It’s a Wednesday in September and the ornate lobby of the Olympia Theater at downtown’s Gusman Center for the Performing Arts is once again the busiest jazz room in town. By the start of tonight’s show by Afro-Cuban jazz group Oriente, every seat will be taken, and latecomers will be standing in the back. The variety of skin colors, dress, languages and accents mirrors the diverse makeup of South Florida in a way that few gatherings do.
The event is free, so people wander in and out, unhurriedly, like at a neighborhood party. In the back of the room, quietly overseeing the proceedings, an impeccably dressed man greets visitors as they walk in and then fades back into the background.
Keith Clarke, founder and director of the Miami Jazz & Film Society, has a talent — honed through many years of practice — for being present while remaining invisible.
During the day, Clarke works as a security officer/concierge at the Miami Tower in downtown Miami. For years before he launched his jazz series at the Gusman, after bankers, attorneys and their clients had left for the day and the building had come to rest, Clarke shared his love of jazz and film in a monthly jazz night at the Tower’s Sky Lounge and a weekly film series in the building’s auditorium. For a while, the Tower paid half the bands’ fees. Last year, Clarke paid for everything himself.
“So it was a financial burden,” he says, shrugging. “But when you love something you say ‘OK, so it’s an expensive hobby.’ I love to watch films. I love to listen to jazz. Nobody is putting a gun to my head and saying ‘you have to do this.’ I love to do it, and I’m going to be involved in community building and education and in creating some sort of atmosphere in which people can network and socialize because that’s part of me, of who I am.”
“I’m crazy about music, particularly crazy about jazz,” says Clarke, who names Miles Davis and Horace Silver as favorites. “Instead of hearing it by myself, I can create the atmosphere for it and let other people be part of it, too.”
Born in Miami, Clarke, 63, played saxophone in high school. He graduated from Miami Dade College with a degree in pre-psychology — and then joined the circus.
“I just happened to see an ad by Ringling Bros. Circus hiring college students,” he says with a chuckle. “So yes, I literally ran off with the circus.” For four months he traveled around the United States and Canada selling souvenirs. “The circus almost has a caste system. At the very bottom are the people who shovel the elephant stuff. We were one step above those guys.”
Clarke eventually settled in California, where he got a degree in social services. But he found a more compelling outlet in the monthly gatherings he organized while studying at California State University in Dominguez Hills.
“It was amazing the number of people that met there that ended up going into business together, marrying, mentoring,” he says. “People told me I was a catalyst.”
In 1988, while living in Atlanta, he began working for the security company that still employs him at the Miami Tower — focusing on ways to bring people together outside of work.
“In social services, which I love, at the end of the day you are drained because of the caseload. In this job I have time to think … and the moment I get off work I have all this energy.”
He moved back to Miami in 1998 and started working at the Miami Tower in 2000. In 2005 he began presenting an on and off jazz series there with the Sunshine Jazz Organization. After the nonprofit jazz group backed out in 2009, Clarke founded the Miami Jazz & Film Society and carried on alone until mid-2013 — when he found a partner with the Gusman.
“We started in November , and we had 20 to 30 people. Next month we had 45 and then in January it was 80 and it has been in a steady roll since, from 180 to 200 people every month,” says Robert Geitner, executive director of the Olympia Theater. “The idea is to create an after work and early evening event. There are a lot of people who now live downtown … it’s a community theater. It’s their place, so why not?”
As much passion as Clarke has for jazz and film, his true art form is community building. His instruments may have changed from yard parties to jazz concerts, but his commitment and purpose remains consistent. In these what’s-in-it-for-me? times, he is a rarity.
“What do I get? I get joy,” he says. “All I want to do is share who I am and experience something I appreciate. You do something because it is who you are, who you happily are. The artist draws because he needs to and then maybe somebody says ‘I really like this, I’ll pay you for it.’ But the real point is still your fulfillment. If you taste a good meal, you want other people to enjoy it too.”
If you go
What: Jazz in the Lobby Lounge with the Pauly Cohen Big Band
When: 6:30 and 9 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Olympia Theater at Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, 174 E. Flagler St., Miami
How much: Free
Info: MiamiJazzSociety.com or 305-374-3444