Not too long ago, I would spend hours talking to Denis Hyland about what it was like growing up in New York City. He would tell me about his life between the Theater District and the streets of Hell’s Kitchen as a young free spirit. What he talked about the most, though, were his memories of being happily cramped into basement bars where smoke curled along low hanging ceilings and the music was full of “human experience.” Every now and then, he will occasionally share one of those stories with the audience that has come to see him at Little Room Jazz Club so that they too will understand that there is more to this place than just another bar on Duval Street.
It has been a couple of years since I worked at the Little Room Jazz Club and Hyland hasn’t changed at all when it comes to jazz. He still has that same love for the often-misunderstood genre of music as he did before, being that it is as much a part of his memories as it is a part of America’s history. According to Nina Simone, “Jazz is not just music. It’s a way of life, it’s a way of being, a way of thinking.” Hyland is giving it his best effort to continue the legacy with all of his heart, simply for people to enjoy.
When I ask him what he wants readers to know about Little Room, he modestly answers, “It’s for them. I want them to know that I made this for them. I used to faithfully go to this workshop in the city and all these piano players would stand around and play and they would be joined by want-to-be singers. It was drilled into us always to keep the music alive to build a community of people.”
And so he does by being the janitor, the stock boy, the porter and the booking agent, just to name a few. At around 8 p.m. on Friday nights, shortly after the sun has settled into the horizon, the glow of blue neon lights start to take their shape against the unfolding night. Follow them and they will lead you into a quaint and intimate club where Denis is getting ready to start his weekly act. Performing as part of a quartet with Dom Carelli on piano, Joe Dallas on stand-up bass and Daniel Clark on percussion, Hyland pliés and pirouettes a precision of eclectic dance moves in between bursts of emotionally powered vocals. His three-hour set keeps people glued to his sophisticated wild.
“I jump around and dance my butt off,” Hyland explains. “I work with great musicians and we totally go for it. We sing hard and we play true.”
“When Wayne Smith was given the opportunity to take this place over, he asked me if I would help him run a jazz bar,” Hyland continues, “and so here we are.”
They started off small with a space and a name, but not much else. Little Room didn’t really have an identity when Hyland and Smith stepped in. It was mostly just known as a place with really well-priced drinks and friendly service. Over time, even though they were closed for about a year due to complications resulting from Hurricane Irma, the modern day Little Room has grown from its humble beginnings as a beer and wine joint with no kitchen to include a full liquor license and a food truck serving small bites to go along with entertainment seven nights a week. All the, while the mission has always stayed the same.
“Jazz is blues and swing and you might not know it, but you’ll know it when you hear it,” Hyland says. “Blues are the words and swing is the rhythm. It’s like love.”
Sit back and sip on a chocolate or espresso martini while you snack on a plate of Brussels sprouts with bacon and homemade remoulade, Key West pinks served over pimento grits or truffle fries with shaved parmesan. Take advantage of the happy hour, when all the food is half off and wine is two-for-one and either Larry Smith or Coffee Butler can be found playing a piano that is surrounded by chairs where you can belly right up to the baby grand as though it were just another table.
By the time those blue neon lights come on, it is time for the attention to go to the main stage and whoever might be headlining that night. It could be Barry Cuda & the Sharks, Karri Daley or Larry Baeder. A local celebrity or a retired professional passes under those lights almost every night.
“We only have one requirement here,” Hyland points out, “and that is you have to play your own instrument.”
When you step into Little Room Jazz Club it feels like you are stepping back into an era from a long time ago. Or maybe that’s just how I feel because I used to work there. The truth is, if you pay a little more attention to what is actually happening, you will realize that this is Key West, where dreams go to live and that Little Room is not just a business, but a dream come true for someone.
“2001 New Year’s Eve was the first time I landed in Key West,” Hyland tells me. We are back to telling stories. “I was taken to Duval Street. I couldn’t believe there were cops but no one was causing trouble and there were people all around…”
Little Room Jazz Club is open seven days a week from 5 p.m. until midnight. Visit its Facebook page to see the weekly lineup and visit its website to learn more about the menu and special events. ¦