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. The Fullers were certain to become involved wherever they moved, in particular offering their home as a place of hospitality when missionary and youth groups visited their adopted church. 

“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 4 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 a college computer science degree and a graduate degree in organizational development, 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.” 

The Velvet Note Tamara Fuller
Fuller was inspired by her own desire to hear live jazz in a club setting.

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 eyeing 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. 

“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.

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 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.”

Not inconsequentially, Fuller noted, Alpharetta provided an infrastructure that would prove valuable to her and The Velvet Note. 

“We sit on an infrastructure that carries a tremendous amount of corporate data and provides data redundancy,” she says. “That gives us a powerful signal exceeding that of most music venues. We didn’t know when we’d need that until we started broadcasting from the club in 2015.” 

The Velvet Note Tamara Fuller
When Fuller couldn’t afford to hire a chef during the early stages of the pandemic, she took on the role of executive chef and excelled. She remains in the position today.

While Covid 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. 

Beyond the technology, the real key to survival was the ability to pivot. “When we reopened we could only open to 16 people at a time,” she says. “You can’t run a club with that kind of income.”

So Fuller fell back on that skill she had honed working her way out of that earlier period of depression. 

“We didn’t have the money to hire a chef so I cooked — and we started getting high marks from our guests for our food,” she says. “I enjoyed doing that and I’m still the executive chef, constructing the recipes and menus, sourcing all the ingredients of every dish.” 

Montreux to Alpharetta 

The Velvet Note is located in an unimpressive strip mall just off Old Milton Parkway a couple miles from Georgia 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. Remembering that in the face of a multitude of distractions has been critical to our success.”

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. You don’t want to interrupt even a microsecond of its life as it softly and slowly fades from this world to reside exclusively in the tender folds of your mind.”

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 Gully, Melvin Jones and Saunders Sermons, and pianist Kevin Bales with his own ensemble or accompanying other artists. 

The Velvet Note
Fuller’s vision was to create a small and warm venue for live jazz.

“Most jazz clubs go one way or the other, local or national,” Fuller says. “We invest the money to bring in great jazz musicians from around the world, and also devote a lot of our calendar to people who live and perform and teach and play here. That’s important because we don’t want people to get tired of what they hear and see. We want to give them access to all that jazz is, all the subgenres, the places where it is played and has originated, from New Orleans to Montreux.” 

It’s also important because The Velvet Note is small enough that the intimacy carries over into conversations between the performers and crowd — from the stage as well as after performances, when musicians and audience mingle. 

“A sustainable club requires a village of support and advice,” Fuller says. Part of that village is her board of advisors, an impressive roster of accomplished musicians, marketers, guest-services professionals and other business folks, whose duties she describes as, “Each has the responsibility to teach me at least one thing each year, which has led to a very rich curriculum of continuing education for me over the years.” 

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.” 

::

Mike Shaw is a jazz pianist who has performed for decades in New Orleans and Atlanta. He is the author of the novel The Musician. He is the founder of Shaw Communications, a marketing company.





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