South Florida has been known for the masterful music programs at several renowned universities, and the countless students-turned-professionals those programs produce, for decades. But there’s one essential requirement that is lagging far behind the demand by those newly working musicians — venues in which they can perform.
So every musical graduate of Florida Atlantic University (with its Palm Beach County campuses in Boca Raton and Jupiter), Palm Beach State College (Boca Raton, Lake Worth, Palm Beach Gardens and Belle Glade), Lynn University (Boca Raton), and south to the Miami-Dade County-based Florida International University, Florida Memorial University and the University of Miami, is faced with a stay-or-go proposition once he or she earns their diploma.
Some decide to stick it out. Others, particularly those who choose to major in higher-degree-of-difficulty genres like jazz or classical, sometimes head for more musically cerebral and less tourist-based pastures. More on them later.
In regional popular music, the movers and shakers mostly get around by singing and playing acoustic guitar or projecting canned electronica — or both, if they perform solo with pre-recorded backing tracks. The savviest of the singers and songwriters learn the requisite cover songs the audience most likely will request, sneaking in an original here and there to sell their CDs, and often get hired because they’re quieter, and cost less, than a full electric band. The increasingly popular nonamplified house-concert scene also plays into their hands.
Disc jockeys used to spin records at weddings but now record their own. Perceived as one-man bands in the techno-pop era, they also get hired instead of bands for a lower price, and South Florida’s glut of noise ordinances work in their favor, as they can control their volume electronically. They also dominate the burgeoning karaoke scene, in which they’re the only ones getting paid, but everyone else gets to have their American Idol moment.
“A musician with a quality jazz background coming out of UM used to be able to find a venue where people would seek their expertise,” said Drew Tucker, director of education and outreach at the Arts Garage in Delray Beach. “Those venues have, for the most part, disappeared in our area and have been replaced by venues seeking mediocre singers and songwriters because they promote better and will play for as little as $100 and a bar tab. Very few venues are focused on quality, charging for it and letting the content of the music do the talking.”
Fortunately, the Arts Garage is an exception. The two-year-old venue promotes such series as Garage Blues, Urban Underground, and its particularly impressive Jazz Project, which has featured international talents from Fort Lauderdale and Miami (guitarist Randy Bernsen and Miami steel drummer Othello Molineaux, respectively) to New York (trumpeter Randy Brecker and guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg.) Tucker’s own seven-piece jazz band, along with special guests, performs at the Arts Garage at 8 p.m. on Nov. 30.
There are no television screens, and no food or alcohol is served, but the venue’s bring-your-own policy engenders camaraderie between patrons — most of whom cease conversation when the music starts in this genuine listening room.
In an era where musical education in public schools practically is nonexistent, Tucker plays a purposeful part of the grass-roots solution at the Arts Garage. Along with the 5,500-square-foot Performing Arts Academy, with its 20-by-20-foot stage, he offered a spring camp for students ages 6 to 18 in voice, guitar, bass, drums, piano, brass and musical theater. Its summer camp started June 10 and ran through Aug. 2.
“Venues like ours are raising the bar on quality and helping to train people’s ears,” said the Plantation-born Delray Beach resident who studied music at FAU, the Berklee College of Music in Boston and abroad in Germany. “The hope is that people will really start recognizing this quality and demanding it.”
If Tucker sounds like a dreamer, it’s because of the mountain of historical evidence that preceded the Arts Garage. Consider the notorious May 8 letter from a nightclub owner in Tampa — which isn’t in South Florida yet practically qualifies because of a similar emphasis on tourism — that was posted online in OnStage Magazine by its managing editor, Chris LeDrew. The letter, LeDrew writes, was “…posted on Tampa Craigslist by a bar owner, but it was flagged for removal before I could provide a link or credit the author. But I managed to copy the content.”
• “A bar is an establishment that earns its revenue primarily from selling alcoholic beverages, measuring its success by the ounce. Live music is important. But it is a significant expense and is only worthwhile if it produces more than it consumes. But so many bands that come through here have no clue what their job is. Your job is to sell booze. You’re not here for any other reason.”
• “There are some truly awful bands that actually chase customers away. But there are also some bands I would call mediocre who do a fantastic job of selling my product … they’re coming back next week. Here’s why: They play simple music people recognize. People don’t dance to brilliant guitar solos or heady changes, they dance to the hook lyrics of a simple chorus. When the ladies want to dance, the guys show up, and everybody drinks. Simple truth … They [also] don’t ask me for drinks, they ask my customers. This is a subtle art, and if it’s done well, a band can more than pay for itself. If someone offers to buy the band a round, you order shots of top-shelf. Even if you don’t drink, you ask for it anyway. If someone asks for a request, try to make a deal with them. ‘If you buy a round, we’ll play your song.’
