Smooth sounds of the saxophone and bold beats from the drums fill the air of Baby J’s Bar every night from Monday through Saturday, lingering in visitors’ ears long after closing. Since opening on April 26 and bringing jazz music to downtown Gainesville, this retro venue has become a hub for all styles from the boogie to the blues.
The bar, located at 7 W. University Ave. and attached to Cry Baby’s, is the first true jazz club in Gainesville in decades, said 41-year-old Tony Marquez, the Baby J’s Bar entertainment manager. Although restaurants and clubs host jazz nights, Baby J’s is different; rather than live music playing in the background, it is the focal point, he said.
Baby J’s is built around a stage with intimate tables for two and booths designed to immerse audience members in the performance. The venue has a capacity for about 50 people, and on an average night, every seat is full, he said.
“We wanted this to be exactly what we do,” he said. “We dedicated our vision to giving the jazz community a house – a home – to be able to play at.”
Thirty-seven-year-old Silviu Ciulei, a guitar studies professor at the University of Florida, said he feels drawn to Baby J’s because of the old-fashioned jazz club atmosphere.
“It’s like made to look like it’s a place from a different time,” he said.
Baby J’s aims to promote local musicians and bring in musical talent from around Florida. Bands from Orlando, Jacksonville and Tampa have traveled to perform at Baby J’s, Marquez said. He has booked over 40 acts for the bar since it opened.
One of the musicians Marquez booked is 54-year-old Scott Wilson, the UF jazz studies director. Marquez met him when he came by Baby J’s to watch a performance, he said.
Wilson said the intimate setting at Baby J’s is what makes the bar stand out.
“You can feel it when you’re performing because you look out, and you see everybody watching the show,” he said. “Whereas when you’re playing at a lot of other venues, everybody’s doing their own thing.”
Wilson has been the director of UF jazz studies for 14 years, he said. Since becoming director, he has created 12 jazz courses for students and prompted UF to add a master’s and minor in jazz studies. These courses provide the necessary foundation and experience for students to play music professionally, he said.
Kevin Orr, the UF School of Music director and professor, said Wilson and his students continue to exceed expectations and better the jazz program.
“Scott Wilson is a towering artist and inspiring musical leader of our jazz program at the school of music,” he said. “We are thrilled that he continues to raise the bar for jazz and bring our extraordinary jazz students into the Gainesville community.”
The jazz scene has gained traction in the last five years, Wilson said. With jazz performances at Baby J’s and the other places in Gainesville, such as the jazz series at The Keys Grill and Piano Bar and the Ocala Reilly Arts Center Jazz Series, people are playing jazz seven nights a week. The abundance of performance opportunities encourages graduates to stay in Gainesville instead of moving to different cities, he said.
“Jazz has completely taken off in Gainesville, and it’s everywhere,” he said.
Wilson became interested in jazz in college after he received a vocal scholarship to UF. Although he initially attended college for vocals, he began studying jazz music after joining the music fraternity Phi Mu Alpha, in which he had to learn how to transcribe jazz solos played by other musicians.
He started playing the trumpet and received a bachelor’s degree in music education from UF in 1991. He later received two master’s degrees in jazz studies and music education from the University of North Texas, launching his musical career and becoming one of the top trumpet players in the world, he said.
Before he became Director of UF Jazz Studies, his musical career led him to places far from his hometown of Fort Lauderdale. He was the musical director for Universal Studios Japan, where he wrote the music for its shows, he said.
One of Wilson’s favorite performances of his career was when he co-produced the Earth, Wind & Fire tribute album with some of the original musicians. They performed in Los Angeles with Stevie Wonder, he said.
“It was fun playing with them,” he said. “That was really great. I’ve played amazing shows before, but people just don’t know the vibe of that band. It’s so positive. It’s filled with amazing spirit.”
Then, about three years ago, he chipped his two front teeth while playing basketball, permanently altering his music career, he said.
“That affected my trumpet career,” he said. “It’s just not the same. You can’t play it the exact same.”
Wilson decided piano would be his new forte. Despite his long-standing passion for playing the trumpet, he ended up loving the piano even more, he said.
“It’s so much better for me because now, I’m a better teacher,” he said. “I can demonstrate more styles, and I can write so much faster.”
Wilson said he provides his students with the best teaching possible to help them become successful professional musicians. In the last two years, his students have received four DownBeat Student Music Awards, which is one of the most reputable and distinguished awards in jazz education.
“Everybody in my jazz band is brilliant,” he said. “They’re all really smart kids.”
Wilson will continue performing at Baby J’s throughout October while also playing other gigs around Gainesville. Above all, he hopes to give back to the young musicians he teaches at UF, he said.
“I thought maybe I could bring all my experience that I learned from the industry back to my students, and I can make them have the same amazing careers living around the world that I had,” he said. “And it’s working.”