Celebrating 40 Years By Nancy Roucher
This article was written for the 2020 festival program.
THE JAZZ CLUB OF SARASOTA 1980 - 2020
The Jazz Club of Sarasota began as the brainstorm of Hal Davis, who retired to Sarasota in 1978 with his wife Evelyn. Hal was president of a Manhattan advertising agency and began his P.R. career in the publicity department of CBS. He handled top talent like the big bands of the era and managed Benny Goodman’s tours of Asia, Europe and the Soviet Union.
When he came to Sarasota, he saw that there was an orchestra, opera and theatre…but something was missing – JAZZ! So he and Evelyn invited people over to listen to music in their Pelican Cove apartment – and that’s how it started!
Soon the jazz fans overflowed the Davis living room, their condo meeting room and eventually a bank community room. And The Jazz Club of Sarasota was born.
In 1980 the new club’s first concert was held in Holley Hall, featuring Bucky Pizzarelli, a good friend and one of the world’s best-known jazz guitarists. Bucky brought his 16-year-old son, John and they launched the new club before an audience of 280 people. Today John is a leading guitarist and vocalist in demand all over the world.
By 1981, The Club was ready for something bigger, and the first three-day festival was presented in May as the Sarasota Jazz Festival Hall of Fame Jazz Stars at Holley Hall. The Festival host was Jerry Jerome, a Sarasota resident, who played tenor saxophone with Glenn Miller, Red Norvo and Benny Goodman. Performers were Billy Butterfield, PeeWee Erwin, Al Grey, Bob Haggart, Dick Hyman, Don Lamond, Jack Lesberg, George Masso, Red Norvo, Flip Philips, Bucky Pizzarelli, Bobby Rosengarden, Derek Smith, Buddy Tate, Warren Vache and Bob Wilber. These musicians returned to perform many times over the years.
The second Festival in 1982 was dedicated to the memory of Louis Armstrong and attended by his widow, Lucille. The third Festival in 1983 honored the memory of Eubie Blake and moved to the larger Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. By this time, membership exceeded 850 people and The Club added a newsletter and Jazz On The Water.
As President, Hal Davis led the board and guided the growth of The Club, which became one of the founding members of the American Federation of Jazz Societies. In 1984, the fourth Festival was dedicated to Benny Goodman, the fifth Festival in 1985 celebrated Milt Hinton and other side men and the sixth Festival saluted rhythm sections. In these early years the musicians stayed at The Colony, a famous Sarasota resort, which became part of the fun both musicians (and locals) enjoyed.
As The Jazz Club became an established organization, it opened an office in the Sarasota Opera House and became a founding member of the Sarasota County Arts Council. Hal Davis was the first president. Jazz Jams were added on Saturday afternoons.
The seventh Festival in 1987 brought back John Pizzarelli to perform with many long-established jazz stars. The Club created the Satchmo Award, named for Louis Armstrong, to honor a person (or persons) for significant contributions to Jazz. Frank Eliscu, Heisman trophy sculptor, designed the unique trophy. The first one was presented to George Wein, creator of the famous Newport Jazz Festival.
In 1988, 22 musicians honored five jazz innovators - Armstrong, Basie, Ellington, Goodman, and Tatum - by playing their music. The Club presented the first Jazz in the Park at Island Park.
The tenth Festival in 1990, a tribute to “The Amazing Dick Hyman,” presented five concerts under Hyman’s direction. New programming was added: Monthly concerts, Inside Jazz, (a lecture series), Jazz at Noon, and a program at the Boys & Girls Club. Membership was now at 1,000.
Jerry Roucher who had worked closely with Hal, as vice president since moving to Sarasota in 1986, became president and Hal retired. Here the story takes a sad turn. Three weeks after his retirement, Hal died suddenly.
Jerry, who had run the Central Illinois Jazz Festival, was president for the next 10 years, and expanded The Club’s programming and community profile. The Festival expanded to five nights at the Van Wezel and the monthly Sunday night concerts became a staple featuring some of the biggest names in jazz. Membership reached 2,500 people.
The number of Festival musicians expanded as well, ranging from 16 in the beginning to 100 in 1997. The scholarship program was begun to benefit students who wanted to pursue jazz as a career. Festival performers conducted school residency programs, and a local notable, John LaPorta, a Berklee College professor, conducted the Riverview High School Jazz Ensemble.
In 1997 jazz went to school with the creation of Jazzlinks: Jazz Connects to History, a 5th grade curriculum combining social studies and music through an initial grant from The Venice Foundation (now the Gulf Coast Community Foundation). This project has morphed into a program for 11th grade students in collaboration with Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe.
In 1998 the Jazz Caravan by Trolley was added to the Festival Week lineup and in 1999, the closing of the Van Wezel for renovation put performances at the Sarasota Opera House and in a circus tent for the Festival. The tent inspired a creative twist, featuring Dick Hyman, playing jazz on an historic calliope borrowed from the Ringling Museum’s Circus Collection.
During this decade programming expanded to Jazz at the Libraries featuring music at all the libraries in Sarasota and Manatee Counties. Other programs included classes, films and lectures, featuring such notables as Jerry Wexler, founder of Atlantic Records, who produced Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and many others and was a Jazz Club member.
Although the basis for The Club’s musical offerings is Straight-Ahead Jazz, The Club has presented a range of music that includes traditional, swing, Bebop, Blues, Latin and Smooth jazz in various settings. Performers have been Nicolas Payton, Dr. Billy Taylor, Bradford Marsalis, Monty Alexander, Pete Fountain, Cleo Laine, Marian McPartland, Andre’ Previn, Ramsey Lewis, Diana Krall, Gerry Mulligan, George Shearing, Dave Brubeck, Pacquito D. Rivera, Rosemary Clooney, Keely Smith, Arturo Sandoval, Lionel Hampton, Chris Botti, Kenny G, Down to the Bone, The Rippingtons, Tito Puente, Tommy Newsome and Patti Austin.
Jerry Roucher retired as president in 2000 and Bobby Prince took over. Leadership passed to Jack Windt, Wes Bearden, Gordon Garrett, Bill Beckman, Dave Walrath, Peg Pluto and Ed Linehan, each making a unique contribution.
In 2002, Jazz Club board member Jim Lamboy originated Jazz at Two, now one of The Club’s most popular offerings. Gordon Garrett established a connection to The Jazz Cruise, expanding members’ opportunities to hear jazz greats and benefitting The Club’s finances. Dave Walrath initiated monthly jazz at The Farmer’s Market. Among Peg Pluto’s achievements, in addition to being the first woman president of The Club, were “Jazz and Art,” in collaboration with Art Center Sarasota and added a fall Jazz Trolley. Ed Linehan created the Monday Night Cabaret and is continuing to solidify The Club’s infrastructure and infusing new ideas.
The Jazz Club of Sarasota is one of the largest and most active jazz organizations in the United States. Its membership more than doubled in the past year and it continues to add new events and philanthropic activities that encourage the future of jazz… the original American musical art form.