Stuck in the middle of a strip center on Old Milton Parkway, in a narrow storefront that was once home to a yogurt shop, The Velvet Note is a straight-ahead jazz club in a place you might least expect to find one.
But its location and design are anything but random. Owner and general manager Tamara Fuller said she chose suburban Alpharetta based on demographics, including median income and education.
“We wanted to be in a place where people have an appreciation for great music and the ability to pay for it — people who would support jazz music, especially straight-ahead jazz music,” said Fuller, who opened the club in August.
Fuller, a jazz enthusiast with a background in business and artist management, is particularly proud of the acoustics in The Velvet Note, “designed by musicians for musicians,” with a stage crafted to project vocal and instrumental clarity without using a sound system.
“We raised the ceiling to 43 feet and designed the entire space to channel the sound from the stage to the audience,” Fuller said. “It does that organically, without any enhancement whatsoever, so most of the musicians who play here play without microphones or amplifiers.”
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On a recent Tuesday night, the intimate space Fuller has named her “acoustic living room” started filling up at around 7.
A couple snuggled into a plush couch near the stage and sipped martinis. At a table in the back, two couples settled in with a bottle of red wine and some snacks. “We talked about going to a jazz club one night,” one of the women remarked. “So I guess we can cross that one off.”
Onstage, The Velvet Note’s music director, drummer Justin Varnes, was leading a trio with bassist Chris Riggenbach, featuring Sam Skelton on saxophone, clarinet and flute.
Varnes teaches in the music department at Georgia State, Riggenbach teaches bass at Emory, and Skelton is the director of jazz studies at Kennesaw State.
Together, they worked through a spirited set of jazz standards by the likes of Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, pausing to talk about the music, take questions and tell a few jokes while creating an experience that was both entertaining and educational.
“I remember when I first started getting into jazz, I would see players all start laughing randomly in the middle of a song,” Varnes told the audience at one point. “Maybe we can give you a little insight into that tonight.”
Later, Varnes talked about The Velvet Note and the Atlanta jazz scene.
“I moved to Atlanta from New York, where jazz life exists in clubs,” he said. “But down here, things are different. There are only a handful of jazz clubs. When I moved to town Churchill Grounds, next to the Fox downtown, was about the only legitimate jazz club around.”
Varnes played the first night The Velvet Note opened, and he remembers being struck by the quality of sound on the stage and in the room.
“We played without microphones, and a very good drummer friend of mine, Ulysses Owens, was sitting in the back,” Varnes said. “Afterward, I asked him his honest opinion of the sound. He said he couldn’t believe how good it was. But I don’t have to sell the club’s acoustics to any of the musicians. Once they hear it, you see that twinkle in their eyes.”
Fuller said a connection to university-based jazz programs and the young musicians it brings in has been one of the high points since she opened in The Velvet Note.
“We’re strongly supported by the people who oversee and teach at the best jazz programs in this area,” she said. “We’re within 30 to 45 minutes of four significant university jazz programs, which means that every year those schools are producing talent that’s been trained the right way. They’re also creating a jazz music culture.”
As for the future of the Atlanta jazz scene, Fuller and Varnes both think it’s a bright one.
“I’ve lived in cities that were bigger, I’ve visited 48 out of the 50 states, and I’ve been to a lot of jazz clubs, so I can tell you that the jazz scene in Atlanta is as vibrant as it gets, given where it’s located,” Fuller said.
Said Varnes, “I would put Atlanta’s jazz scene up against any city in the world not named New York City.”