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Amelia Islander

2019 Amelia Island Jazz Festival

Sep 01, 2019 11:46AM
By Karen Miller • Photos courtesy of the Amelia Island Jazz Festival

New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz music. It represents a meeting, mixing, and melding of many cultures, emotions, and musical skills. It is the city of Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima, Pete Fountain, Harry Connick, Jr., and the Marsalis family. And this year, the Amelia Island Jazz Festival celebrates the spirit of New Orleans with two critically acclaimed New Orleans artists: highly regarded trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis and sizzling trumpeter Jamil Sharif, who will headline the festival, which returns October 6 through October 13 in Fernandina Beach.

Legendary drummer and AIJF’s Artistic Director, Les DeMerle, and his wife and vocalist, Bonnie Eisele, had a longtime dream of creating a diversified jazz festival on Amelia Island. The couple produced the festival for three years prior to its incorporation as a non-profit 501(c)3 tax exempt organization. Since then, with the help of generous sponsors and hardworking volunteers, the Amelia Island Jazz Festival has grown into a spectacular event which attracts major jazz artists and attendees from across the country.

In just 16 years, the AIJF has brought thousands of jazz-lovers and jazz musicians together to form partnerships and friendships, benefitting from the vision and energy of a veteran jazz professional who gives the festival a rich heritage. DeMerle toured for 12 years with jazz trumpet master, Harry James, and recorded three albums with him including the Grammy Award winning, King James Version. DeMerle’s own jazz/rock/fusion band, Transfusion, recorded five award-winning LPs. He has toured and recorded with the Manhattan Transfer and appeared with such musical greats as Lou Rawls, Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé, and Joe Williams.

Eisele has appeared at many popular jazz clubs, including Somerset’s in Singapore, City Jazz in Orlando, The Jazz Corner in Hilton Head, and Arturo Sandoval’s in Miami. She has also toured the U.S. and Europe with the Chicago Free Street Theater, an original musical theater and dance group. Eisele’s diverse performing experience includes singing at the Chicago Playboy Club, Chicago Fest, Drury Lane Theater, and Miami’s Fontainebleau Resort. Eisele and DeMerle perform many styles of jazz ranging from swing and standard ballads, Blues, Latin, rhythm and blues, Cajun grooves, Broadway show favorites and more, performing in various sizes ranging from a trio to a full seventeen-piece big band.


Now in its sixteenth year, the AIJF will showcase a full week of jazz at various locations on the island, beginning on Sunday, October 6 in Amelia Park with its annual free concert presenting the UNF Jazz Ensemble 2, directed by Dennis Marks. The concert will be held from 2 to 4 p.m., and concert goers are encouraged to bring lawn chairs and blankets. Food and beverages will be available for sale, along with tickets to the remaining concerts and AIJF merchandise.

If you love jazz, you might want to consider becoming a sponsor of the festival. You can sign up online or at the free concert on Sunday. If you do, you’ll be invited to the very special Sponsor Party hosted by DeMerle and Eisele plus special guests on Monday, October 7 from 7 to 9 p.m. at The Lakeside at Amelia Island, 649 Amelia Parkway. “You never know what surprises await you at the Sponsor’s Party, so become a Bronze Saxophone sponsor today!” says DeMerle.


If you like jazz and wine, you’ll want to come out for a very special Jazz and Wine Tasting event at Story & Song Bookstore Bistro on Tuesday, October 8 from 5 to 7 p.m. This unique happening will feature special wines and a pairing of great jazz for each taste, and features multi-instrumentalist Dr. Bill Prince, trumpet, saxophone, trombone, clarinet, and flute, along with Doug Matthews, piano, and Les DeMerle, drums and vocals.


On Wednesday, October 9 from 7 to 10 p.m. get ready to jump, jive, and wail with the exciting Swing Night Concert and Dance at the Sandbar & Kitchen. This event features The Dynamic Les DeMerle Little Big Band with Bonnie Eisele, vocals, Steve Strawley, trumpet, Clarence Hines, trombone, Don Zentz, saxophone, Doug Matthews, piano, Ernie Ealum, bass, and Les DeMerle, drums. Bring your sweetheart and be prepared to dance the night away!


On Thursday, October 10, fiery Spanish flamenco guitars fuse with hot, pop Latin grooves at the very popular Latin Jazz Concert and Dance featuring Trio Caliente. This hot ensemble delivers a unique quality to salsa, reggae, gypsy rumba, and bossa nova providing an unforgettable listening and dancing experience.

The Trio is comprised of guitarists Miguel Bard and Damon Foreman with vocalist/percussionist Deborah Benner. Latin Jazz night will be held from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Sandbar & Kitchen.


On Friday, October 11 at 7 p.m., headliner Jamil Sharif takes center stage at the Fernandina Beach Golf Club. Get into the spirit of New Orleans with this legendary trumpeter, whose musical training began in New Orleans, Louisiana under the instruction of George Jansen, one of New Orleans finest music educators.

