You know that line at the end of the film, Casablanca?Humphrey Bogart says to Claude Rains, “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
That’s The Ray Howard Band and The Velvet Note. A beautiful friendship born out of an occasion when the R&B band performed Earth Wind and Fire classics on short notice and became a resounding hit with the audience.
Ray Howard and his band return for the fourth year to perform to a sold out house, August 30th– September 1st.
Close your eyes for a few moments and you can probably envision the band singing your favorite Earth, Wind and Fire jam – and no doubt you’re starting to groove in your seat.
“This is the fourth or fifth year that I’ve done the show at The Velvet Note,” Ray Howard says. “For the first show, vocally, we knew five of those songs. At the time, I said, ‘I can only do what we do and add to the instrumental.’”
Despite the limitations of not knowing the material, the first year was a big success. “Ray has had more sold out shows than anyone we’ve ever featured onstage. And he works like crazy make sure his band is on point in every conceivable way. To say that I’m proud of him would be an enormous understatement,” Tamara says.
Before The Velvet Note, Ray Howard’s band performed Motown and other classic R&B songs. After year one, the band spent the next year learning the songbook of one of the most well-known music groups of all time, and became a popular draw at The Velvet Note.
“It’s so ironic that Tamara calls it the “acoustic living room,” Rays says. “It feels like I’m performing in my living room and I have family there. It makes you feel like the people are part of the show.”
As Ray sings his heart out on stage, lyrics such as “Every man has a place, in his heart there’s a space, and the world can’t erase his fantasies,” ring true in a very profound way for him.
In the early 1980s, the singer, who had discovered his talent while in high school, became homeless for two years. “It was a struggle and humbling to not have a place to lay my head,” Ray recalls.
One day, a man walking in downtown Atlanta gave him $20. Ray says he felt inspired to use the money to purchase an inexpensive shirt, a $5 pair of khakis and some toiletries. He cleaned himself up in a McDonald’s bathroom and decided to return to the clothing store to ask for a job.
“My life changed after that,” the Chicago native recalls. “Leaving that day, the [supervisor] said, ‘Can I give you a lift home?’”
Ray acknowledged that he was homeless. His boss then invited him to live at under his roof until Ray could afford to move into a place of his own.
“Homelessness showed me that where I was, was not my ending at all,” Ray says. “Because a lot of people that become homeless, they end up staying there. I’m just glad that I didn’t let it beat me. It gave me a passion. My passion now is to help homeless people.”
For years, during that time and beyond, Ray lost his singing voice. When it returned, he started singing solo wherever he could. About 2011, he formed a trio with BJ Johnson and Tricia Spicer, now performers of the 11-member Ray Howard Band.
Ray says many fans have flocked to the Earth Wind and Fire tribute show after seeing the band’s music sets streamed through The Velvet’s Note’s Facebook live feed.
“Oh man,” Ray says. “I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘I saw Earth, Wind and Fire a year ago and I’ve never seen anybody do them justice like you do.”
The band prides themselves on their polished vocals and musicianship.
“Our whole point of doing the music is to pay alms to Earth, Wind and Fire, but do it in a very professional way, and a very good way,” Ray says. “When people leave, I want them to feel like they’ve been to an actual Earth, Wind and Fire show.”
As usual, the Earth Wind and Fire shows at The Velvet Note are completely sold out for 2019. Fans can begin purchasing 2020 seats on September 1st.
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Trumpeter Melvin Jones will lead a celebrated musical send-off for Marlon Patton during Jones’s return to The Velvet Note on Sunday, Aug. 25. Patton, a highly regarded drummer across many genres, departs soon for new residential digs in New York City.
To mark the occasion, guest musicians are set to come jam and improvise with Jones, Patton and the entire quintet that also includes Mace Hibbard on sax, Kevin Bales on piano and Billy Thornton on Bass.
Improvisation can be a thrill for Jones, a Morehouse College graduate and trumpet professor. “With jazz improvisation, the composition is at lightning speed from your mind to the listener’s ear,” he says. “[If it’s your own composition] with other musicians it’s beautiful to see how it comes out.”
He adds, “It’s going to be fun. [Patton] enjoys playing new music, and we will play a lot of my new music.”
