Tamara Fuller’s vision brought The Velvet Note jazz club to life 10 years ago

A view of the intimate jazz club the Velvet Note in Alpharetta. Courtesy of Tamara Fuller

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A view of the intimate jazz club the Velvet Note in Alpharetta. Courtesy of Tamara Fuller

Tamara Fuller describes herself as the child of a once-upon-a-time opera singer. In truth, it wasn’t all fantasy. Her mother, Barbara, sang in church choirs wherever the family was living, which, as her father, Monroe, was an Air Force pilot, changed frequently — eight times from Warner Robins, where Fuller was born, through her high school graduation.

“I grew up listening to music being played and performed in our house as my mother prepared for her weekly choir solo,” Fuller recalls. The consistency in their lives was provided by church.

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Tamara Fuller of the Velvet Note is celebrating 10 years of her Alpharetta jazz club. Courtesy of Tamara Fuller

Credit: Courtesy of Tamara Fuller

Tamara Fuller of the Velvet Note is celebrating 10 years of her Alpharetta jazz club. Courtesy of Tamara Fuller

Credit: Courtesy of Tamara Fuller

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Tamara Fuller of the Velvet Note is celebrating 10 years of her Alpharetta jazz club. Courtesy of Tamara Fuller

Credit: Courtesy of Tamara Fuller

Credit: Courtesy of Tamara Fuller

“Mom would cook a meal and make her famous pound cake, and the singing would ring through the house,” she says. “It was how they showed their love and caring for the people in the communities where they found themselves year to year.”

It was enough to inspire a very young Fuller to learn to play, and she began piano lessons. And though she “played for every relative’s wedding and funeral from the age of four to 16,” Fuller states emphatically that she was not nor is a musician. Not a player of music, but a lover of music, and, most relevant to her life and eventually as owner of The Velvet Note jazz club, of music’s role in entertaining friends when they gather.

Pre-Note life

Following college, Fuller’s first career led her to a position as the principal consultant of an organizational psychology practice in Ellicott City, Maryland. Much of her work was for a New York City-based business, and she found herself piling up frequent-flyer miles not only back and forth to New York but to the clients’ locations across the country. When at home, she relaxed by hosting dinner parties, for which she always hired live music “to make the most ordinary occasion extraordinary.”

Her high-flying career brought other opportunities, including a partnership to establish and open an FDIC-insured bank. It all generated enough income that she would retire at age 42. But Fuller found inactivity unsustainable. She had served on several boards during her consulting career, and she took a spot on a board eying an alternative approach to higher education. In 2006, she became the first woman in the U.S. to start a four-year liberal arts college. But the venture turned sour, and when it finally failed it had cost her most of her personal wealth.

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Eileen Howard performs her show “Wild Women Don’t Have No Blues,” at the Velvet Note. Photo credit: Jason Getz

Eileen Howard performs her show “Wild Women Don’t Have No Blues,” at the Velvet Note. Photo credit: Jason Getz

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Eileen Howard performs her show “Wild Women Don’t Have No Blues,” at the Velvet Note. Photo credit: Jason Getz

“I fell into a deep depression and isolated myself,” Fuller says. “I felt shamed, guilty about how it affected the people who followed me into this venture. I had squandered my resources and didn’t know what I’d do with the rest of my life. One thing I did know: I would have to work again.”

To pull herself out of her depression, she “began making little tasks into victories,” She taught herself to cook, most often to recordings of live jazz performances: Miles Davis in Stockholm and Shirley Horn at The Village Vanguard.

“Shirley’s ‘If I Should Lose You’ had a particularly profound impact on me,” Fuller says. “It’s such a simple arrangement. You can hear the dishes clanging and the din of whispered conversation, and you can even hear Shirley clearing her throat. It showed me that great things were not perfect. While they have their nicks and dents and unexpected ups and downs, altogether they could be very enjoyable. It was part of my healing that I needed at the time, confirmation that I could still have a great life even though I’d made a big mistake.”

The mix of tasks and jazz became a formula, a strategy for moving forward: to do something that would allow her to listen to live jazz for the rest of her life.

