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Clubs Around The Globe: B Sharps, Tallahassee: Our Little Engine That Could

A monthly spotlight on the trials, tribulations and successes of small jazz clubs around the world!

Well, it’s hard to believe in a lot of ways and not too hard to believe in others. But since this pandemic started, we’ve had to close down our club, B Sharps, because we’re so small that we just couldn’t crowd people in and feel comfortable about it. We’ve just kind of had not too many shows, though we’ve had a few live streams. But this particular article is about owning a small jazz club and what that means to not just the owners, but to the musicians and communities that the club serves.

I’ve always wanted a jazz club, and by being married to jazz musician Clarence Seay, I’ve traveled to a lot of different clubs all around the country, and then some internationally. The one thing I found that the really nice and memorable clubs had in common had to do with how they treated the musicians, how they treated their customers, and how they created a welcoming community. It wasn’t all about money, but it was more about the music. And I wanted to have a club like that, particularly in this town.

Here in Tallahassee, after moving here around ’87 and having been used to going to jazz clubs coming out of Richmond, Virginia, in their heyday, there weren’t any clubs here that were strictly dedicated to jazz or straight-ahead jazz. I went to one club, and it was noisy, and people were drinking and laughing and having a good time, but there was music upfront. And when I turned my attention to the music, toward the end of one of the songs, I saw a gentleman was playing. This particular gentleman was a local guy; people seemed to know him. He was blind, and when he finished a song, people started stuffing dollar bills in his shirt collar, and it just made me sick to my stomach. He was good-natured about it, I guess. I mean, I don’t know his story, but he was very popular here in town.

When I saw those folks just laughing and joking and talking and sticking money in his shirt, it just felt as if I were at a circus or something, and this man was doing tricks for these people. I had to leave. It was quite upsetting to me. I knew at that point I wanted to open my own club. As I said, I’d always wanted it, but I never really had the fire in my belly for it. But on that night, I knew I had changed, and that I was going to open my own club. So, I just started looking around for space and looking around the town.

I’d been here almost four years before I really started this project. I was looking all around, and I noticed that there were some places down in the traditional Black neighborhood, and there were some buildings down there that were for sale. I knew the guy who owned one of those, and I talked to him about it, and he only wanted $30 grand for the building, which I thought was pretty reasonable.

I did purchase it and found out then that it was on the National Register of Historic Places. And of course, that’s my second most favorite thing—historic preservation. I began the process of seeing if I could get this building restored because let me tell you, when he opened the door so I could look inside, oh my! The building had been an American Legion post at that time, and it was the Black post for this area. I walked inside, and it was hot as hell outside, but this room was so cool, and it was quiet even though the street had a lot of traffic—it was just real quiet. I made sounds and some noises just to see how it sounded. And my God, the acoustics were breathtaking.

There wasn’t anything in the building at that time, just a completely wooden building, and IfeltthatifIhadtonameit,itwasasifIwere inside a violin. It was just so resonant and sweet and warm. And I thought, “I’ve found the right place.” I bought the building that day and began the process of trying to figure out how to restore it. That was 2004. We finished restoration in 2008. It was a beautiful space once we were finished. Gorgeous—just beautiful, and the wood was lovely. We also opened up in 2008.


We had quite a few shows at the beginning; this is the learning curve part. We had folks in that we knew; our friends would come down and play. One memorable night, Wallace Roney and his group had come through and he was in the middle of this incredible set. All of a sudden, all the lights went out, and thank God, the emergency lights came on. At that time, we had a police officer there who found out that not too far from us, a small plane had crashed onto a major thoroughfare about eight blocks away and knocked out all the power. No one was hurt, and I was so thankful because I thought maybe I’d forgotten to pay the electric bill. You know how it is when you’re used to that kind of trauma, so I thought we didn’t pay the electric bill! But the funniest thing was, even though those lights went out, Wallace and his group never stopped playing, and the people in the audience never moved. They looked around, saw the lights were out and went right back to paying attention to what the band was doing.

It was just a most incredible moment ever. Once we got ourselves together, Wallace finished up the night, and the police officer helped everybody get to their cars and get home safely. Because, of course, all the streetlights and everything were dark out. We only had our emergency lights and some candles. That was an early-on kind of thing.

We tried very hard to copy the New York and D.C. traditional jazz clubs where you charge for each set and you have a minimum for purchasing. That never took off. So after about eight months of trying that particular way of doing things, I switched to raising the cover charge to include that minimum, to advertise a little differently and to have one set. Since people were not willing to pay for two, then I simply had one set divided in half for the most part. Most of the time, that worked out great.

We also had a whole audience of students because we’re right next to Florida A&M University and Florida State University (FSU). I wanted to mention that Florida State University’s Jazz Studies in the Department of Music has been more than supportive. You know, for the first 10 years, they loaned us a baby grand. Their students, who were in the piano technology department, would tune it for us at a student price. It made all the difference in the world, and they never, in any way, shape or form, stopped that support. It was wonderful. In fact, we had just bought our own piano right before the pandemic hit. A little bit before that, we had an opportunity to buy one, and being able to do so was a whole different level of gratitude.

