Fans hope revived Fox jazz club leads jazz resurgence in Tampa

YBOR CITY

If you listened hard one weekend earlier this month, you could hear it above the pounding dance music, the pop tunes and bad '90s cover songs blaring from Ybor City bars and clubs. There came a sound more instrumental, classic. It was jazz. Real jazz. From the area's inaugural Ybor Jazz Festival.

At the same time, contractors were dusting off an old landmark jazz club 7 miles away in preparation for its resurrection last week.

And on airwaves all over Tampa Bay, bleating trumpets now bubble on night-time radio in an effort to reach more ears.

"There does seem to be, just in these few weeks, a confluence of a lot of jazz activity," said Bob Seymour, jazz director for WUSF-FM 89.7.

But, to be clear, no one's saying jazz is taking over Tampa.

In fact, organizers and participants say the fledgling jazz festival wasn't particularly well-attended, and smooth jazz once heard on 94.1 and 98.7 FM has been dropped for other formats. But a resurgence is occurring, led by local artists and fans loyal to the art form's true roots.

They hope to bring jazz out from underground clubs and occasional barroom nights all across Hillsborough County and into more visible settings.

A long-standing question remains: Can jazz really worm its way into Tampa's consciousness and give the city a touch of cosmopolitan class?

If there's a headquarters for this battle, it's the Fox jazz club, which reopened under new ownership last week in Tampa's West Shore area.

Since 1986, the Fox was the jazz hangout, a refined setting that attracted the area's celebrities and athletes with a piano-shaped bar, life-sized Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra dummies, lockers for VIPs, and waiters in tuxedos.

There was always live music. Tuesday nights broke out into jazz jam sessions.

Then, last year, the Fox went bankrupt.

Connoisseurs could still hear snippets of it at places like Bangkok Jazz and the Carrollwood Cultural Center in North Tampa, Kenny's Sports Bar downtown, Timpano Chop House and Martini Bar in Hyde Park, or Della's After Dark in Brandon.

While the venues kept jazz alive, most served it as a side dish.

Now the Fox is back with updated decor and a few changes, although not too many.

"I didn't want to diverge too much from it," general manager Alex Latorre said. "I love jazz."

New touches include renovated bathrooms, steel and glass walls, a state-of-the-art music system, and a jazzy menu with "Glen Miller's crab cakes" and "Off-key tuna."

But the club's commitment to jazz is old — and some say stronger. Smooth or light jazz at the old Fox is gone. Now it's mostly traditional jazz — a more swinging, upbeat, sometimes improvisational style — led by pianist Kym Purling and his quartet, who perform Thursdays through Saturdays.

Purling, who has performed in Las Vegas and Broadway shows, hopes to make the Fox the premier jazz club in Tampa Bay.

"What I'm trying to do is diversify the culture and make a difference here," he said. "A real civilized environment, where people can hear some good jazzy stuff and it would also expand the music scene."

That pleases Tampa jazz singer Denise Moore, who has been performing in and around the city for a quarter of a century.

"The Fox has not been traditionally known for classic traditional jazz," she said. "Kym's trying to bring traditional jazz back."

Moore, who will perform today at the Fox, had begun to think the only way to get her music heard in Tampa was to put on shows herself. She often considers renting out the 442 lounge, a downtown jazz club that shut down years ago.

"It's horrible," she said of the local scene. "I'm just starting to create my own thing. I've been in the business so long I can do it."

But she sees hope in efforts undertaken by Purling, as well as Keith Arsenault, theater manager at Hillsborough County Community College.

Arsenault was the director and founder of the Ybor Jazz Festival, which featured several local and national acts this month with the motto: "There's nothing smooth about it."

Arsenault, a University of Tampa jazz band member in the 1970s who played with famous guest performers Dizzy Gillespie, Maynard Ferguson and Don Ellis, put on a Franklin Street Mall festival in 1974 and 1975, and had hoped the city would develop more of a jazz reputation by now.

"I think we've gotten to a certain scale in the size of the market and the demographics of the market where some of these more sophisticated arts like jazz can find more of a market," he said.

But he knows it's up to people like him to push for it, which is why he is already planning next year's festival. He is also booking events in the meantime, such as a concert Sunday at HCC with celebrated guitarist Larry Coryell and pianist Kenny Drew Jr.

The show and festival are events that Seymour promotes on his WUSF radio show.

The station recently underwent a switch that features National Public Radio programming during the day and jazz beginning at 9 p.m. and running until morning. The scheduling change, which put jazz on the air an hour earlier than before, seems to be drawing more listeners.

"I do think there's a congruence between the NPR news audience and the jazz audience, making it more visible to listeners," he said.

While he has seen jazz clubs and events come and go over the years, he hopes now is the time jazz makes a stronger stand.

"I remain convinced that when people have a chance to hear this music, they'll love it," Seymour said. "When people give it a chance with open ears, they'll realize how great it is and how fun it is."

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

>>Fast facts

Upcoming jazz events

Today: Jazz singer Denise Moore with the Kym Purling Quartet, 10 p.m., Fox jazz club, 5401 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. $5-$10.

Sunday: Jazz guitarist Larry Coryell and pianist Kenny Drew Jr., 3 p.m., Hillsborough Community College Performing Arts Center, E Palm Avenue and N Avenida de Republica de Cuba, Tampa. $30, $5 for students with ID.

For more information

To learn about local jazz or contact local performers:

Tampa Jazz Club: tampa

jazzclub.com

Al Downing Tampa Bay Jazz Association: aldown

ingjazz.com

Pianist Kym Purling: kym

purling.com

Singer Denise Moore: denisemoorejazz.com

Local radio: wusf.usf.edu/music/channel/jazz

Fans hope revived Fox jazz club leads jazz resurgence in Tampa 11/18/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 18, 2010 3:30am]

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