• “The open mic and jams that seem to get so much criticism here are not about me getting free entertainment, they are about bringing in paying customers and keeping them here. People who play and sing, but not in a professional band, like to get out, get a little stage time, have some fun, bring their friends, and I offer them the place to do it. And yes, these nights are pretty good for the bottom line.”
The truth-serum club owner has some valid points. It’s his or her joint, so he or she gets to dictate how money is earned. But the reality is there are certain American geographic areas — Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Nashville, New York, San Francisco and Seattle — where club owners have sacrificed the quick buck in favor of building a lasting music scene where everybody from musicians to patrons to clubs wins long-term.
South Florida’s booze-selling bands, by contrast, continue to create the very absence of a music scene. Few club owners actually are Florida natives, so they tend to care less about creating a scene they are be proud of and more about the short-term immediate bottom line. The results include area bands that often feature some of the region’s numerous doctors and lawyers, who can afford great musical equipment, don’t need the money and, therefore, charge less, which often gets them hired, and have loads of friends with disposable incomes who come out to drink in support.
But Mr. Happy from Tampa was right about mediocrity selling in South Florida. With very little creative regional radio programming at their disposal, listeners who go to live shows are in no position to know more than a predictable 5 percent of what they might want to hear, regardless of genre. So the bands willing to play hackneyed warhorses Mustang Sally, Brown-Eyed Girl and Old Time Rock and Roll get re-hired because they sell more ounces. Yet asking for a raise is more likely to get a band fired.
Many area rock or blues clubs are restaurants, and featuring live music means moving tables out of the way to create a stage. A couple of indoor exceptions are the Bamboo Room in Lake Worth and the Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton, both of which are large rooms with quality bookings, good-size stages, and that house sound and stage equipment.
Among the open-air venues, Guanabanas in Jupiter stands out. There’s a house sound system, a very good music calendar, and the club is one of the few in the area that actually invested in sound baffles and noise-limiting technological equipment to offset noise ordinances. Other outdoor venues simply ask bands to turn it down, fire them if they don’t and hire acoustic acts.
The unwritten mandate against creativity doesn’t solely apply to clubs, radio and artists. In early 2010, Wellington resident Win Blodgett’s Live Arts Florida organization staged a series of concerts from jazz (pianist Copeland Davis) to roots (festival favorite Donna the Buffalo) to classical (a solo performance by violinist Mark O’Connor) at the Wellington Community High School Theatre. Though the shows were well-attended, try to find more than an online blip about the defunct Live Arts Florida now.
Playing jazz in the region presents problems that make those classic-rock or bastardized-blues performers pale by comparison — something West Palm Beach resident Susan Merritt knows firsthand. A busy jazz bassist and instructor in the area for more than 30 years, she has served as president of the nonprofit Jazz Arts Music Society (JAMS) of Palm Beach for 13 years and ran an historic club called the Jazz Showcase from 1993 to 1997 with her band’s drummer, Marty Campfield.
“I think it’s definitely getting worse,” Merritt said. “The lack of good venues for live music is just a reflection of the breakdown of culture and lack of appreciation for the arts as a whole in our society. I believe there are pockets throughout the country where there are more — university towns and areas where the arts play a little more important role than in South Florida. There were never enough venues for live music here, but years ago, there were many more.”
The Jazz Showcase certainly was one of them, yet it fell to the trend of area jazz clubs going the way of the dodo during the past 20 years. At two different West Palm Beach locations, the venue featured future star keyboard trio Medeski, Martin and Wood; guitar giant John Scofield, and a memorable jam with bassist Victor Wooten, drummer Futureman and saxophonist Paul McCandless after the three had performed at SunFest with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.
Merritt started JAMS, along with Campfield and Charlie Boyer, a few years after throwing in the towel on the club. The society’s most fruitful years were 2000 to 2007, when it presented names including Harry Allen, Lynne Arriale, Joanne Brackeen, Hiromi, Kevin Mahogany, Melton Mustafa, Ira Sullivan and Tierney Sutton in its monthly concerts. The bookings remained impressive afterward, although Merritt downshifted to six annual concerts through 2012. That’s when she sent out a letter to members explaining the series would be suspended until further notice. JAMS maintains its corporate nonprofit status, but the suspension of the concert series created a void.
