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.