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Tacoma's B Sharp Music Society brings live music to unexpected venues

B Sharp Music Society

Founded at a now-closed coffee shop, the B Sharp Music Society is still committed to presenting live jazz and blues in Tacoma wherever they can.

The B Sharp Coffee House in Tacoma's Opera Alley was a cozy venue that hosted some great local live jazz and blues, booked by owner Dennis Ellis, a local saxophonist best known for his work with the T-Town Aces Band.

"When the coffeehouse closed, there were four or five people that, unbeknownst to me, were thinking, 'Hey, Dennis is going to need to do something. So let's talk to Dennis and see what he wants to do,'" says Ellis.

Ellis continues, "I had a meeting with them, and I said, 'Well, I'd like to keep booking shows, you know?' Some of them are still involved. That's how it got started. And I just go around and look for any place that I think it might work. You can see where I've got shows booked all over, well, believe me, I probably approached 10 times that many places."

The key factor is commitment.

"You've got to find a club owner that really wants to have music," says Ellis. "And I always tell them that we'll do everything we can to promote it, but you've got to make a certain amount of commitment to it. Sometimes the first night goes good, then maybe the next time they have music, it's a little slow and they want to cancel. And I say, it just kind of works like that. You can't freak out. You've got to take the long view. It's a thing you have to build."

Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. One venue, Craft 19 Creperie in Sumner, found that it just wasn't sustainable, even though the manager really wanted live music. They just couldn't bring in enough money to pay the bands.

Other venues currently on the B Sharp list are having better luck, like the Urban Elk Bar and Restaurant at the Allenmore Golf Club, the New Frontier Lounge, and The Spar, which has a long history of presenting Tacoma bands.

"Everybody's always told me Tacoma doesn't support jazz, and I think that's baloney," Ellis says. "There are people who will come out to hear jazz. There is a crowd; you just have to access them and figure out how to connect with them."

"Part of the mandate is that we've got to expose people to what quality jazz is," Ellis continues. "To me, jazz has always been something you get exposed to by hearing it live, because then there's the energy, and there's the improvisation and the interaction that makes a connection."

Ellis hopes to eventually re-establish the Tacoma Jazz Walk event, which used art galleries, antique shops and other small businesses as venues for live jazz, one night a year.

B Sharp's new series, "Jazz on J Street," uses Immanuel Presbyterian Church at 901 N. J St., which for many years hosted a monthly Blues Vespers with live local blues bands, put together by Pastor Dave Brown. Brown retired in 2018, but is still active in the music scene, at least until COVID-19 protocols shut down his latest productions at the Kilworth Chapel on the University of Puget Sound campus.

"Jazz on J Street" will be the on the third Saturday of each month, starting on Jan. 15 at 7 p.m. with saxophonist Pete Christlieb, his wife, trombonist Linda Small, and their quintet. Vocalist Stephanie Porter and her band are booked for Feb. 19.

"Jazz on J Street" shows are free, but a plate will be passed for donations.

Other B Sharp shows this month include saxophonist Tracy Knoop's quartet on the 28th at the New Frontier Lounge, and vibraphonist Brian Kirk's trio at the Urban Elk on the 29th.

Support live jazz and blues in Tacoma by staying in touch with B Sharp Music Society at its website or Facebook. Get on the society's e-mail list here.

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.