Jones, a man of many dimensions in his artistry, will premiere songs from an upcoming album. In his latest music, the Memphis, Tenn. native blends his original jazz compositions with old spiritual songs and hymns, modernizing them to inspire every listening ear. Each song such as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Wade in the Water” could very well become Jones’s favorite of all the music he has released to date.
“It’s funny because my favorite has been an arrangement of Richard Smallwood’s song “Angels,”’ he says. The song on Jones’s 2011 album, “Pivot,” shows how beautifully jazz and gospel come together.
“I’m a preacher’s kid,” he explains. “The church, when I was growing up, it didn’t smile on you playing jazz.”
Interestingly, jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum attended the same church as Jones and was an early mentor. “He gave me my first music theory lessons from the pulpit of the church,” Jones recalls.
Jones has shared the stage with a myriad of musicians including Quincy Jones – who is one of his greatest influences, Stevie Wonder, Erykah Badu, Jennifer Lopez, Brian McKnight and more.
In addition to college students, Jones teaches music fundamentals and theory of jazz to middle and high schoolers in workshops and master classes in St. Thomas, St. John and St, Croix, Virgin Islands. He’s part of an artist-in-residence program titled, “Mentoring Through the Music Arts.” The U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Education and United Jazz Foundation co-sponsor the program.
Jones encourages the young music protégés to live a life worth writing about. His own former teacher, the late William “Prof” Fielder, imparted a similar message while Jones studied for his Master’s Degree in Music at the Mason Gross School of the Arts in New Jersey.
“He [would say be] ‘gratified but never satisfied,’” Jones remembers. “So even though what you accomplished may be great, you can always be better.”
Fielder taught the likes of Wynton Marsalis, David Sanchez, Kenny Garrett and Terence Blanchard.
“That man changed the course of my life. His teaching method automatically creates other teachers,” Jones says.” It was expected that you would be able to show him what you know… That prepared me to teach.”
Jones demonstrates to crowds what he knows on stages from Atlanta to Qatar, where he has performed at the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Club in Doha.
Of his new music and upcoming sets at The Velvet Note, he says, “I’m excited to see how it’s received.”
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The Kenny Garrett Quintet performs this weekend at The Velvet Note, June 29-30, 2019, at 7:30pm and 9:30pm showtimes. Vernell Brown on piano, Corcoran Holt on bass, Samuel Laviso on drums and Rudy Bird on percussion.
When Kenny Garrett performed at The Velvet Note for the first time a couple of years ago. I must confess, I didn’t much like him. I mean…I liked his music, but I didn’t like the fact that the second night of his shows didn’t sell out. For a small club like ours, having empty seats for a superstar artist is rough for everyone involved. To make matters worse, he and his quintet needed to park themselves in our city for a couple of days before moving on to the next stop on their tour, so we were making our club available to them for rehearsals. Empty seats and extra rehearsals too? Ugh.
Kenny had called me on a Tuesday morning, hours before his scheduled 2:00pm band rehearsal time. He had a special request: he wanted to get into the club early. Not the whole band, just him. Now this was just getting ridiculous. I rolled my eyes in silent persecution, took a deep breath, and then assured him that I would open up that morning just for him.
If you’ve ever met Kenny Garrett, you know that his personality is…well…somewhat dry. And quiet. So, upon approach, there was no hug, no special sentiments of appreciation, barely a smile. Not what I would do in that situation, but oh, well. I had brought some work to do while sitting in the back of the room, waiting for this to be over. He had his saxophone with him, as well as a large notebook. He would play a few bars and then scribble in the notebook. A few more, and then some more writing. This went on for about an hour, at which time he asked, “Could you make some copies for me please?”
That moment was when the screaming in my head began. I was tired, I was hungry, I was supposed to have a day off and hadn’t. We didn’t have a copier at the time, so making five sets of collated copies required that I drive over to FedEx/Kinkos. “Dude”, I thought. “My parents didn’t send me to a top-ten school in order to make copies for you! I am the owner of this club, not your Girl Friday!” I alternated between pinching my lips together and clamping down on my tongue. I felt my head about to begin its roll-around on my neck. Thankfully, no sound came out from between my lips. “Certainly, Mr. Garrett,” I said. “I will be right back.”
Down the street at Kinkos, I opened the notebook. Inside were hand-written pages of a composition he had just written, or at least started. I made the collated sets and then returned to the club. And then, the most unexpected happened.
