Blue Note Casablanca
If Sax on the Beach fails, the newly opened music bar will be just another Miami jazz dream deferred, like Arthur's (which featured big names in the Eighties) and the cozy, if empty, Champagnes on 79th Street that closed months ago. This gin joint in the lobby of the Bay Parc Plaza has taken in refugees from among the regulars and staff at the shuttered 1800 Club down the street and picked up Nathaniel "Nat King" Reed, the piano player who used to play standards at the Piccadilly Garden and Lounge in the Design District before that place went pop. Allied forces Richard Haylor, a British restaurateur, and Jersey travel agent Karen Segalla have already committed their blood, toil, tears, and sweat -- and about $500,000 -- to the jazz and blues cause. "We have a dream and we really think we can make it come true," says Segalla, watchful eyes twinkling.
If Sax succeeds, triumph may depend less on the music and atmosphere inside than on support from local government and the deployment of development projects on the surrounding Biscayne Boulevard beachhead from NE Fourteenth to NE Twentieth streets. The possibilities include continued residential development, the renovation of nearby Margaret Pace Park, and in some glimmering future, the oft-postponed opening of the Performing Arts Center.
Meanwhile Reed sits at the baby grand at the foot of a small stage, interrupting his song to greet customers by name as he did at his former Design District gig. He implores listeners through a headset microphone: "All of me/Why not take all of me?" Haylor and Segalla might ask the same question about their club. Although the pair signed a lease with a company headed by developer Tibor Hollo eighteen months ago, the opening of Sax was delayed until this past November 16. Even now, Haylor and Segalla must wait until they can cover the county's hefty bills for water and sewage before tearing down the wall behind the stage and completing construction on a 40-foot bar and the full 4700 square feet of floor space.
Beneath her medium-cropped blond hair, Segalla exudes the hard edge and diehard hope of a long-time small-business owner. The 41-year-old Haylor, of slim build and bald pate, wears his hope on a black Sax on the Beach polo shirt. Together they give off an earnestness that is refreshing to the Miami nightlife scene. Indeed the two have created the feel of jazz and blues clubs in New York and Chicago with walls covered in faux peeling plaster revealing bricks beneath.
Three years ago Haylor, burned out on the restaurant business, had just sold his establishment, the Parque Royale in the Canary Islands. Jaded by the on-again, off-again nongroove of the Tenerife tourist seasons, he wanted to open a down-home jazz and blues bar in South Florida, a place that would buzz with the warm sound of local banter and the steady relationship-based profits that come with it. Segalla, who owned and operated a Miami travel agency that specialized in arrangements for marine-industry workers, also wanted to run a music club. And soon after her business partner began dating the Englishman, Haylor and Segalla recognized their common aspiration and decided to team up.
Their entrepreneurial spirit had that peculiarly South Floridian tinge of escapism. They saw themselves as the future owners of a humble but jumping tiki bar somewhere in the Keys. "You know, a place [held up with] two sticks in the mud and sand on the floor," recalls Haylor, his hands held up in front of him, index fingers pointing upward.
But that idea was quickly altered after Haylor and Segalla learned how much beachside structures, some practically rotted out, were running for in the Keys. So the two set their sights northward. Surely Miami with its multiethnic mix could sustain a new jazz and blues spot, they reasoned. For almost two years they scoured the city -- fielding the numerous unsavory offerings proffered by eager, sometimes greedy, real estate agents -- in search of the right place. They eschewed South Beach (it was too much like the Canary Island tourist trap Haylor had seen his place become) and looked for a place this side of Biscayne Bay.
Though the pair amended the original plan, they clung steadfastly to the name. Whatever saxophones would blare from their bar, they would hear them, at least in their imagination, on a beach. After meeting with Phillip Yaffa, senior vice president of Florida East Coast Realty and right-hand man to local developer Tibor Hollo, they settled on Bay Parc Plaza, an apartment complex with 471 fully booked units. Yaffa was already looking for a restaurant to lease space on the ground floor. "We met and started talking; I knew that I wanted some kind of restaurant club [there and our firm] liked them," recalls the real estate VP.
There are another 810 condos at the nearby Grand condominium south of Sax, 350 more condos closer to the Miami-side entrance to the Venetian Causeway, and about 1400 hotel rooms only blocks away. Meanwhile immediately south of the Plaza another phase of construction will result in an oval-shaped, 57-story, 651-unit apartment complex slated to go up in a year. Developer Michael Baumann, who bought the building that housed the former 1800 Club at the corner of NE Eighteenth Street and North Bayshore Drive, plans a 480-unit building there. The nearby Margaret Pace Park, which separates the bar from the bay, is undergoing a million-dollar facelift.
No surprise then, that city commissioners Johnny Winton and Art Teele took an interest in the establishment, promising to look into county permit costs, listening to the owners' concerns, and likely alerting building department officials to step up the process. The rental tower falls in Winton's district, which is also part of a city-designated media and entertainment district. According to Teele the club may be eligible for funding from the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, which administers dollars collected from a specially taxed district in which Sax is located.
The trick will be surviving long enough to see if the developers and politicians make good on their promises. So far the biggest draw is the Tuesday open-mike night, when reasonably good musicians who can perform loosely within the parameters of blues and jazz can use the house sound system for a gig. "Word is getting out," says Segalla of the jams that have extended until closing time. "If you're good and want to test yourself, you can do it here."
It will be awhile before Sax can book big-name headliners on weekend nights. The vocalist Carol Mitchell and Trio and the less-than-Kenny-G-smooth saxophone of Sha-Shaty have been featured, but those names will likely change as the owners grow their business. On Wednesdays after Reed's turn on the keys, the club offers a blues stomp with Albert Castiglia and the Miami All-Star Blues Band at no cover charge.
While Castiglia belts out the blues on a recent Wednesday, Keith, a sloshed former 1800 regular, hoots and hollers. Reclining on one of the piano-bar seats, his feet rest on another chair. Haylor is obliging, wrapping an arm around the patron's neck. He doesn't ask him to straighten up. Instead the local bar owner holds on to what little is his during the first days of business. Outside, gates surrounding the construction at the park cut off access. About a dozen patrons sit scattered at the bar and at Sax's tables, two smoking cigars. "Right now we're bleeding," Haylor admits, "but I'm not crying pauper."
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