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March 3, 2018 - Alpharetta, Ga: Jazz singer and pianist Freddy Cole performs at The Velvet Note Saturday, March 3, 2018, in Alpharetta. PHOTO / JASON GETZ

Credit: Jason Getz

March 3, 2018 - Alpharetta, Ga: Jazz singer and pianist Freddy Cole performs at The Velvet Note Saturday, March 3, 2018, in Alpharetta. PHOTO / JASON GETZ

Credit: Jason Getz

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March 3, 2018 - Alpharetta, Ga: Jazz singer and pianist Freddy Cole performs at The Velvet Note Saturday, March 3, 2018, in Alpharetta. PHOTO / JASON GETZ

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Making it real

One day while she was waiting in an airport, Fuller read an article in USA Today talking about cultural centers being on the decline because people with the appetite and money to frequent them no longer lived in the parts of the cities where they were located. It seemed irrelevant to her at the time, but later, while she was thinking about the challenge of hearing live jazz while living in Warner Robins, it occurred to her that the solution to that problem could be part of her plan. “So,” she says, “I began looking for a place for a suburban jazz club, which was at the time, in 2010, mostly unheard of.”

Fuller was living in Middle Georgia in an apartment her parents kept, and began researching appropriate locations, which eventually brought her to Alpharetta.

“Alpharetta sits in the middle of five contiguous zip codes that together have the highest median incomes and lowest unemployment rates in the state, which is the demographic profile of people who consume jazz on a regular basis, that is, go to a jazz club two-point-five times a month,” Fuller says. “Alpharetta is also within an hour’s driving distance of multiple college level jazz education programs. So if you want to launch a jazz club, put it somewhere where they have played jazz, studied jazz and performed jazz.”

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Vocalist Alvin Stone joins the band Red Shift with Steven Telich on piano performing live jazz during jam night at the Velvet Note jazz club on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, in Alpharetta. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Credit: CURTIS COMPTON / AJC

Vocalist Alvin Stone joins the band Red Shift with Steven Telich on piano performing live jazz during jam night at the Velvet Note jazz club on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, in Alpharetta. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Credit: CURTIS COMPTON / AJC

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Vocalist Alvin Stone joins the band Red Shift with Steven Telich on piano performing live jazz during jam night at the Velvet Note jazz club on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, in Alpharetta. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Credit: CURTIS COMPTON / AJC

Credit: CURTIS COMPTON / AJC

While COVID-19 took down many entertainment venues, including several of the country’s iconic jazz clubs, The Velvet Note quickly switched to virtual offerings. “We were able to broadcast a collection of live and recorded jazz in high quality,” says Fuller. That not only kept The Velvet Note alive in its audiences’ minds, it generated donations to keep the club solvent and ready to reopen when guests could be invited back in.

Montreux to Alpharetta

The Velvet Note is located in an unimpressive strip mall just off Old Milton Parkway a couple miles from Ga. 400. It is a small venue, seating only 40. But all that was part of the plan.

“I know relatively nothing about jazz,” Fuller says. “What I do know a lot about is how people enjoy jazz when they are on a date night. I decided we weren’t going to try to be the world’s greatest jazz facility or swankiest nightclub. We’re a place where people feel good about enjoying something that is vitally important: quality time spent with their partner.”

The concept was top of mind even when naming the club, which Tamara reverently defines as: “A velvet note is that whisper of a note that hangs in the air of a live performance, long after the note has been played, when the room is so quiet and reverent that you can hear the note linger on, and on, and on.”

Ten years of The Velvet Note performances include an intentional mix of nationally recognized musicians — jazz giants like guitarists Larry Carlton and Pat Martino, drummers Jimmy Cobb and Dave Weckl, bassist Christian McBride, singer-pianist Diane Schuur, and pianist Robert Glasper. Those renowned greats are interspersed with a long list of locally sourced players, including Grammy winners Terreon Gulley, Melvin Jones and Saunders Sermon, and pianist Kevin Bales with his own ensemble or accompanying other artists.

Finally, Fuller emphasizes, The Velvet Note benefits from its location in the metro Atlanta area.

“Atlanta is a goldmine,” says Fuller. “We have so many highly regarded, music-school educated, Grammy-award-winning artists who make their home in Atlanta. That’s pure gold.”


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MEET OUR PARTNER

ArtsATL (www.artsatl.org), is a nonprofit organization that plays a critical role in educating and informing audiences about metro Atlanta’s arts and culture. Founded in 2009, ArtsATL’s goal is to help build a sustainable arts community contributing to the economic and cultural health of the city.

If you have any questions about this partnership or others, please contact Senior Manager of Partnerships Nicole Williams at nicole.williams@ajc.com.