Merritt has a thought-provoking idea as to why jazz has trouble drawing an audience in an area where there are so many collegiate jazz programs:
“While that is to be applauded, the need to simultaneously put as much effort into music appreciation for the nonmusician has been largely neglected. There is no shortage of good talent, but there is a severe lack of attention to developing audiences to appreciate the music — people who will support venues willing to present real music regardless of genre. I have observed that, most often, even the peers of young, talented performers as a whole do not support the music.”
Cue the low pay scale for jazz musicians, which also has risen pathetically during the past few decades. Many jazz performers don’t get enough work, or enough pay when they do, to afford to frequent the venues where they play.
But a new ray of hope exists in Jazziz Nightlife in Boca Raton. Opened in March by Jazziz magazine publisher Michael Fagien, the versatile venue features both a 350-seat indoor black-box theater and a 3,500-seat outdoor amphitheater, and has featured local to international talent including Nicole Henry, Fourplay, the Yellowjackets, Nestor Torres, Larry Carlton, Jon Secada, Bob James and David Sanborn in its first three months.
A few decades ago, Miami was a significant destination for area, regional and touring jazz artists. Fifteen years ago, the city had several prominent clubs that offered live music of all styles. This year, its biggest event was the Ultra Music Festival, the late-March bash for DJs to showcase their electronic dance music (EDM for the over-20-something) to a throng of thousands.
Is it any wonder South Florida’s arguably greatest homegrown musician left for all of these reasons more than 30 years ago? West Palm Beach-born guitarist Scott Henderson studied music at both FAU and PBSC (then Palm Beach Junior College) while wowing local audiences in the band Paradise.
A talented variety act that played everything from jazz standards to rock hits, its star was Henderson, who would amuse himself by playing the changes to a challenging standard like John Coltrane’s Giant Steps in the middle of a late-1970s Van Halen song.
In 1980, Henderson moved to Los Angeles, and it didn’t take long for him to make a difference. While studying at the Guitar Institute of Technology, he was overheard by British guitar virtuoso Allan Holdsworth, who was roaming the hallways. Mesmerized, Holdsworth called friend and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, who was looking for a guitarist. When Holdsworth told him he’d found his man, Ponty hired Henderson without an audition.
A Ponty album and tour led to recording with keyboardist Chick Corea, and multiple albums and tours with Weather Report keyboardist and guru Joe Zawinul’s side project, the Zawinul Syndicate. Henderson also founded his fusion band Tribal Tech with bassist Gary Willis in the mid-1980s and started a solo blues / fusion career in the early 1990s.
Henderson since has become the American equivalent of Holdsworth, a vastly underrated, chops-unlimited niche star who gained renown in the band Soft Machine before working in fusion groups led by drummers Tony Williams and Bill Bruford and starting his solo career. While Henderson continues to tour through the world under his name (his last South Florida appearance was in 2009), Tribal Tech stopped touring the United States well before Willis moved to Spain in 2004. The group released X in 2012 — its first recording in 12 years — but only select foreign audiences will see any of its material performed live. The primary reasons, according to Henderson, are dwindling American venues and wages.
“From what I remember about South Florida, there just weren’t enough venues,” he said. “The lack of venues in different areas of the U.S. is a mystery to me. Austin and Houston have thriving music scenes with live bands all over town, but Dallas doesn’t. Las Vegas has the best union wage for musicians, but San Francisco is the lowest-paying big city in the U.S. for live music, and L.A. has to be a close second. Only the major cities in the Northeast support jazz.”
Instrumental stars like Henderson are relegated to clubs, while vocal reality-show also-rans sell out arenas.
“Radio has the biggest potential of drawing people to gigs,” he said. “But I guess advertising time is really expensive, and most small club owners probably can’t afford it. Most promoters want musicians to do their own advertising, and these days, a lot of them do. I often get emails from famous musicians informing me about their shows.
“They know that having a strong mailing list helps make up for the fact that the promoter is going to spend as little as possible on advertising. The mentality of club owners seems to be to book a band and just hope people show up. That’s a worldwide dilemma, but South Florida has it down to an art.”
The aforementioned Jonathan Kreisberg eventually took Henderson’s Northeastern jazz philosophy to heart. The Manhattan-born guitarist had moved to Miami with his family as a child and attended UM while becoming a South Florida fusion star with his self-titled trio. A memorable exchange occurred between the guitarists in the mid-1990s, as Kreisberg was closing in on his UM degree, and Henderson was playing a show at the now-defunct Carefree Theater in West Palm Beach. I introduced the two by saying, “Scott, this is Jonathan Kreisberg. He’s you 15 years later.”