Kenny Garrett placed a copy of his sheet music at the piano and then proceeded to play the piano part as beautifully as any pianist I’ve ever heard. As he played, he scrawled some notes on the piano copy of composition.
Then he got up and placed a copy on a stand in front of the upright bass. He embraced the instrument that towered above him and proceeded to play it as beautifully as any bassist I’ve heard. As he played, he scrawled some notes on the bass copy of the composition.
And then he did the same with the drums. And then he went back to his saxophone.
I sat in the back of the room, shaking, my eyes welling with tears. I began scolding myself. “You are an arrogant fool, Tamara. Most people in this world—including you–can barely master one thing. This man in front of you has mastered every instrument on his stage, a fact that most people are completely unaware of, since they think of him only as a saxophonist. He is so modest that he allows them to think just that. He has given you the greatest, most inspiring gift—allowing you to see a part of him that almost no one knows about. You have just had the privilege of witnessing him compose a piece of music that has—in part– been written from the perspective of every instrument that will perform it. He has allowed you to witness the fact that he is as good at playing the instruments in his band as his band members are. He trusted you with his hand written notes of an original composition. You should be thanking him for the intimacy of this experience, not barking about you will and will not do.”
I got up and walked to the front of the room where he sat with his saxophone. “Mr. Garrett, I am going next door to get some lunch. May I get you something?”
“No, I’m fine, thank you.”
As a sat in the sandwich shop and continued to beat myself up, members of his quintet arrived for rehearsal, one by one. I thought about how true greatness and intrinsic power can enable us to be tender and quiet and vulnerable all at once. By the time I returned to the club, the band sounded like a jazz symphony, coming together to play the song that Kenny had freshly composed.
This weekend, The Kenny Garrett Quintet will perform again at The Velvet Note. If you’re one of the lucky few with tickets, we welcome you to our little club. You are in for an extraordinary musical experience. And I look forward to meeting you personally. I will be the woman carrying Kenny’s water bottle, with a look of profound inspiration and joy on my face that reaches from ear to ear.
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Just One of Those Things is a weekly blog and column about jazz, life and love,
although not necessarily in that order.
AN OPEN LETTER TO THE STAFF OF THE VELVET NOTE
As summer 2017 races to a close, I realize that as a manager, I don’t always communicate as much as I should, especially when things are going well (smile). We’ve all worked very hard to put together the best team in the business, so I wanted to take a moment, catch my breath and remind you of a few of the “behind-the-scenes” encounters from the last several months that you probably didn’t see, but that underscore how much I appreciate what you do.
Saturday, June 3rd. One of my favorite customers is Deion Washington, and he came in to celebrate our Fifth Anniversary. As an overworked, underpaid civil servant, Corporal Washington doesn’t come into our establishment nearly enough, but when he does, I am always happy to see him. Earlier in his career, he was on the SWAT team, and even walked the homicide beat. He’s a true hero. Today, he is the Public Information Officer for the Gwinnett County Police Department. Consider the most heinous crimes you can think of that happen in our community. He’s the guy who courageously stands in front of the firing squad of television cameras and flash bulbs and reporters and microphones and questions and cynicism and tries to help us make sense of it all.
Anyway, after our celebration, he called to let me know that he was eagerly looking forward to coming back, hopefully as soon as our friend, multi-GRAMMY—winning Robert Glasper makes his return visit. “Sometimes I just need a mental escape and break. The Velvet Note is where I come to get it. You have no idea of the impact you have on people.” We are honored to provide a place that takes care of those who take care of…well…everyone else.
Saturday, July 1st. A guy walked into the club after insisting on meeting me in person. “You look nervous,” I said. “Should I be concerned?” “No, although I am really nervous. I have been with my girlfriend for twelve years and I’m finally going to propose to her, here at The Velvet Note. “ “Twelve years? Um….sir….what in the world have you been waiting for?!?” “I know, it sounds crazy. You see, I wasn’t the man then that I am now. I didn’t deserve her. But I’ve grown and learned and become a better person, and much of it is due to her. I am finally ready to pop the question, ”he beamed.
By show time, we had all worked hard to nail down every conceivable detail, and the groom-to-be had ME sweating bullets. He had bought out almost every seat in the house, and a stretch limousine delivered the love of his life to our doorstep, just before the music started. “Lawd”, I thought. “I hope she says ‘yes’.” And, as you recall, she did!
