Vickers presented Occhipinti with a framed article published last summer by the Pensacola News Journal, “Joe, your friends, we salute you and thank you for your long-time service to the organization and to the larger, Pensacola jazz community.”

Those words of praise for Occhipinti also sum up why the Jazz Journalists Association has named Vickers a “2021 Jazz Hero.” The nomination came from by 2017 Jazz Hero, Lew Shaw, from Phoenix. The winners were announced in April.

“I’m very proud of that and I accept that for our entire organization because it’s been a cooperative effort from the beginning,” said Vickers.

Speaking from the comfort of his living room before Jazz Fest, Vickers recalled that it all started in the early 1980s, with the support of WUWF Executive Director Pat Crawford and Diane Magie, head of what was then the Pensacola Arts Council.

“I said, ‘Well, gee, we need a jazz fest,’” Vickers begins to recounts the history.

“If she had been a good director, she would have said, ‘Gee, that’s a good idea, I’ll talk to my board.’ She didn’t. She said, ‘It’s a good deal, let’s do it,” he said with a chuckle.

To support the music festival, Vickers and a dedicated group of fellow jazz lovers formed the Jazz Society of Pensacola (now called Jazz Pensacola). He became a founding board member, assumed the position of volunteer executive director, and the first jazz festival at Seville Square was held in the spring of 1983.

“Well, like I say, it’s been a cooperative effort from the beginning. It’s like proctology, it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it,” joked the retired gastroenterologist.

Vickers also has had an impact on the jazz community beyond Pensacola. He was instrumental in establishing the American Federation of Jazz Societies and he’s a founding member of the Jazz Journalists Association.

In honoring him, the JJA describes Vickers as “a harmonica-playing physician who for the past 40 years has been the jazz ambassador and moving spirit behind Jazz Pensacola.”

His passion for music began at an early age, learning to play the piano and listening to the radio while growing up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in the 1930s and 1940s.

“We were listening to big-band stuff,” he remembered. “So, it was just from the beginning. And, our radio station did country music during the day, but at night, I could turn on and get music from the Blue Room in New Orleans.”

Vickers was given a chromatic harmonica at the age of 10.

Always keeping it handy, the doctor pulls his harmonica from his shirt pocket; and as he often did for his patients, he played a few bars.

This is a bit of Duke Ellington’s ‘Sophisticated Lady.’

“From a personal standpoint, it has been absolutely wonderful for me, because I’ve made friends - nationally and locally – that I wouldn’t have made before,” he proclaimed. “And, it was a complete diversion from the pressures of practicing medicine.”

Vickers continues to be active in the jazz community, blogging and writing articles for the Jazz Pensacola newsletter and contributing writings to the publication, the Syncopated Times.

Jazz Pensacola has provided outreach to high school and college musicians, with the Student Jazz Competition.

One of the society’s lasting legacies is its contribution to the Jazz Room — with an inventory of CDs, books and DVDs valued at over $20,000 — at the West Florida Public Library in downtown Pensacola.

“I’m really proud of that. There are only two libraries that have a room dedicated just to Jazz. There are a number dedicated just to music in general.”

For all he’s accomplished at the local and national level, Vickers says receiving accolades was never his motivation.

“The motivation has been something that I thought was important, something important to me and I thought was important to the community,” he said with humility, as he offered the reminder that “somebody’s got to do it.”

Back at Jazz Fest, with great music, great weather and a great crowd after missing last year, the 2021 Jazz Hero declares that he’s “ecstatically happy.”

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.