Things That Really Happened Along the Way: Stroke of Genius
Saturday, June 3rd is The Velvet Note’s Fifth Anniversary. You can attend our celebration by making a reservation at http://thevelvetnote.com/fifth-anniversary.
STROKE OF GENIUS
In 2014, Henry Davenporte suffered a stroke.
Henry Davenporte was the founder and owner of Studio 281, a jazz club located in the Castlelberry Hill section of Atlanta, a neighborhood that was gaining a tentative reputation for becoming “the new Buckhead”. Every night, Castleberry enjoyed a cultural tango between the mass influx of its up-an- coming young partygoers and its long-standing, conservative well-heeled resident homeowners. Studio 281 had been there for almost a decade, exclusively featuring straight-ahead jazz acts in a somewhat hidden two-story building on 281 Peters Street, with exposed brick interiors, cigar smoking, a stage, a bar and some light food items.
281’s owner was known far and wide as a salty, disagreeable curmudgeon. Quite scary, in fact. By the time Davenporte had his stroke, there were probably as many Atlanta musicians who had vowed never to play at his club again as there were interested in getting a gig.
Upon hearing the sad news, my first thought was, “Wow, this jazz club thing can kill you. I’d better get out now while my heart’s still beating! ” But as the days passed, I found myself wondering if anyone had reached out to Henry, wondering if he was suffering, wondering if he was all alone, which would be horrible.
So, I called him. And he returned my message immediately.
“This is Henry Davenporte, and I’m returning your call.”
“Yes, Mr. Davenporte,” I said. “This is Tamara Fuller, Owner of The Velvet Note.”
“I know who you are.”
“Oh, okay….well um…I know you don’t know me….never mind, we’ve established tha…. um, I heard that you had a stroke and I just wanted to let you know how sorry I am. Is there anything I can do for you?”
“It’s nice of you to call. Wanna buy another jazz club?”
I was shocked. I coughed in incredulity. I barely had one jazz club. “Uh…I’m flattered that you would even think to ask me that. Can I ask why?”
“Well, from what I can tell, you’re the only jazz club owner around here who’s on the way up. I hear good things about what you’re doing over there. This is your chance to expand.”
“Hmmm…Henry—can I call you Henry? I am sure that’s not quite accurate…at least the part about being the only one on the way up. In terms of expanding though, I hadn’t actually thought about it. Let me ask you some questions…” And then we proceeded to have one of those conversations about location and building price and audiences and equipment and facilities, and hundred other things. I told him I would give it some thought and get back to him.
For several hours, I flirted with the fantasy of having both a downtown club and an uptown club, of spritzing the Velvet Note name across the city. We would enjoy the economy of scale of booking musicians who could play both ends of the metropolis. Two jazz locations in a top-10 market? Yaaaay, me, I could be Queen of The World! And then I got down to the sobering work of peeling back the curtain and taking a serious look at what I’d be getting myself into. Two days later, I called him again.
“I’m not going to buy your club, Henry, but thanks for asking me.”
“Okay. Why not?”
“Well, frankly, I don’t understand the market down there. Up here, I’ve studied my customer base. I know where they live, I know what they do, I know where they get their coffee, when they buy groceries, how much they have to spend on a night out, and mostly, I know what inspires them to come out and hear music. Castleberry is a multi-headed mystery to me and I’m not sure I could figure it out anytime soon. I’m going to pass.”
“I understand.” There was an awkward silence. It sounded like disappointment.
“What will you do now?” I asked.
“I’m moving to Philadelphia.”
“Oh, to open another club?”
“Nope. To live my life. That’s where I’m from.”
“I see. Before I let you go, can I ask you one question?”
“Go ahead, Kiddo.”
“What advice do you have for me?”
There was a thoughtful pause. Then, he said, “Sooner rather than later, you’re going to run out of local artists.”
“Seriously? Um….I don’t think so, Henry. I’m not sure you understand what’s happening up here. I’ve got requests for booking wrapped around the block. Artists are scratching at the door to get on our stage.”
“I understand exactly what’s happening, and trust me, you’re going to exhaust your supply, if you haven’t already. Then you’ll start booking the same people over and over and they’ll become over-exposed and underappreciated and that will be the beginning of the end.”
Now, this idea that we’d soon run out of local artists didn’t make much sense to me at the time. After all, one of the reasons I had decided to put the club in Alpharetta was its proximity to university-level jazz programs. In addition to the rich, deep population of professional musicians who live here, the schools were turning out a constant stream of new generation jazzers. This wasn’t a Velvet Note problem, this sounded like a Henry problem, one that he perhaps had because of the number of musicians who thought he was a disagreeable ass. But, of course, it was probably best to keep that perspective to myself.
“Okay, let’s say you’re right,” I posed. “I would be stupid to believe that I’m better than you are at seeing what’s coming around the corner. What can I do?”
“Book national acts.”
“I know. You think you don’t have the money to do that, right?”
“You read my mind. Are you aware of the fact that we only have 40 seats up here?”
“I know. Now let me give you a lesson in booking economics. It costs you the same amount of money to book a national act as it does a local act. When you adjust for the novelty factor, the name draw, the sold-out capacity, the higher ticket price, the marquee value….it evens out.”
“Hmmm….hmmmm….you’ve given me something to think about. Thanks for taking the time with me Henry. I wish you the best.”
“I know, Kiddo. You too. All the best.”
It turns out that grumpy, disagreeable, kind, loving, genius-smart Henry Davenporte knew exactly what he was talking about. Later that year, we began seeing that in order to fill The Velvet Note calendar, we would have to book the most successful local acts three or four times each year, which was entirely too much exposure for our little club, and completely unfair to the local artists, as well. So, this is what Henry was talking about! His words rang in my head and ears like a Wall Street tickertape shooting out from a fortune cookie. It wasn’t long before we made a landmark decision to reach out to nationally-recognized artists who were touring through our area. In short order, we began presenting the likes of Diane Schuur, Christian McBride, Marcus Roberts, Tierney Sutton, Gretchen Parlato, Kenny Garrett, Robert Glasper, Jimmy Cobb and many more. There were performing arts centers booking the big names, small jazz clubs booking the local guys and then there was us—the smallest of jazz clubs booking the biggest jazz icons. And that’s how The Velvet Note became known as one of the best jazz clubs in the world.
Lesson Learned: Figure out how to do what you do well, and at some point in time, you will be presented with your chance to break free from the pack. Wait for it….wait for it…. Listen to your inner wisdom. Listen to your outer wisdom. When your moment comes, get up on the trapeze, let go of your past paradigms and swing!