One thing I learned when those kids and their teacher would come through to service that Steinway was how a piano like that came apart. I had never seen it come apart like that before, and my, it was just fascinating. It came out in components almost; you have the keyboard and then the other components come out. They took their time. They seemed to relish the opportunity to get in there and tune a piano that was oft used, and it was just so cool to watch them.

Piano Technology is a two-year graduate program at Florida State, and we got to meet a lot of students who went on to work at wonderful jobs all around the world. One woman came from Taiwan and she’d ride her bike everywhere, and she had a lot of stuff on it; she said it wasn’t heavy though. For the most part, every one of those tuners could play piano. It was quite extraordinary to see different ones come through. A really wonderful experience for me as well as I hope it was for the students. I hope they’re all doing well.


So what is it gonna take for anybody who wants to own a jazz club? First of all, you have to actually love the music more than anything. I was raised on jazz. My brothers, who are 10 years older, played their records all the time. My middle brother was a musician, and of course, we went to all of his concerts and whatnot. When he went to college and my oldest brother went to the Navy, they left all their records behind. I was only 11 or 12, and those were the records I grew up with. Those are what I played on the record player because I hadn’t gotten to the point where I was buying my own records.

So I listened to their Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, Count Basie—whatever they had in-house. Jazz is what I grew up with.

In the meantime, what I found when I left Richmond was that I just missed the music so much. It just wasn’t here in Tallahassee. I figured, well, why don’t I just go head on and make it happen? For the first few years, it was difficult finding our niche, finding our place in that niche and finding out what model worked for us. We had some incredible shows, not only the professionals who came through, but we had so many incredible student performances. I mean, you can’t believe how talented these kids were, and to hear them grow in their music. They came in, really, as pre-freshmen, because they had to audition. A lot of times, after the auditions were over, they’d come over to the club because the faculty would come and play. Of course, we also had performers like Scotty Barnhart, Rodney Jordan, Leon Anderson, Bill Peterson, David Detweiler, Kevin Jones, Marcus Roberts and Longineu Parsons.

Oft times, their guests would come to B Sharps, too. We had quite a few people who came to give workshops, and afterward, they’d come and play at the club for the community. We’ve been very fortunate with the kinds of artists we had, and we were so thankful that we had a room where they could play without being disturbed.

About our building, I noticed that when I looked at other clubs, many places would rent their space. One of the saving graces of what we’d been doing is that we purchased our own building. It was only a $30,000 situation, and though we spent way more than that on the restoration, that was one thing we didn’t have to worry about — people wanting more money for the rent. We own it, and it gives us way more control over what happens in it. So the other thing about choosing a space and owning that space is to make sure it matches the population you’re serving. A lot of folks go out and get these 200 seats, but can you fill the room every time? I know that I couldn’t fill that size room, not just yet, not in this city and not with the kind of jazz that I could afford. We needed to clear a certain amount of money in order to make enough to pay the musicians and any help that we had. Our 50 seats have been just the right size for this population.

We started out as a for-profit business, and that lasted six or seven years. With a for-profit business, there are only certain things you can do. You can sell beer and wine pretty easily. But when it comes to hard liquor, you’re going to have some choices to make. In Florida, you need to have 2,400 sq. ft., and you must serve a certain amount of food, so that kind of license wouldn’t have made sense for us. We didn’t have that kind of space, and we didn’t have that number of clients. So we ended up with different kinds of licenses that lent themselves to our particular niche. After about six or seven years, we went on to nonprofit status. Now, we don’t have much overhead in licenses. We don’t have to pay sales tax and we have members, and that’s a whole different liquor license situation. We’re eligible for grants, and that’s been very helpful, particularly during the pandemic. So I suggest to anybody, even if you have a for-profit, to get yourself a nonprofit arm so you can qualify for the other kinds of things that are happening out there.


We’ve been particularly fortunate about the artists we were able to bring in—like Wallace. Lou Donaldson has also been here. What a great night that was. We’ve also had René Marie and her trio—if you haven’t heard her, you’re missing an incredible talent. When she came the last time, I asked her to sing, “Turn The Page.” It was the last song of the night, and she was probably finished, but she did sing it. And my God, the room went completely quiet. You could hear the room breathing. It’s almost as if we were inside of a lung that was expanding and contracting.

It was the most amazing thing, that moment! It gives me chills thinking about it. Whenever I get really frustrated with everything, I go back to that one night. Six or seven minutes worth of music that really was transformational. It’s just the most amazing memory.

We had Dr. John come through. Clarence had played with Sara Marrow, and she was coming down to play, and Dr. John asked if he could come with her. “Wait, what?” I asked alarmingly. “I don’t have enough money for Dr. John.”

