Becoming A Music Town

Comments: 20


In 2011 while sitting in the Smoking Tuna at the 2nd Annual Key West Musicians Festival – I began to realize there was something special happening in Key West. There were six musicians on stage entertaining, about ten more near the bar enjoying the performance, and another thirty musicians on the schedule. We were literally surrounded by music and very good musicians. This led to my first book The Soul of Key West, Volume I, a photo-journalist writing with photos and short biographies of 30 Key West musicians.  Two years later I added a Volume II after interviewing another 45 Key West musicians. I am currently working on Volume III and have interviewed over 100 Key West musicians. I feel I could easily interview another 100 Key West musicians.

During the process I learned a lot about the music scene and what makes it so unique. The musicians for the most part all support one another. They all play together sooner or later – its a small town.  They know each other’s original music.  They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. When someone is sick another fills in.  They don’t obsess over the others gigs. They compete but its professional and friendly, no back stabbing allowed.

Long time Keys musician Terry Cassidy told me that when new musicians come to town they are for most cases quickly welcomed. Some can adapt and are quickly assimilated.  Others can’t adapt and don’t fit in and move on resulting in a very good group of musicians with a healthy respect for one another.

I jokingly say that I came to KW for the weather and the fishing and discovered the music.

While I’m working on my next book (Soul of Key West, Volume III) I am focusing this work on the comparisons of the Key West music scene to other music towns, like New Orleans, Memphis, Austin, and Nashville. I’ve been studying them for the past six years.  It’s a difficult comparison because of their much larger metro areas, but there are some metrics to compare.

I have long believed that KW is becoming a music destination very similar to New Orleans. We needed the Key West amphitheater. The larger 3000 capacity facility is was the missing piece of the puzzle.  Build it and they will come – ask Rams Head Group.

Music tourism is currently just barely promoted by Monroe County and Key West tourist agencies. The Mile0Fest Red Dirt country music festival is almost sold out for next year. Jimmy Buffett’s Meeting of the Minds (MOTM) fills the Casa Marina for a week every year for the past 28 years and it is a breath of fresh air.  They sell hotel packages that include snorkeling and sunset trips. They spend far more than cruise ship tourists. They fill up our restaurants and bars. In two years, we’ll have the 25th Anniversary of Charlie Bauer’s Songwriters Fest.

We have 55 venues for live music in Key West with well over 350 live performances a week, 18,000 live performances annually (That’s probably a low figure – coming from the 60% of the venues that publish schedules). This doesn’t include a special group of musicians that specialize in performing at weddings (2nd largest wedding destination in the US) and many more private and corporate gigs.

People like the famous venue owner the late Jim Bean and current Managing Partner John Vagnoni of the Green Parrot and Charlie Bauer formerly of the Hogs Breath for over 20 years, and now owner of the Smokin Tuna helped work magic building the Key West music scene.  They loved having music in their respective venues later they realized what a competitive advantage it was.  Charlie says today you have to have music in your venue to compete.

Sloppy Joes was one of the first music venues. Their Facebook Page has well over 100k likes and a half million check-ins. There have been other iconic venues that played a role in the development of todays music scene.  Places like the Full Moon Saloon, Captain Hornblower’s, the Casa Marina’s Flaglers, the Bamboo Room, the Hukilau, Logans Lobster House, and many other venues have faded into Key West history but left their mark on the music scene.

John and Charlie continually upped their game, they know their audiences, they keep the beer cold, the musicians love them, and the Smokin Tuna and the Green Parrot have become great music venues.

Charlie Bauer use to bring in Nashville groups and soloists so often there was a well-worn path to Key West (Full Sail Band, Carter Brothers, Chris Clifton, today Cliff Cody).  A Nashville musician with a regular gig at the Hog Breath became a hot status symbol – in Nashville. John Vagnoni would search touring bands schedules all over the Southeast and look for open dates.  He would say, “if they weren’t playing they were spending”. He would contact their agents and usually got a discount rate – Key West was any easy sell. After Hurricane Katrina John Vagnoni offered gigs to New Orleans agents when they had no place to perform – he did not take advantage he was trying to help. He always paid well, and had a band house for them to stay in. Today the Parrot is a well known venue in New Orleans and he has a steady stream of NOLA bands that frequent the Parrot.

John and the Green Parrot have hosted an annual tribute to the great jazz trumpeter from Key West, Theodore “Fats” Navarro, for thirteen years and counting. The Green Parrot has its own Ukelele Orchestra with monthly meetings.  You haven’t lived until you’ve heard 30 people all playing “Wipe Out” on their ukuleles.

