I love Key West history, especially the music history. There aren’t many Key West historical music figures larger than Fats Navarro. Navarro learned piano at age six and picked up his first trumpet at age thirteen. He graduated from Fredrick Douglas High School and soon left for Orlando, Cincinnati, Kansas City, and on to ‘big band, bebop jazz, trumpet fame’. His meteoric rise ended in New York at age 27. Music students study Fats Navarro’s music today.
The Navarro family house, located in Bahama Village on the corner of Olivia and Thomas, is still owned by the family and one of the family members still lives there. Navarro’s little sister, Delores Navarro James, loved all her brothers but her big brother Fats was very special. He would have breakfast with her and take her to school. He helped her grow up and she loved him very much. It took a long time for her to grieve his loss.
Delores James’ grandson Greg James grew up in her Bahama Village home; his mother could no longer care for him. They had a piano, and he taught himself to play. He could hear a song and quickly pick up the melody on his own. His grandmother discouraged him from learning too much about music. She feared him starting a music career because of her brother’s fate. Many of descendants of Fats Navarro were discouraged or feared music careers. Coffee Butler told me one of the reasons he never left Key West was “I saw what happened to my friend (Fats Navarro).” James persisted and studied music in high school. His teacher, Joe Wilt, was very helpful. James was part of the school choir.
A friend, Edward Pitts, mentored James and help him connect to music teacher, Robin Kaplan. They both saw the talent of this self-taught young musician vocalist and helped him get a scholarship to the famous music teacher’s, Franko Richmond, summer program. He absorbed music knowledge like a sponge from Richmond and continues to use techniques that he learned during that summer. After the summer program, James began teaching piano in the Bahama Village Music Program.
Greg James graduated from Key West High School in 2007. He studied classical vocals at the community college with Emily Lowe from 2008-2010. He says her teaching style left strong impressions and affected his vision of music artistry.
Emily Lowe explained that artistry is like finding a secret room inside yourself. Some find this secret room but leave without really exploring. Others find this secret room inside themselves, and they never leave. They find this is where they need to be – a special place where they can be free, be vulnerable, and really be an artist.
James always felt more comfortable singing than playing piano. Lowe helped him learn to use his voice correctly. He studied classical music, expanding his vocal range. He sang opera and musical theater.
Growing up in Key West was really special … ‘how special’ was not fully understood until he moved away for a time. James moved to Orlando to finish studies at University of Central Florida. He studied, with other students, at Full Sail, learning music production, recording, and the business of music business. This was not the direction he had planned so he moved to Miami and finished his degree, graduating from Florida International University.
When James moved to Miami, he noticed that when he waved to his neighbors or said hello in the morning, there was very little response. It took over a year before his neighbors accepted he was just being nice. It’s hard to explain to those that haven’t grown up in Key West.
In 2016, he returned to Key West. At the time, he wasn’t thinking about music. He got a job selling real estate and started a business. After some problems with a business partner, he went through a rough patch and had to completely start over, just before the COVID epidemic. He rediscovered his passion for music. He got together with friends and started playing and performing again.
He says his life is a work in progress, and he feels he is where he needs to be – for now. Music had always been a passion and his music education combined some of the best influences possible in Key West – Joe Wilt, Robin Kaplan, Franko Richmond, and Emily Lowe all left their music influences on Greg James.
His artistry has started to shine through again. Larry Smith, encouraged James to perform at his Sunday Showcase, like he has with so many other Key West talents. Skipper Kripitz and Marty Stonely also pushed him hard. In February, he co-starred in the Fringe Theater’s production of Ben Harrison’s musical, El Isleño the Untold Story, to sold out audiences. He performed with the Paradise Big Band at the Tennessee Williams Theater. Big Band Leader Joe Dallas, along with Larry and Skipper praised his performance and all look forward to the growth of this young talent. His grandmother Delores Navarro James and her big brother, Fats Navarro, would be very proud of him.