Saturday, August 4th. A gentleman came in with his family. He had called me a few nights before to make a reservation. He said that he had finally lost his decade-long battle with cancer, and he would be leaving in a week to live out the rest of his one-month life expectancy in a hospice back in his hometown. He had flown his children and his brothers in from different parts of the country to do the one thing he wanted to experience with them before he died— he wanted them to join him for one night at The Velvet Note. After the show, and without fanfare, he ushered his family out to the parking lot and the car. Then, he turned and stood in front of me and just looked into my eyes, his eyes filled with tears. It was all I could muster to just stay with him, moment by moment. The entire front of house stopped and you guys quietly gave him the space to say what he needed. The moments stretched into minutes. Finally, I whispered, “Did you do what you came here to do?” He knew that I wasn’t just referring to the show. He nodded his head and closed his eyes. “I love you,” he said. “Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s a truly great thing.” And then he turned around and walked into the night.
You are my staff. You are my team. You are my tribe. These encounters remind me of how much it means for us to work together. You are smart and productive and hard-working. Each of you has a job during the day that demands a great deal of you, and then you come here and give your very best work, long into the night. You are entrepreneurs and customer service experts and students and moms and dads. You are creative and articulate and committed to excellence. I know I’m not an easy boss to work for, and I know that I demand more than would typically be expected.
After conducting tons of research we think we know why people come here— for their weekly or monthly “date night”, or to celebrate a birthday, or an anniversary, or a wedding engagement. But the fact is, we don’t really know why they’re here. Sometimes it’s happy, sometimes it’s sad. Sometimes it’s something so unfathomable, we cannot possibly guess and they will never say. It is our job to be open to all of their life possibilities. It is our job to give them the dignity and space to let the music flow over them and lift them up and carry them away. Everything we do has the potential to impact every customer at the most meaningful time of their lives, in the most profound way. I want you to take pride and pleasure in knowing that you provide a place where people come for the most important times of their lives.
When Corporal Washington called me, he shared a Robert Glasper tune that he loves, and I have come to love it too. I often play it on the way to work. To listen, click HERE. The music is beautiful and the lyrics speak to our mission—to show our love through thoughtful service. Tonight, as with every night, we will strive to do no thoughtless thing. We are all connected, to each other, to our customers, to life.
“It’s one, big, small thing… like pollen in the spring. It’s all matter…it’s all matter…matter…matter…”
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In March of 2014, I picked up the telephone, as I do a hundred times a day.
“Good Morning, The Velvet Note.”
There was a woman on the other end of line. She was crying. Actually, she was transitioning from the twangy cry to the ugly cry and she was completely incoherent.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, I cannot understand you. Just …try and calm down and tell me how I can help.”
“Can you hear me?” she pushed through the tears.
“I can hear you. What’s the matter?” I asked.
The woman explained that she had just heard that Diane Schuur would be performing at The Velvet Note and she had tried to buy tickets, but they were all sold out. She simply must attend the show.
I rolled my eyes. Seriously, Lady? Such drama. “Um…yes ma’am. We are definitely sold out. I wish I could create a seat, but I can’t. Perhaps you can see Diane another time.”
“No, you don’t understand,” she said. “We grew up together. We have been friends for most of our lives. I love her dearly. I rarely get out of Georgia these days because it’s hard for me to travel now. This is the first time she’s been here. I need to come to this concert. It would literally break my heart if I missed her.”
Now, I had heard lots of reasons why people needed me to create seats that didn’t exist. Anniversary, birthday, getting out of the doghouse….I didn’t know whether to believe her or not. I explained to her that we simply couldn’t do it, and there was only one night of shows. “What if I could get her to do a second night?” she asked.
“Um….I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t think that’s likely to happen.” We had been lucky to get the first night. “However, I will make you a deal: You get Diane Schuur to perform for a second night at The Velvet Note and I will GIVE you your seat for free. Just have her management call me.”
That oughtta call your bluff, Ms. Crazy Crying Lady.
I really have to hire a service to answer these calls, I thought. I now understand why there’s no jazz owner in the country who picks up their own phone. I thought of all the additional hours I could recover each day if I only returned messages. I started looking on the internet for answering services we could afford. I found one, and reached for the phone. It began ringing before I could dial.
