Pensacola saxophonist legend inducted into jazz hall of fame

Erin Stephens Special to the News JournalPublished 7:01 AM EDT Aug 28, 2020Pensacola’s Joe Occhipinti is this

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Pensacola’s Joe Occhipinti is this year’s Gulf Coast Ethnic & Heritage Jazz Festival Hall of Fame inductee. But don’t congratulate the saxophonist on the honor.

Instead, support the events surrounding jazz in the area, Occhipinti requests. There is a big chance that Occhipinti will be there, too, as he always has been.

The Gulf Coast Ethnic & Heritage Jazz Festival, based out of Mobile, is a non-profit with a mission to further the preservation and growth of jazz music for future generations, according to its website. Choosing Occhipinti as an inductee is apropos for both the organization and the musician.

“Those of us in Pensacola can recount all the contributions Joe has quietly made over these many years,” fellow musician Dr. Norman Vickers said.

Vickers, a retired physician, has known Occhipinti for over 50 years.

“Joe is not a good self-promoter, but he's always there. He’s done the things that need to be done. He's kept music alive,” said Dr. Vickers.

The two met in the 1960s, soon after both men had moved to Pensacola. Vickers came to town to practice medicine, and music was one of his interests. Along with longtime, local musician Ray Parker, the three guys saw a need for a jazz society.

“We all thought that it’ll be too much work,” Vickers said about the idea. “So it got put on hold until around ‘82.”

Occhipinti was there from the beginning, Vickers explained, having a major hand in establishing the Jazz Society of Pensacola. “He has served on the board and in various capacities. He's the person that we will go to and say, ‘Joe, we need music for so and so.’ He has always been involved.”

Vickers explained the complexities of assembling and maintaining a big band. He said Occhipinti has been the leader in this musical form in the Pensacola area.

“Let me tell you about big bands,” Vickers said. “These are the 17-piece bands like Benny Goodman and those guys in the 30s and 40s. One of the functions is to have all those charts for 17 people, and you got to keep them in a place and keep them organized.”

He said Occhipinti has been the person who has kept a big band group thriving, keeping the charts organized when others may not be as careful with the material.

“Joe has been one of the keepers of the big band for all this period of time. He has been one of the people to do that and, you know, you don't make any money doing that.”

Occhipinti’s life in music started in Pecksville, Pennsylvania, in sixh grade when a band director suggested he play the saxophone.

“The schools provided the instruments then. So when a person decided to be in the band, the band director chose an instrument to start on,” Occhipinti said. “The band director handed me a saxophone and that was it.”

After school, he was drafted into the the Army in 1959. He was accepted into and served in the 3rd Armored Division Band in Frankfurt, Germany. The band traveled all over Europe to play for the troops as a community and cultural group.

“The only thing to worry about that is, it was the same year Elvis was in the same 3rd Armored Division,” he jokingly said.

After his 18-month term in the military, he got a call from a high school friend to come to Pensacola for a job playing in the touring band, Ray Spivey and Krazy Kats.

Since 1964, Pensacola and the Gulf Coast is where he’s made his impact on music while also contributing to the education of others.

Along with being a founding member of the Jazz Society of Pensacola, he is a member of the Civic Band, an officer and board member of the Mystic Order of the Jazz Obsessed (MOJO) in Mobile, the musician’s union #777 out of Biloxi, and the Sons of Italy chapter from Pensacola.

“You'll find him very modest,” Vickers said. “He's likely to omit or overlook some of his contributions.”

Occhipinti has been at the forefront of jazz education throughout the years.

“When there was money from the musicians’ union, Joe would organize a group to go to the schools and do a music workshop. If no money was available, they'd do it anyway.” He could always be counted on to volunteer his time for the University of West Florida adult education program as well, Vickers said.

Along with playing most of the big art events in Pensacola, Occhipinti is a staple in the music community.

For 23 years, Occhipinti performed at the Thursday night concert series, “An Evening in Old Seville Square” with the big band ensemble in the park. The concert series came to an end in 2016. He also started a swing night at the American Legion Post 33 in 1999, which he has since left. The past seven years, he has been a part of the Rat Pack Reunion for the Council on Aging of West Florida. This year’s event was canceled due to COVID-19.

The saxophonist is reluctant to talk about the “sappy” stuff, as he put it. When asked how it felt to be inducted into the Gulf Coast Ethnic & Heritage Jazz Festival Hall of Fame, Occhipinti joked with a quick, “Magnanimous!”

“Well, I'm not good with words, but it means a lot,” he said. “It means a lot to me, you know, to be recognized.”

In the world of COVID-19, live music has become scarce for the time being. For the past two months, Occhipinti’s only gig has been at Calvert’s in East Pensacola Heights. Every Tuesday night for the foreseeable future, he plays music for anyone who wants to come out and listen.

“The thing about jazz is, if it weren't for very few people to hold everything together, it just wouldn't be happening,” said Occhipinti. “Like with this pandemic, it’s gonna get complicated. But you can’t shut me up with this pandemic.”

He said that Calvert’s deserves accolades for presenting jazz during this time. “It’s the only jazz in Pensacola right now.” He assured that social distancing is being practiced and the venue is taking appropriate precautions.

“The Jazz Society in Pensacola has gone away, the MOJO in Mobile has gone away, and there isn't one person saying, ‘Oh no, what are we gonna do for jazz?’ You know, it just goes away. There are very few of us presenting jazz and performing it and keeping it going.” he said about the current situation.

With available gigs at an all-time low, Occhipinti said he has come up with an initialism: H.H.A. “That means I'm healthy, happy, and hibernating. When I add a beat to it, it becomes ‘healthy, happy, hibernating, and broke,’” he laughed.

Occhipinti said he also has another good saying. “I have perfected the art of simplicity, which means I play very simple, and play very melodically – and manage to make it sound like jazz.”