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Celebrating 'America's Music' with the Jazz Society of Pensacola

By Kelly Church

The Jazz Society of Pensacola (JSOP) is a nonprofit organization with members including musicians, teachers, students, business professionals and lovers of jazz music from all over the Pensacola, FL area. With seven board members and more than 500 people with annual memberships, the foundation has been offering jazz education and a place for people to celebrate the music since 1982. Board of Directors member Kathy Lyon says that in order to accomplish their mission of providing "a social forum for jazz performance, education and enjoyment," they regularly offer events that keep the community active in the jazz music culture.

"We host two events each month, a Jazz Jam session on the first Monday each month, that is mainly an opportunity for musicians at all levels, from students to seasoned pros (and everyone in between) to play jazz for an appreciative audience," says Lyon. "It's especially fun because there are combinations of musicians that don't often play together, so there is a lot of spontaneity and creativity."

Photo Credit: Norman Vickers

Held at 6:30 p.m. and usually at La Brisa Restaurant in Gulf Breeze, a short drive over a bridge from Pensacola, the event is $10 for (JSOP) members, $12 for non-members and $5 for students who bring their student IDs. However, if you're looking to save a few bucks, performers get in free, encouraging participation and a variety of performers to play.

"The second monthly event that we present is the Jazz Gumbo, which takes place on the third Monday of each month, at which we present a featured group in a concert/social situation," says Lyon. "Most of the performers are professionals from right here on the Gulf Coast, but we often feature groups from outside of the area when they are touring through. Both monthly events help to raise funds for our biggest event of the year, the Pensacola JazzFest."

Normally held the first weekend of April, according to Lyon, the Pensacola JazzFest will be celebrating its 33rd anniversary in 2016. The festival is free and open to the public, and held in the area's historic Seville Square. As JSOP's "annual gift to the community," JazzFest has several different shows to keep their audiences entertained and busy for the weekend. There's a student competition, featuring high school and college jazz musicians that compete for a cash prize. New winners are invited to play with former winners in a "closing jam session." In addition, there are eight to 10 main performances. The event draws around 12,000 people over the course of the entire weekend to share, or even discover, a love of jazz music.

Photo Credit: Norman Vickers

"I think jazz is special because of the opportunity for artists to exchange musical ideas, providing endless ways to explore and create, while often utilizing the 'standards' as a starting point," Lyon says. "I think a lot of the people who say they don't like jazz are under the impression that a listener has to be knowledgeable about the history and technical aspects of jazz, but that would be a very limiting view. To me, the essence of jazz is the spontaneity of the music."

Through events including Jazz Jam, Jazz Gumbo and JazzFest, JSOP strives to foster a love of jazz music, what the founders and members believe to be America's music. What started out as a small group of about 40 people with a passion for jazz in the 1980s has grown to more than 500 paying members. Through JSOP a sense of community has been built amongst members who, according to Lyon, look forward to the events, the music and reconnecting with their jazz-loving friends.

"Our members' feedback tells us that they enjoy the variety of music that we present, the social aspect of regularly seeing other friendly people who enjoy jazz, the work that we are doing to support and encourage young jazz musicians through our Student Competition, and the chance to present a unique, free Jazz Festival as a gift to the community," says Lyon.

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