“This is Deedles!” she bubbled over.
“Deed…? Hello…what? Ms. Schuur?” Everyone in jazz knew that “Deedles” was Diane Schuur’s nickname.
“Yes, honey, and I am so glad you answered your phone. I’m in the airport and I only have a second to talk, but I understand that my friend has been trying to get seats to my show at your place and she can’t get in.
“Um….yes ma’am. That’s correct. Apparently, you’re quite the legendary celebrity, or something like that.” She chuckled. Whew, boy was I glad she had a sense of humor. “I am pleased to report that there are no more seats left in your show.” While talking, I had stood up and begun looking around the room for hidden cameras. Surely I was being punked for entertainment purposes.
“Well, what if I called Nick over at the agency and told him to add a second night. I have the next day off. Would that work?”
“Yes ma’am. We would be honored to have you for a second night.
“Good then. It’s all settled. Expect his call. I look forward to meeting you. Goodbye!”
I wasn’t sure what had just happened, but I was pretty sure it would never have happened if I hadn’t answered the phone. And yes, we got Diane Schuur for a second night and The Crazy Crying Lady was on the front row with tears in her eyes and a huge smile on her face.
Back in the Green Room, Diane told me that she had gotten a bit nervous for the first time in a very long time, because the audience was so close to the stage.
“But how do you know we’re so close? You can’t see us.” I asked. (Diane Schuur is blind).
And then, the Legendary Diane Schuur reached out her hand placed it on my chest. “I can hear you.” she said.
I threw away the number to the answering service, and I’ve never looked at it again. Over the years, many of you have thanked me for answering the phone personally, and I want you to know that it’s my pleasure. Truly. Thank you for letting me hear you. I hear your compliments and your complaints. I hear your excitement and anticipation. I hear about your first dates and blind dates and 30th anniversary celebrations. I hear you when you are making reservations to introduce your children to jazz for the first time. I hear you when you have a request to meet an artist or ask that he/she play a special song. It’s part of what makes it all worth it. Five years later, I’m still answering the phone, with every call, I thank you for letting me be a small part of the time of your life and the song in your heart.
Lesson Learned: The behavior of the leader should be consistent with the values of the organization. In order to have an “up close” club, you must find a way to stay in close touch with your customers. Even if it hurts a little, it’s more than worth it.
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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!
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When The Velvet Note first opened, no one knew exactly what we were. It was unexpected for a jazz club to be located in a suburban strip mall, between a sub shop and a Brazilian wax salon. People wanted to see for themselves before making reservations. Individuals and couples would walk by and peer into the tinted glass of the door, trying to determine what went on inside. After a while, I would schedule my office hours for the high-traffic times of the shopping center. When I’d spot the curious taking a look, I opened the door and invited them to come and look inside. Then, I would tell them about The Velvet Note and what made us different from all the others.
As months went on, these “orientation” visits took longer and longer. Some people would take a seat and talk for hours (literally!) about how they had always wondered what it would be like to have a jazz club. They had lots of ideas about what they would do– install a dance floor, have a weekly happy hour, bring back Ladies Night or Singles Night and really pack ‘em in, offer a singing competition with prizes, knock out the walls on either side (or both), give away the music for free to get people in the door, have theme nights paired with them foods, the list went on and on. Over time, these sessions began to take on an odd tone: the curious person would give their advice, then listen as I talked about what we stood for and then get a look of pity on their face, which could only be translated as the discovery of delusion.
Yes, I confess—I am an example of what financial markets refer to as The Greater Fool. I believe in things that no businessperson in their right mind would embrace. The greater fool is someone with the perfect blend of self-delusion and ego, who believes that he or she can succeed where others have failed. This whole country was built by greater fools, and I am proud to be one of them. Specifically:
We believe that an artist is a person, not a commodity, and deserves the respect of our knowledge and understanding. Every artist deserves to have someone stand up and say something about them and the path that has led to this one moment in time when they put their heart and soul and expertise and practice on the line for our listening enjoyment.
We believe that it takes just as much money to hire a few smart people as it does to hire a bunch of not-so-smart people. The staff who work at The Velvet Note are or have been entrepreneurs and musicians and bankers and special education teachers and architects and human resources executives and technologists and graduate students, and we will continue to hire the best people we can because we can.
