Music has been an important part of Key West culture for over a century and is a big part of what makes Key West such an attractive place for tourists and locals alike.
Tracing its roots back to the great Ellen Sanchez and her work to make Key West a music hotspot, this island community has continued to follow her lead. Fats Navarro, originally from Key West, has become one of the best jazz trumpeters in the world. The legendary Key West Junkanoos continue to be an integral part of Key West musical folklore. Many legends have called Key West home over the years.
The late and great Coffee Butler, for whom our amphitheater is rightly named, performed into his 90s. We can’t ignore Jimmy Buffett, who settled here in Key West and went on to create an entire genre known today as Too Rock. And of course there’s bluesman Bill Blue who has spent four decades dazzling crowds with his phenomenal slide guitar work and high-energy live performances.
Today, the scene still boasts iconic musicians and a massive pool of young talent that promises to keep Key West at the top of the list of the world’s great music cities.
Larry Baeder, who began his career in his early teens in Kansas City and found international success as a touring and session musician, has lived, taught and performed in Key West for decades.
Born and raised in Key West, Caffeine Carl Wagoner is one of the best guitarists in the world. Tourists plan their Key West itineraries based on Carl’s show schedule. And locals turn up at the Smokin’ Tuna Saloon every night to watch Carl perform with his band, The Buzz.
Other longtime Key West music icons such as Ericson Holt, Claire Finley, Michael McCloud, Zack Seemiller, Gary Hempsey and Sir CW Colt have been performing on Key West stages for decades.
Every day, live music fans can enjoy great shows at many local venues. The world-famous Green Parrot enjoys an international reputation for its live musical performances. John Vagnoni does an exceptional job booking great local and touring bands who play the famous bar daily. Hog’s Breath Saloon offers three sets of music per day. Hog’s Breath’s late set never disappoints, with its mix of local and touring bands.
Many other venues have begun to develop a strong reputation for their live music programs. General Horseplay, Hank’s Hair of the Dog, Willie T’s and many more offer multiple sets each day featuring some of the hottest numbers around. Newer venues such as the Backyard Bar, Halo Rooftop Lounge, and Rockhouse Live are starting to earn a reputation as great music venues.
The contemporary scene continues to impose itself. Happy Dog is a talented band with a loyal following. Bands and artists such as Tony Baltimore and the Wilde Awake, the Andy Westcott Band, the Swerves, Cayo Ritmo, Nick Brownell, Jason Lamson and the Durtbags are prime examples of the current foundation of musicality here in Key West.
Some young musicians have started to rise to the top of the scene. Marshall Morlock, a talented young guitarist and singer in his twenties, is turning heads among loyal local music fans. Glass Cats, who have only been together for a few months, have begun to develop their own following.
The inaugural Key West Music Awards, aka the Iggys, drew a sold-out crowd in January at the Key West Theater. The awards show was organized to celebrate the incomparable local music scene in Key West, a town that boasts its own local label, Conch Town Records, with an impressive stable of musicians.
Key West’s music scene is second to none and its future is extremely bright. Being the music junkie that I am, I can’t help but be filled with excitement. My apologies to anyone I omitted from this column. It wasn’t intentional. It would take an entire issue to cover all the amazing talent we have here in Key West. Maybe I’ll write a book one day.
5 great musical cities
1. Key West, Florida
3. Nashville, TN
4. New Orleans, Louisiana
5. Asheville, North Carolina