Sharif’s passion led him to being accepted into one of the South’s top facilities for in-depth learning of music theory, history and technique, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), which is known for creating some of the world’s top musicians, such as Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick, Jr., Terence Blanchard, and actor Wendell Pierce. Sharif studied with such notables as family patriarch Ellis Marsalis, reed master Alvin Batiste, and Edward “Kidd” Jordan. In addition, he has served as musical coordinator for several motion pictures including Ray, which depicted the life of Ray Charles.

The evening also includes the Les DeMerle Quartet with special guests. The band features Mike Levine, piano, Dennis Marks, bass, Les DeMerle, drums, and Bonnie Eisele, vocals. Be prepared to burn the candle at both ends on Friday night, with everyone’s favorite Friday Late Night Jam, held upstairs at Sliders Seaside Grill. Featuring bebop, blues, and more, Friday night ticket holders are invited to the Late Nite Jam at no extra charge.

Tickets are available for individuals who missed the Friday night headliner concert but want to enjoy some great spontaneous jazz at this popular late night event hosted by 2019 AIJF Scholar, John Brown. Musicians are relaxing after the main gig and you never know who shows up and what happens next!


On Saturday, October 12 at 7 p.m. Delfeayo Marsalis is sure to wow the crowd at the Fernandina Golf Club with his imaginative musical prowess on trombone. A gifted musician and producer, Delfeayo Marsalis came to prominence alongside his famous siblings, Wynton (trumpet), Branford (sax) and Jason (drums) as a member of the Crescent City’s most illustrious jazz family. Marsalis is an adept improviser inspired by the swinging bop sounds of trombonist J.J. Johnson. The evening also features the Les DeMerle Quartet, and yet another Late Night Jam at Sliders Seaside Grill beginning at 10 p.m.

Don’t plan to sleep in on Sunday, October 13, because there’s more jazz on the way at The Lakeside at Amelia Island. If the bone-tired jazz musicians of the AIJF can keep it coming, so can you! The grand finale of the 2019 Jazz Festival is the popular Nawlin’s Dixieland Jazz Brunch offering a special Jazz Festival menu with two seatings at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. featuring The Spare Rib Six Dixieland All-Stars. Musicians include JB Scott, trumpet, Dr. Bill Prince, clarinet, Dave Steinmeyer, trombone, Mike Levine, piano, Dennis Marks, bass, Les DeMerle, drums, and Bonnie Eisele, vocals, along with special guests.


The cornerstone of the Amelia Island Jazz Festival is its educational programs. Led by DeMerle, the festival seeks to enrich minds with the sounds, excitement, and vitality of jazz. Jazz In The Schools was designed to expose young people to the art of jazz, while motivating more students to pursue jazz as a musical endeavor. Featuring workshops led by master musicians for grade school, middle school, and high school students, more than 2,000 area students attend this program each year.

Each year, since 2009, the festival’s educational programs culminate in the Amelia Island Jazz Scholarship. This scholarship is awarded on an annual basis to a graduating high school senior. The scholarship is used toward college expenses necessary to earn a major or minor in music in the area of jazz performance or related area. It is the desire of the Jazz Festival board to help preserve Jazz, this all American art form, by helping young, talented artists who are pursuing their dream of becoming jazz musicians. This year’s scholarship winner is saxophonist and drummer John Brown, a Fernandina Beach High School graduate who will be attending University of North Florida, majoring in music.

In addition, DeMerle, Eisele, and special guests perform a special Jazz for Seniors concert at Savannah Grand of Amelia Island. DeMerle also holds a drum camp for children during the summer months, and presents jazz talks and other special events throughout the island promoting the festival, along with the history and joy of this uniquely American music we call jazz.


When Park West Gallery teams up with its artists for a good cause, they make great music together. The Gallery helped raise $7,000 for the Amelia Island Jazz Festival’s music scholarship program during the festival’s 8th Annual Big Band Bash gala in February with an art auction. “We feel so truly blessed to have Park West Gallery’s title sponsorship of the Amelia Island Jazz Festival for several years,” says DeMerle. “The auction isn’t Park West’s only connection to the festival, though. Park West Gallery also invited artist Peter Nixon to create the artwork for the 2019 Festival.

“It was an honor and a wonderful opportunity to be asked to be the Amelia Island Festival Artist of 2019, and a rare chance to meet distinguished musicians like Les DeMerle and Bonnie Eisele,” says Nixon. “I play music, mostly jazz, in my studio all the time and it forms a soundtrack and a backdrop to my painting, often inspiring pictures on a musical theme. I listen to all types of jazz, from the 1950s all the way through to cutting edge contemporary material that pushes the envelope of what can be defined as jazz. Curiously, I am able to produce serene and peaceful paintings to what is often a sound wall of the most frenetic and complex music; it is the sheer force and power of the music I pick up on.”


The Amelia Island Jazz Festival is dedicated to building upon this rich cultural foundation by exposing thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds to the sounds, excitement, and vitality of great jazz! Tickets are available online at or by calling the Jazz Hotline at (904) 504-4772.

You may also purchase a Jazz Pass that will get you tickets to all the concerts at a significant discount. Tickets may also be purchased in person on the island at The UPS Store or at the Nassau Chamber of Commerce. Sponsorships and volunteers are always welcome.