He said he’d do a benefit, which was okay, so Dr. John came through! We had people come here from South Carolina and North Carolina. The sets were $50 apiece, and they stayed the whole night and had dinner. (Back in those days, I had a restaurant license.) That, too, was an incredible night. He was such a nice man. Just pleasant. It was so, so wonderful.

We’ve had some other nights that were also quite extraordinary. As I mentioned, sometimes there are big names that came to town, and with the help of various musicians, particularly Scotty Barnhart, we were able to have after-hangs. After the concert was over, generally around 9 or 10:00 p.m., that’s when we opened, and we brought the talent to the club. That was another incredible experience because we couldn’t get there fast enough to open. I always sold the tickets ahead of time — everything’s ahead of time. I didn’t take much money at the door. By the time I got there to open the door, there was a line. People were waiting to come in. And they may have missed the concert, but they didn’t want to miss the after-hang.

One of the most incredible evenings was when Mr. Freddy Cole came through and came to the after-hang. It just so happened that Marcus Roberts was in town. He was also on the faculty at FSU, and he started playing. Then, Mr. Cole got up, and they performed at least 20 minutes. Once again, people were just spellbound. It was just so, so incredible. We enjoyed it so much. Freddy Cole and Marcus Roberts! And it was just magical to hear them.


These are the perks of owning a club, running a club, having it accessible to the community and to trying to make sure that you’re adding value to your niche. I do have to say that we’re in a community that’s authentically the place where jazz occurred. Here in Tallahassee’s little town, Frenchtown is about two or three blocks from the governor’s mansion, but it’s the poor zip code in the state. It dawned on me then that well, we’ll get a lot of people

in for various programs. But the people in the community were not coming. I found that they don’t have $25-$50 for one ticket, because unfortunately, most of them make $25,000 or less for a family of four. They don’t have that kind of money. We decided to try to do something a little different. Since we own the property, own the land, we applied for a grant for African American History and Culture, and we actually got it. We’re going to do maintenance on our Historic Registry house. After 20 years, it needs a little work on ramps and steps. But the main drive here is new construction for what I’m calling the Frenchtown Youth Orchestra.

The Frenchtown Youth Orchestra was going to reach out into this 32304 zip code and bring the children in who are the future of jazz. They’re out there. They’re in this community, and I know they’re there. And we’re going give them some music lessons and get them prepared to be on their way. We’re looking forward to it. But in order to do this, we have to be able to sustain it. That’s one thing about a nonprofit. We can’t keep asking people for money. So what we’ve done is put in the Red Bird Cafe. The Red Bird was very popular back in the day; that’s where all the African Americans came to play. And of course, that was the first thing they tore down when they started gentrification. But the beautiful part about this grant is that it wants you to try to figure out a way to put back the soul and spirit of the things that had been torn down. And so we thought that was a wonderful match to have the Red Bird Cafe attached to the Frenchtown Youth Orchestra. Those buildings will be finished by the end of this summer, I’m hoping, and we can open up again. We’ll hire some student teachers and musicians to help us, and we can get some caterers around town who are interested in holding down a cafe.

And so that’s kind of a full-circle programming thing, because once we get our kids learning how to play, then they can put some concerts together, and we can invite the community to come and listen. We have one building structured to open up, and the students will be able to move part of the orchestra out into the courtyard. We’re looking forward to parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins to come out and listen to the children play. It’ll be free, and it’ll bring the kind of music and the kind of spirit back into this community that it had before gentrification became a thing.

We’re hoping that the jazz club itself will have come full circle then. When we bought this building, we found the original deed from a group of Black women, the [Woman’s] Working Band. The group was attached to one of the local churches, but it was also part of a larger club movement in the 1920s. It was an organization all across the country, and women were out there doing things that the community needed. This particular organization built the building in 1921 and made it an old folks’ home. During the Depression, these same women allowed the WPA to use it as a daycare center. It stayed that way until after World War II, when the women donated the building to the African American Vets for their American Legion Sneed Franklin Post 205, until we purchased it in 2004. By that time, the gentlemen had become elderly and left most of their memorabilia in the building. We’re going to be giving that to the State Library. Quite a collection of memorabilia, notes, photographs, flags. They even left their lectern, which looks hand built.

There was also a clause in the deed that said whoever owned this building in the future had to make sure that they took care of the community and did things that the community needed at the time of their ownership. And so we feel that the Frenchtown Youth Orchestra is our way of keeping our word to this original deed.

Finally, we’re called “B Sharps.” When I was struggling for the name of the club, Clarence said, “Just call it ‘B Sharps.’”


The original corporate name was “B Sharps: It’s hip to know.” We had to shorten it. But for those of you who know, a “B sharp” is a “C.”

We’ve enjoyed our club. It’s a part of who we are. It’s a part of our passion. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done, but it yields the most incredible responses, not just the music,

but what it does for the people. And if this pandemic has shown us anything at all, it’s that we’ve missed the music terribly.