By: Dean Mesick
The Florida jazz scene has been one that is in constant flux. The jazz clubs that dominated the early 1900’s are far and few between, but there are remnants of the past still alive today. The Floridan Palace Hotel and The Fox are two clubs that have endured but not without their challenges.
Built in 1926 and opening its doors in 1927, the Floridan Palace Hotel is [one of the oldest and tallest buildings in Tampa. The hotel has gone through many name changes over the years, but the physical structure has remained the same. When it first opened its doors it was known as the Hotel Floridan, then the Floridan Hotel.. What is interesting to note is the sign that adorns the rooftop says Hotel Floridan. The hotel struggled over the years, with the decline starting in the 1960’s when newer, more modern hotels starting to pop up. The hotel then stopped renting out rooms to tourist and instead rented out to long-term patrons, acting more of an apartment complex rather than a hotel. After going through many owners the hotel finally closed its door in 1989. The hotel then was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996 and in 2005 the hotel was bought with intention to restore it. Finally in 2012 the Hotel was reopened and is operating today.
At first glance one could assume that a hotel has nothing to do with Jazz, but the Floridan Palace Hotel was one of the most popular places in Tampa. During World War II Tampa was still in its early stages of growth, but the airbase was fully functional and full of servicemen. Drew Army Airfield which was opened in 1928 housed the service men and for them the place to be in the 1940’s was the Hotel Floridan. When most today people think of hotels, they usually do not think of a bustling night life, or if they do, it is not associated with places in a hotel. The Floridan Place Hotel had multiple places for the service men to relax. The Crystal Dining Room which is as described on the hotel’s website as, “adorned with crystal chandeliers and hand painted cherubs. The distinguished fine dining restaurant boasts an ornate 1926 ceiling which has been intricately restored, Baroque style bone china, and fresh red roses.” However, the place to be in the 1940’s was the Sapphire Room. The Sapphire Room was a bar/lounge with live music and had a wild reputation. Nicknamed the Sure Fire Room for the loose nature of the cliental who went with the intention of getting into sexual exploits. Tony Kovach, a pianist for the Sapphire Room who also played in the 50’s sat down for an interview with the Tampa Bay Times and recounted how what it was like back then. Tony said “the new Sapphire Room is as nice as it ever was, although in its original run, it was the kind of place that you couldn't even get into without a tie and jacket. Women dressed to the nines, wearing long gloves and sometimes even a hat.” Today the sapphire room still has the same charm as it did when it opened, the music that filled the walls have changed only slightly. In the room today you will not hear today’s top 40, but rather a mix of live jazz, and on days with no acts the recordings of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin fill the room.
The Floridan Palace Hotel and the Sapphire Room are a microcosms of Jazz in the Tampa area. The Floridan Palace Hotel was in its prime in the 1940’s and 50’s, but public interest declined. The Hotel that was the crown jewel of Tampa became a symbol of the past. However, a changed occur a man saw what it was and what it could be and decided to bring it back. Not only did this occur with the Floridan Palace Hotel but also The Fox.
The Fox Jazz Club has had a complicated history, the history being one that is riddled with closures. The Fox is and was known as the place to go if one wanted to experience jazz in Tampa. At first glance it does not appear to be a typical jazz venue, driving by one would not notice it as it is an office complex. Inside though the club has two distinct places, Justin Grant, a Tampa Bay Times correspondent found that out first hand. “Every stool at the long, winding bar was occupied, and other patrons were seated at the dinner tables and high-tops, with the rest on the dance floor, which was in full swing. A full band was on stage, playing a high-energy jazz fusion set mixed with a few renditions of modern pop hits.” His account of the room was what most people see when they first enter, but off to the side a hallway connects the main club to a more intimate setting. “At the end [of the hallway] was another bar, this one pitch-black, save for a few lights illuminating a jazz quartet performing to a small and intimate audience. The scene was straight out of a noir film, with a lounge singer's silky voice cutting through the shadows of the small room as people seated at tables along the walls sipped cocktails and listened intently.” The latter bar is what people think of when they think of a jazz club, people dressed to the nine’s smoke filling in the room and people captivated by the sound of jazz. When Justin recounted his experience he did so in 2011, The Fox is still in turmoil as far as its future is concerned, in October of 2015 they had to be shut down for undisclosed reasons, but the website promises the club will be back.
The Fox and the Floridan Palace Hotel are just two jazz venues in Tampa, but they reflect the state of jazz in the area. At one time both places were the pinnacle of successful jazz venues, the bars were full and jazz music filled the room. Then people lost interest, it’s not as if people hated jazz or they turned into horrible places, it is just people stopped caring and that is the worst thing. If people are upset over a particular thing or overjoyed they give validity to it, but when people fail to acknowledge it takes away the worth of something, the value. Jazz in Tampa was just a reflection of the state in jazz in general, it is not as if jazz stopped and people no longer cared about it, but rather it became specialized and harder to find. The Floridan Palace Hotel and The Fox were the two biggest place in the Bay area, they went away, shut down. Until someone that cared stepped up and revived it, and now while they might not be as big they are still worthwhile to visit. The Floridan Palace Hotel will give one the experience of time traveling to the 1940’s where service men spent their time. On the other hand you can go to the Fox and get the authentic Jazz experience, visit a place where the people are dressed to the nine’s and the only thing that cuts through the smoke is the voice of the singer.