We believe that the enjoyment of live music doesn’t have to come at the cost of compromising creature comforts. A bad sound system, dirty bathrooms, bad food, hostile service, uncomfortable seating don’t enhance the experience or make the vibe more authentic, it’s just bad business.
We believe that the customer is always right, but not everyone should be our customer. Serving the least common denominator isn’t nearly as inspiring for us as serving the better angels of our nature.
We believe that the greatest luxury isn’t being bigger, but providing our customers with unique experiences that touch their lives and linger on in their hearts and minds.
Most people don’t understand why we do it this way, but a few do, and those are our customers.
About six months in, a woman came to the door of The Velvet Note in the middle of the week, in the middle of the day. She was stunning, with long, dark hair, and she wore a cotton-candy-colored pink dress. She said she had always wondered what was behind the door. I invited her in. She didn’t seem to be in the advice-giving mode, so I used the time to talk about our business model and what we had to offer. She listened attentively, then waited for me to finish, and then she began walking though the Living Room in silence. Slowly, she took one step after another…letting her eyes settle on each component before her. I was reluctant to interrupt her with banter—this was so unusual, I was mesmerized. After about fifteen minutes, her silent, meditative tour brought her back to the front of the house and almost out the front door. Then she stopped, and turned, and looked at me and said, “Advertise”.
With that, she walked out the door. I think she got it.
Lesson Learned: It takes leadership and discipline and stubbornness and money to be The Greater Fool. Most of the time, it doesn’t work out. But sometimes it does.
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At the Velvet Note, our #1 priority is to provide each guest with an unparalleled, up-close live music experience. This includes the quality of musician/music, sound and acoustics ambiance, food and beverage, customer service and and up-close access to the artist. There’s alot to do and we don’t spend much time talking about ourselves or our own company—many people don’t know that we’ve been around for five years. But over the next two weeks as we approach five years, I want to share with you some of the stories that have stayed with me across this journey. They say that the first five things of anything—a profession, a business, a marriage—are the hardest. Some of these tales illustrate how tough it is to make a true jazz club work, others illustrate the enormous rewards. As we continue to grow, the people we meet along the way mean so much to us and we’re always learning how to be the best we can.
THE 3AM ANGEL
It was a steamy, hot evening in July, about a month after we had opened for business. I was up late at night at The Velvet Note, sitting in a bucket chair, worrying about how we were going to make this thing work. The crowds had been thin in our first month of business, and we didn’t yet have a liquor license so the people who were coming in loved the music, but weren’t too happy about the overall picture of what we had to offer. We didn’t even have an outdoor sign yet—just a banner that hung off the awning in front of our door. A couple of more months of this and we would surely hit a wall and go out of business. Needless to say, I was feeling sorry for myself.
The harshly cool air of our A/C system was starting to get to me, so I decided to step outside. I unlocked and opened door at 3am.
There was a man directly in front of me.
I quickly closed the door, locked it again and took a moment to catch my breath. His presence had scared the crap out of me. What the heck would someone be doing outside our door at 3am? My heart was pounding in my chest, my adrenaline was coursing through my body. Should I call the police? What did he want? Would he be pounding on the door? I heard nothing. I crept back to the door and looked outside the tinted glass that allowed me to see him but not the other way around. Now, he was sitting on our sub-shop neighbor’s patio table. What did he want?
I opened the door again and walked outside, phone in hand and approached him. He stayed in the chair, and looked up into my face. He had worn and weathered skin, turned tan and leathery from exposure to the sun and age, I would guess. His eyes were blue. His hair was long and unkempt, down to his shoulders, and his scraggly, dishwater-colored beard was spotted with grey and overgrown and taking over his entire face. Beneath his bushy eyebrows, his eyes were kind and alert.
“What are you doing here?” I asked in my most authoritative, don’t-mess-with-me voice.
“I’m waiting for a friend to pick me up.” His voice had a gentle tone and his eyes conveyed no fear. He clutched a bag on the ground sitting next to him. I looked down and saw a crumpled brown bag—a grocery bag—that looked like it had some clothes in it.
“Where are you going?”
“He’s taking me to Pennsylvania,” he said, matter-of-factly. Yeah, right, I thought. You’re going to Pennsylvania via route of Alpharetta, Georgia? Seriously, dude? It sounded like implausible to me.