“Great to meet you,” Kreisberg said. “Do you have any advice?”
“Get the hell out of here,” Henderson replied.
Kreisberg did just that in 1997, returning to New York to settle in Brooklyn. Now focusing more on traditional jazz and playing hollow-bodied guitars, he’s become a star in Europe and a rising figure in the United States. His latest release, the stellar 2013 effort ONE, is a solo guitar album — a concept previously attempted by such masters as Joe Pass and Tuck Andress.
Kreisberg sees South Florida’s live-jazz problems from a different angle.
“In most cases in South Florida, I don’t think the clubs should be blamed,” he said. “There have been a lot of really valiant attempts to make it work by club owners with their hearts in the right place. I actually think it boils down to the crowds. Most folks who come out really want to hear the music, but there always seems to be a surplus of rotten apples who either aren’t educated on how to enjoy great music or just straight-up want to be the center of attention and disrupt things.
“It’s a deep problem that seems to be woven into the fabric of South Florida, particularly Miami, but I think it stretches up a bit to Fort Lauderdale. Come to think of it, my favorite South Florida venues have been north of there. In the old days, it was the Jazz Showcase. More recently, it’s the Arts Garage.
“Miami people seem to especially see themselves as stars,” Kreisberg continued. “It’s the dance-music culture there. The concept is nice, since everybody on the dance floor gets to be a star. But in other situations, if everyone is a star, then nobody is a star. You are killing the chance to have a world-class musician pour their heart out to you and for you to leave with a memory of that evening for years to come.
“And those off-stage stars end up messing up the experience for the people who showed up to really enjoy the gig, thus bringing down the vibe and the scene. In New York, thankfully, there’s a very different mindset in the jazz clubs,” Kreisberg said.
Brooklyn-born vocalist, violinist and music instructor Nicole Yarling did the opposite of what Kreisberg did, moving to South Florida in 1980. Yarling recently moved to Hollywood, from Boca Raton, to ease the commute to teaching jobs at UM and Florida Memorial, and continues to perform at venues in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Performing, rather than teaching, was Yarling’s emphasis after she earned her master’s degree from Columbia University and moved south. She’s toured the world with her own blues-rock band Little Nicky and the Slicks, fusion guitarist Bernsen and cultural icon Jimmy Buffett. As a traditional jazz artist, her soaring voice and inventive playing led to work with famed trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, Chicago-to-Miami multi-instrumentalist Sullivan and former Count Basie vocalist Joe Williams. Shortly before Williams’ death in 1999, he recorded with her on her debut CD, Joe Williams Presents Nicole Yarling Live at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild.
“I wouldn’t change a thing because I’ve stayed really busy down here,” Yarling said. “When I got here in the ’80s, there were significantly more venues, but there’s less of a demand for live music now because you can sit at your computer and watch nearly anything you want, let alone find any style of music.”
She combats such Internet distractions by practicing what she teaches. Her courses have emphasized appreciation for everything from blues and bebop to swing and hip-hop; her voice features gospel undertones, as well as Ella Fitzgerald-like overtones, and her violin playing links the disparate worlds of bluegrass and classical music. Her appearances feature any to all of these styles, including performances by her self-titled 4-Tet, which plays originals and covers with elements of both sacred and secular music, including interesting arrangements of material from jazz standards to Bob Dylan’s folk anthem Blowin’ in the Wind.
“Some of the really super-creative musicians I know don’t really think too well out of the box, which is ironic,” Yarling said. “They lock themselves into a format, as in, ‘I have to work only in jazz clubs.’ Part of the reason I can make a living and be creative is that I don’t think that way. And even the people who do think that way don’t seem to realize that they need to create their own niche, their own scene. Making something happen is part of the process. Musicians need to take it upon themselves to create things, including a demand for their services.
“The musicians who play styles other than jazz have more to bring to jazz in the process, anyway,” she continued. “And there are so many of them in this area. Unfortunately, the best-attended area jazz series and societies, like the Gold Coast Jazz Society in Fort Lauderdale, attract an older crowd. It draws well [its shows are at the Amaturo Theater in the Broward Center for the Performing Arts], but we need to find ways to attract more young people to this music.
