Meet Jazz Legend & Amelia Island Jazz Festival Founder Les DeMerle

 In Art & Gallery News, Park West Foundation

Park West is honored to once again play a part in the Amelia Island Jazz Festival, happening from October 1 – 8 this year. To celebrate the event’s 20th anniversary, we recently caught up with founder Les DeMerle shortly after his appearance on “Jam ’n Java,” where he discussed his storied career and played highlights from his new album, Once In A Lifetime. The album, recorded in 1967 but only just being released this year, provides insight into the origins of the festival and what makes this week of music, art, and philanthropy incredibly special.

Les DeMerle at the Amelia Island Jazz Festival’s Swingin’ Jazz, Wine & Dance Party in 2022.


Why Amelia Island?

The Les DeMerle Band opened the Ritz Carlton on Amelia Island, Florida, and entertained as the house orchestra from 1991 to 2021. After 9/11, budgets were cut, and my wife Bonnie Eisele and I started to perform on several cruise contracts. Eventually, we met John Block and Morris Shapiro of Park West Gallery. Despite these connections, Amelia Island remained our home, and I wanted to create something unique here. Having our jazz fest on Amelia Island is a perfect fit because it is a beautiful destination with lots of venues to showcase the music. It’s also cool because I designed the Amelia Island Jazz Festival after many European Jazz Festivals, like The Montreux Fest, where some of the shows are intimate, such as our Jazz and Wine Night seating 120, to our headliner nights seating 1000. This festival is where jazz fans meet jazz legends, an event where anything can happen at any time…and it does!


How did you get started in music?

I have been a jazz musician since the age of 15, and over the years, I had the tremendous opportunity to play drums on tour and record with Harry James, The Manhattan Transfer, Wayne Newton, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, and more. We are excited to bring the 10-time Grammy Award-winning vocal group The Manhattan Transfer to Amelia Island this year as part of their 50th Anniversary and Farewell Tour to help us celebrate the festival’s 20th anniversary! All that experience on the road and in the studio led me to lead my own bands, which feature my wife, vocalist Bonnie Eisele, along with many outstanding players.

What were the early days of the jazz festival like?

I had a vision of bringing an annual world-class Jazz Festival to the Island, with the best entertainment and educational programs we could organize, featuring Big Band, Latin, Blues, Smooth, Contemporary, and Dixieland Jazz. Our first festival was held at the local high school, and the headliners were alto sax star Richie Cole and trumpeter master Longineau Parsons, who played the life of Louis Armstrong on Broadway.

I would use my rhythm section, and Bonnie would also join in with our headliners. From there, we formed the Amelia Island Jazz Festival as a 501C3 and incorporated it as a not-for-profit organization. With lots of local support, grants, volunteers, fundraising campaigns, and many of my musician friends, we slowly built the Amelia Island Jazz Festival into a vibrant and exciting celebration of the ultimate American art form: jazz.

Twenty years in, we are now an action-packed, 8-day jazz festival that will be held at several venues all over the Island — it has been one hell of a ride!


Just one of the fabulous live bands at Amelia Island’s Big Band Bash in 2021.

How does the Amelia Island Jazz Festival give back to the community?

We are proud of the progress we’ve made over the past 20 years, awarding 20 scholarships to deserving high school seniors to study jazz in college! Many of our scholars are now recording for major jazz labels and touring the world! We are also proud of the many jazz for seniors events we have presented at several of the Island’s assisted living facilities. One time, while I was playing an extended drum solo on “Sing, Sing, Sing,” a 98-year-old lady got up out of her wheelchair and started shaking her booty! At that point, her nurse fainted, and they had to get a nurse for the nurse!


How do Park West Gallery and visual art play a role in the festival?

Park West has graciously provided so many fantastic featured artists for the Amelia Island Jazz Festival: Marcus Glenn, Jim Warren, Tim Yanke, Lebo, Alex Gockel, Peter Nixon, and more have all been very hip to jazz! They each created masterpieces that helped the festival reach a wider audience and raise even more money for our charitable endeavors. I have to once again thank our dear friends Morris Shapiro and John Block for making all this happen. I know that the featured artist in 2023 will bring so much exciting energy to the festival and delight each and every attendee!


The Dynamic Les DeMerle Little Big Band at the 2019 Amelia Island Jazz Festival, featuring Bonnie Eisele on vocals, Steve Strawley on trumpet, Don Zentz on saxophone, Clarence Hines on trombone, Doug Matthews on piano, and Les DeMerle on drums and vocals.


If you love jazz and will be in the Florida area, we can’t recommend the event enough. You can buy tickets for all of the 2023 events HERE.

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