The afore mentioned two-day Key West Musicians Festival is in its 8th year at the Smokin Tuna. Key West can boast a seventeen piece Paradise Big Band in their 21st year at the Tennessee Williams Theater. This year we also celebrate the 20th year of the Bahama Village Music Program, an amazing organization supported by local fundraising and providing free music instruction to over 200 children a week.

No discussion of Key West music would be complete without mentioning Ellen Welters Sanchez who taught piano for over 65 years before passing the day before her 105th birthday. She wrote a song “The Beautiful Ilse of Key West” and her favorite student, Lofton Coffee Butler, performed it for President Harry Truman at the dedication of Truman Avenue.  Coffee Butler and his life long friend Cliff Sawyer just released their new album “A Mother’s Love” on Coffee’s 90th birthday (available in gift stores, the Coffee Butler website  HERE — a shameless plug).

This music scene is really special.  Yes, Key West is becoming a “Music Town”. How long can this continue… I think we are just getting warmed up.

Get your copy of the Soul of Key West  $20


  • Pam French says:

    Thanks for writing this blog. We have been coming to KW since the 90’s. The warmth and the beautiful water brought us there. The music and wonderful people keep ringing us back.

    • Jamie Olwell says:

      Thank you Ralph! I truly loved your blog as I read it with morning coffee.
      The first singing I did in Key West was at Captain Hornblower’s. I sat in with Coffee at Hukilau and Lonnie Jacobson on Simonton Street. I fell in love with the people, island, food and culture.
      I stayed for the music scene and you described it perfectly. So enjoy your fabulous photography and Soul of Key West. Jamie

      • Thanks Jamie. I am looking for a photo of Captain Hornblowers. I’ve interviewed Dave Burns and others and want to write a story about Danny Knowles and Captain Hornblowers.

  • Richard Markman says:

    We already have the book. Photography and content are superb.

  • Judith Leblein Josephs says:

    We love Key West for so many reasons and music is a big one for us. Thanks for writing this blog. It gets us behind the scenes and gives my husband and I a better chance of catching some of the great artists that appear in KW.

    • I’ve interviewed 122 Key West musicians they have great stories. I’m post a few but the two Volumes of the Soul of Key West are full of stories. I am currently running a special 50% off sale. The Soul of Key West, Volume 1 & 2 normally $29.95 each, both are available for $30. HERE

  • Awesome! Thank you. Now a huge fan. Great article. Makes me see exactly where you were.

    • Thanks Kip. Check out my books. The pre-Covid music scene was the best in the world. I’m working on the Soul of Key West, Volume III and will compare and highlight Key West music scene, with New Orleans, Nashville, Memphis, and a little bit of Austin. It’s an amazing place and will make a great comeback.

  • Mark Nagurney says:

    Thank you Ralph! Juliana Walker MacDowell has told me what a wonderful place for musicians is found in Key West. I will certainly mention your book in conversations with others!

  • Mick O'Brien says:

    Great story Ralph, thanks. I just ordered both volumes of The Soul Of Key West.

  • Dan Cook says:

    Really enjoyed the blog. Music in Key West is one of the reasons we keep coming back. My wife bought me The Soul of Key West books as birthday gifts the years they each came out. I’ve enjoyed rereading them many times. They help to take me back to KW when I can’t be there.

    • Thank you Dan. I moved to the Keys full time in 2001. Came down for the weather and the fishing and discovered the amazing music scene. Our musicians and music scene are coming back strong from the Covid nightmare.

  • Dave Cox says:

    Enjoyed the Blog, sir….Moved to Florida in 1995 and have visited the Keys 2-3 times a year since. Seen many, many changes there but the music scene has always remained a staple. Michael McCloud at Schooner Wharf is one of my favorites. Having managed Bertie Higgins band for many years and being a guitarist since 1964, at 69 I still have the passion for music the same as I have always had. Looking forward to future blogs!!!

  • Paul Duma says:

    Ralph: The Music scene (mostly Free- Always Tip) was the #1 thing on my notes for Why & Why Not, reasons to move full time to KW. Made the move 4 years ago & Haven’t had Ant regrets!! Not only are we seeing Music 1 to 5 times a week- the Music is Awesome & the Musicians are even more than Awesome!! Loving & caring for each other & Our Community-
    One Human Family
    God Bless us all!!
    Ralph: as you know we volunteer quite often- If there is anything you ever need please reach out – we don’t have a Lot– Yet we have so Much!

  • Craven Moorehead says:

    We have visited KW for over 20 years and really connect to the music scene. Live music is what it’s all about and there are some great musicians in our favorite little city in paradise.
    Thanks for what you do Ralphie Baby. I’ve admired your photography for years.

  • Jenny Young says:

    Love the blog. I can’t wait for the release of Volume III.

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