“There are more performing-arts centers now than ever since I moved down here more than 30 years ago, with the Kravis Center, Broward Center and Arsht Center with its Ziff Ballet Opera House in Miami. But they only seem to book veteran jazz stars,” she said.
The featured jazz events for the current season at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach include Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and another trumpeter, Chris Botti; Michael McDonald, Gregg Allman, Merle Haggard, Indigo Girls, Buddy Guy and Jonny Lang were its seasonal pop and country stars; and orchestral bookings included the symphonies of Detroit, Buffalo, Israel and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Like the rare touring jazz big bands (usually with 15 to 18 members) that have become scarce because of their inherent costs, classical orchestras present an even bigger cost-efficiency problem by being four times larger at 60 to 70 pieces.
“It costs $13,134 to rent Dreyfoos Hall,” said the Kravis Center’s senior director of programming, Lee Bell, of the facility’s main room. “And we’ll pay most orchestras between $60,000 and $125,000. The most we’ve ever paid was $175,000 to the New York Philharmonic. So the hall rental comes out of that, and then the orchestra is responsible for not only paying its musicians, but also lodging and insurance, although we cover liability insurance while they’re here. Their biggest costs include marketing, public relations, their crew, credit card charges, catering and transportation.”
Perhaps that helps to explain why many South Florida classical concerts take place in churches or venues that are less performance-oriented.
The long-running Friends of Chamber Music of Miami presents most of its concerts at Coral Gables Congregational Church, including pianist Anton Kuerti and the Ehnes Quartet, Boca’s St. Gregory’s Episcopal regularly hosts the Seraphic Fire chamber choir of Miami, and Delray Beach’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church has operated a monthly classical series for more than 25 years.
“There are actually a lot of local venues that could do classical music, including the Maltz Theater in Jupiter, the Duncan Theatre in Lake Worth and the Himmel Theater and Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach,” Bell said. “But by being smaller, they’re more suitable for chamber music settings or smaller, rather than large orchestras. They don’t have the seating we do, so that’s not as commercially viable.”
If there’s a moral to this musical supply-and-demand saga, it might lie in the career path of a West Palm Beach native who is talented, versatile, open-minded and young enough to thrive within it. Jeff Adkins started studying double bass at Palm Beach Public Elementary School at age 8, became a strings major at both Bak Middle School of the Arts and Dreyfoos School of the Arts, and now teaches at all three. He earned his master’s degree from Lynn University’s Conservatory of Music on a scholarship last year, having chosen the Boca Raton school over Berklee.
Still in West Palm Beach and 26 years old, Adkins has become one of the busiest teachers and musicians in South Florida because he sight-reads and plays both acoustic-upright and electric basses in styles from rock, pop and bluegrass to classical, opera and jazz.
“I played upright bass for the entire season with Florida Grand Opera in Miami and almost all of the performances for Palm Beach Symphony and a run with Palm Beach Opera,” Adkins said. “I also had three nice recording sessions at Criteria Studios in Miami, including bowed acoustic bass for Gloria Estefan’s forthcoming new release.”
Much of Adkins’ seasonal classical work is in Miami, but he also stays busy playing gigs with his area bluegrass band the Short Straw Pickers (which has a new CD), occasional dates with West Palm Beach throwback swing duo Route Bleu (also with a new CD featuring Adkins) and electric-bass sets with local pop singer-songwriter Jeff Harding’s self-titled band.
“I was hustling for awhile, with an opera one night, a gig with Harding the next and an opera the night after that,” Adkins said. “I also did a couple of events at Mar-a-Lago with Palm Beach Symphony, since Donald Trump is a friend of the symphony. But my last Florida Grand Opera performance was May 6, and since then, I haven’t worn my tuxedo.”
He has, however, continued a weekly house gig that adds sacred music to his practically unlimited stylistic credits.
“I play every Sunday morning at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale,” Adkins said. “It’s contemporary Christian music, and the musicians are among the best I work with. It’s tough after a late night on a Saturday, since there’s an 8 a.m. rehearsal first, but it’s a rare, captive audience, a very enjoyable paying gig and a great learning experience.”
Not that the wise-beyond-his years bassist doesn’t recognize the area scene offers a silver lining, albeit a slim one.
“There are some places that recognize quality,” Adkins said. “They realize that if you have the right band and start it at the right time, you’re going to keep people there who would otherwise leave, and sell more drinks. And when that happens, you can’t put a price on the band, because the venue makes so much money off of them.”
Now that’s ending on a musical high note, especially coming from a guy who specializes in low end.
Funding for this story was provided in part by the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County.