“Would you like something to eat?” I asked.
“Yes, please, he replied. And some ice water, if you have it.”
I went back inside and looked into the refrigerator. We barely had enough money for a full week of groceries. All I had were some slices of NY-style cheesecake. I put one on a plastic plate and brought it out to him. As I leaned down to serve him, my thought was that I should not feel sorry for myself. I still have something to offer, even if it’s just a slice of cheesecake and some cold water on a hot night.
I turned around and went back into the club and locked the door. Inviting him into the cool air would be hospitable, but it didn’t seem like a good idea from a safety perspective. I sat back down in the chair and this time, I could close my eyes and drift off.
It was 6am. My eyes opened at the first light of day and I could hear birds chirping. I wondered if the traveling man would still be there. Would he want something more from me that I could not provide, such as a job? A handout? It occurred to me that he had spoken perfect, grammatically-correct, unbroken, English without a dialect or accent, which was very unusual. It was bizarre, actually, and I pay attention to that sort of thing. Who was this man and was he still there?
I stepped out the door in to the early morning light. He was gone. His worn, brown crumpled suitcase-grocery-bag was gone too. The only thing that remained was the plate and fork and knife, and about a quarter of the slice of cheesecake and about a third of the cup of water. The remains of his snack were proof to my groggy mind that I hadn’t imagined it, it had really happened. Clearly, he hadn’t been all that hungry or thirsty, or perhaps his ride to Pennsylvania arrived before he had expected. Or maybe he was there for some reason that I will never know.
I typically don’t spend much time thinking about things I can’t logically or rationally explain, but since that July evening, I have often thought of the traveling man with gratitude for the gift he had inadvertently given me. For a moment, when my fear had gone, I had stopped feeling sorry for myself and could get on with the business of The Velvet Note.
The Lesson: Life can be Hard. Business can be Hard. Feeling sorry for yourself is debilitating and unproductive, and it keeps you from seeing the beauty in this moment. Do what you came here to do.
Thank you, Traveling Man. Thank you.
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I can’t believe our fifth anniversary is right around the corner. What started as a literal dream, today is a functioning reality that I love. Many thought The Velvet Note wouldn’t be sustainable, but we are here and prospering! For the last five years, I followed that dream to create an amazing venue that allows people to meet the artists, have great food and drinks, and enjoy a great atmosphere.
We are so grateful to everyone who make The Velvet Note a success. Thanks to the artists. To the employees. And to the guests who keep coming back – we can’t wait to see what the next five years brings!
To celebrate, we proudly announce that The Velvet Note is open and available for private events. What better way to impress your clients and business partners than our private room with gourmet food with live jazz in the background, and the kind of upscale, creative atmosphere that can only be found in Atlanta’s most intimate live music venue? Call us today for more details and to book your event!
I sat down with the team at Shofur.com to talk about this exciting new chapter for their podcast. I also learned what Shofur does; they help event planners aggregate buses so guests can easily get around during events like Coachella, The Super Bowl or your private event at The Velvet Note! Check out our discussion here.
The next time you’re looking for a cool venue to host an event, think of The Velvet Note.
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This past weekend was the first in forty-something years that I have been uttlerly and completely unaware of the change back from Daylight Savings Time. That’s right–apparently my life is so technologically advanced that there is virtually no need for me to engage in the outdated practice of setting my clocks forward. My OnStar system reset my car clock, the internet and my iOS reset my computer, iPad and iPhone, and I hadn’t looked at my stove that day because I ate at a restaurant. Like many other folks, I get all of my television content streamed online, so there was no friendly newscaster to warn me of the pending sleep deprivation. In fact, I remained shielded in ignorance until late Sunday night when I overheard someone mention it in conversation at The Velvet Note.
And then I felt sorely out of touch, which is ironic because the whole point of Springing Forward is to reconnect our creature comforted life with the reality of…well…reality. Has my life become so programmed that I’ve advanced backwards? What else will I be missing– Seasons? Weather? Gravity? And where are all of the big thoughts I should be thinking with my big brain that no longer bears the pesky burden of keeping track of time?
One of many things I love about great, live music is that it never advances past the point of touching my soul. I know– old school, but oh, so good.
For a look at our upcoming shows, click HERE. I hope to see you this week. Up close….
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