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A brief history of Pensacola’s jazz scene

Jazz music originated within African-American communities of New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The musical genre quickly spread in popularity across the Southeast before making its way to international heights. Pensacola was a part of the early jazz scene and has had ties to jazz music ever since.

“You have a variety of bands that have performed in the Gulf region, but Pensacola is unique because it brings a lot of these musical elements together,” said Derrick Fishback, president of Jazz Pensacola. “You have very unique sounds that originated in New Orleans and Mississippi, and you have unique bands that have brought traditional and classical jazz genres together here in Pensacola.”

Pensacola’s jazz scene unfolded in the 1920s and 1930s, although little information is available on the scene’s early days. Countless venues, some of which were located along Palafox Street, hosted local and traveling jazz bands. The Belmont-DeVilliers district was also home to bustling venues, part of the infamous “chitlin’ circuit,” which hosted a variety of renowned African-American jazz, blues, and soul musicians.
Many early jazz musicians who later made a name for themselves were native to Pensacola. Junior Cook, Franke Horne, Gigi Gryce, Ida Goodson, Billie Pierce, Don Shirley, Lloyd Ellisand Wally Mercer Jr. were just a few of the jazz greats who called Pensacola home. Slim Gaillard, who was born in Alabama, also lived in Pensacola.

“He’s our most famous jazz musician that nobody knows about,” said Norman Vickers, emeritus president of Jazz Pensacola.

Frank Horne, 1977
Joan Jacobson
Frank Horne, 1977

Jazz musicians like Sidney Bechet, as well as blues greats B.B. King and Sam Cooke, also performed in Pensacola.

The Pensacola jazz scene peaked in the 1950s and 1960s, with performers playing at local venues almost nightly. One of the many venues in Pensacola was Rosie O'Grady's Warehouse, known today as Seville Quarter, which opened in 1967. Its founder, Bob Snow, was a former trumpet player with the Minneapolis symphony. His band, South Hangar Six, played jazz music at private parties and nightclubs around the city.

By the early 1980s, venues for jazz musicians in Pensacola became few and far between. Fred Domulot, who served as Jazz Pensacola’s president for six years, was a member of the first jazz band to ever play at Flounders Chowder House. He says that he and his bandmates were lucky to find a local venue to perform at regularly.

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“It was just a bunch of young guys who got put in a great position to play what we wanted to play, which is rare, even today,” Domulot said. “It was one of the better times of making music in my life.”

His band, called “Island Authority,” was one of the first jazz fusion bands to play house gigs in the area. Among other members, Domulot played alongside Steve Williams, son of Dr. Grier Williams.

“I can remember all these musicians coming to check us out,” Domulot said. “It was pretty fresh and new.”

With jazz less prevalent in Pensacola, the 1980s also saw improved measures to keep the musical tradition alive. When Norman Vickers moved to Pensacola in 1965, he and other jazz enthusiasts were interested in forming a jazz society, but decided it would require too much work. It wasn’t until 1982, not long after WUWF-FM began broadcasting jazz programming, that the foundations of a Pensacola jazz society were seen.

After a musical performance at Pensacola Junior College, Vickers invited WUWF Executive Director Pat Crawford and Pensacola Arts Council Director Diane Magie to his home to discuss the need for a jazz festival.

“If [Magie] had been an experienced executive director, she would have said ‘good idea, I will speak to my board,’” Vickers said. “What she said was ‘good idea, let’s do it!’ With the spark of that, we started a jazz society.”

The Jazz Society of Pensacola, or Jazz Pensacola, was founded not only to support the annual jazz festival but to provide music and education to the public. The first Pensacola JazzFest was held in the spring of 1983, which hosted guitarist Chuck Wayne. Numerous national and international jazz musicians, including Mundell Lowe, Toots Thielemans, and Laurindo Almeida, have performed at JazzFest since.

Press photo from "Go, Man, Go" with Slim Gaillard, who was born in Pensacola.
Creative Commons
Press photo from "Go, Man, Go" with Slim Gaillard, who lived in Pensacola.

From the beginning, Vickers photographed nearly every Jazz Pensacola event, including JazzFest. He recently donated thousands of these photographs to the University of West Florida Historic Trust archives, some of which are currently on display in an exhibit highlighting the history and influence of the Gulf Coast’s jazz scene.

“We wanted to honor that legacy while highlighting a part of Pensacola's past that not many are aware of,” said Jessie Cragg, curator of exhibits for the UWF Historic Trust.

Today, the jazz scene of Pensacola is alive and thriving. Jazz Pensacola, which serves as the primary driver for advancing the art form locally, hosts jam sessions, concerts, and gumbo events. The organization continues to host JazzFest, which has become a part of Pensacola's fabric over the years. The festival will be celebrating its 40th anniversary this weekend.

“It’s important for our citizens to know that it’s forty years of jazz and music taking place right here in Pensacola that was started by a small group of enthusiasts,” Fishback said. “You get both a festival and an organization that provides a very strong historical connection to the growth of Pensacola. Most bigger cities don’t have organizations that have lasted forty years, so it’s quite telling that this organization is still putting together a celebration of music.”

Performers for JazzFest 2023 include The 4 Korners, Pat Casey and the New Sound, Matthias Williams, ZAZU East, and others. The festival will be held April 1-2 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. in Seville Square, 311 E. Government St., downtown Pensacola. The event is free and open to the public.

For more information about Jazz Pensacola, click here.

Hunter joined WUWF in 2021 as a student reporter.