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Jazz History

The following is the introduction to Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle by Paul de Barros, used with permission from Paul de Barros.

History of Jazz in Seattle: Quincy Jones Jazz Musician: Quincy Jones
Photo Courtesy of Experience Music Project

For such an out-of-the-way place, Seattle has had a remarkable jazz history. The action began as early as 1918, when Lillian Smiths jazz band played at Washington Hall. It kept going strong all through Prohibition, as an authentic black jazz scene developed around the hub of Jackson Street and Twelfth Avenue. Even Jelly Roll Morton stopped off to play in the district, in 1920; he later wrote a rag, Seattle Hunch, to commemorate his visit.

The scene peaked between 1937 and 1951, years in which Seattle came of age as a nerve center of the defense industry. A plentiful supply of soldiers and civilians, out looking for a good time, made Seattle a boomtown for musicians. In 1948, there were over two dozen nightclubs along Jackson Street, clubs where jazz and bootleg liquor flowed as freely as money from a soldiers pocket. Pianist Gerald Wiggins, stationed at Fort Lewis during the war, put it best: They did everything but go home. This same lively scene nurtured the early careers of Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, and Ernestine Anderson.

Other musicians who played in the Jackson Street clubs went on to national jazz careers. Bassists Buddy Catlett and Wyatt Ruther worked with Count Basie. Pianists Wiggins and Jimmy Rowles went to Los Angeles, where they became exceptional accompanists and soloists. Patti Bown forged a career in New York. Still others, such as Floyd Standifer and Roscoe Weathers, never became well known outside the region, but when touring musicians came to town, they treated these Seattle players as peers. The locals may not have taken to the road, but they kept an authentic tradition alive at home.

Seattle has never been as musically isolated as most people imagine. In 1910, the town was the center of the largest vaudeville circuit in the country, a network of theaters owned by Alexander Pantages. Seattle audiences heard W.C. Handy and Freddie Keppard in Pantages theaters. And at every successive stage of jazz history, most major exponents of each new style found their way to the Northwest. The So Different Orchestra, one of the most important early jazz groups on the West Coast, played the Black and Tan in 1920. Duke Ellington played Seattle as early as 1934. Charlie Parker and Lester Young came through several times. Seattle may have been an outpost, but it certainly never lacked for jazz.

And yet, while Seattle has produced its share of great players, as a jazz town it has made no stylistic contributions to the development of the music. Why, then, one might reasonably ask, write the history of jazz here?

For those of us who live in Seattle, the answer is easy. To learn more about who we are, we look back at who we were, hoping to find clues to our identity. We know, for example, that Quincy Jones and Ray Charles rose from among our ranks. Does this tell us anything about who we are or who we might become? Is there something about the music these people have made that reflects us or our city?

For northwesterners there is also the issue of cultural hegemony. Western American history, and certainly West Coast jazz history, seems always to have been written by people for whom the West was at best exotic and at worst an inconsequential footnote. Even West Coast jazz, acknowledged as a bona fide aesthetic movement, has been largely interpreted as a kind of aberration, a diluted form of the real stuff happening back East even though Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus were every bit as much West Coast figures as Gerry Mulligan, Shorty Rogers, or Chet Baker. This, then, provides an important rationale for writing a book about Seattle jazz; to know it and to name it accurately.

But what about people outside the Northwest? Why should they be interested in this sort of local chronicle? Jazz history typically has been written as the story of a main stem, growing through certain locales and styles New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City, and so on. Such a model is useful for getting a handle on the subject, but American culture literature, visual art, music, or whatever has always been a product of our whole land, not just a handful of urban areas. As important as New York is to the culture of jazz, the musics pulse has made itself felt all across the country. Jazz scholar Gunther Schuller treats this idea in his book The Swing Era:

"It is fascinating to contemplate the role that geography and chance encounters have played in the history of jazz. Although often the impression is that it all happens in New York even Basie and his Kansas City cohorts had to go there to really make it it is useful to remind ourselves that . . . the crisscrossing of bands over the length and breadth of this nation over the decades, with the chance encounters between musicians, has been a factor of virtually incalculable importance in the development of jazz. The long hard tours, the endless one-nighters, though at times painful in actuality, have also played a crucial fertilizing role in the growth of this music."

Lionel Hampton, for example, who is associated with Benny Goodman and who grew up in Chicago, clearly formed his musical aesthetic in Los Angeles and, for reasons that seem to be mostly coincidence, drew upon Seattle for an inordinate share of his sidemen. Andy Kirks swinging, blues-inflected style is associated with the Midwest, yet his most illustrious soloist, Dick Wilson, learned to play jazz from Joe Darensbourg, a Creole clarinetist who worked in Seattle, and from a Seattle-bred saxophone teacher named Frank Waldron. In the complexities of such relationships between the national and the local, in the crisscrossings of lines all over the American map by the great and the mundane, the sung and the unsung, lie the secrets of the real history of jazz. The point here is not to make an exaggerated artistic claim for Seattle, per se, but to illustrate the cross-pollination and interplay that make up the fabric of jazzs rich history.

History of Jazz in Seattle: Quincy Jones Jazz Vocalist: Ernestine Anderson
Photo Courtesy of Experience Music Project

There is another, related and perhaps even more compelling, reason for chronicling this local history, and that is to honor the people who make the music. If, living in the West, one feels from time to time a sense of having been written out of history, it is as nothing compared with the invisibility that African Americans have experienced in general. Anyone who has done research of this kind is well acquainted with the scarcity of public documentation about black people, but I was frankly unprepared for the sweeping neglect I encountered. As I scoured old newspapers and magazines for information about black jazz musicians, it became increasingly clear that a whole era had gone by unnamed, unhailed, and unrecorded. Musicians famous and not so famous came and went, put down roots, influenced other musicians, started bands, ended them, had heydays and down days, but no one bothered to take notice or keep track. Its astonishing that brilliant musicians like Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, and Ernestine Anderson the very ones who would go on to be claimed by Seattle as illustrious native sons and daughters could have been coming up in the late 1940s on Seattles Jackson Street without any consistent observer publicly documenting their progress. It is doubly ironic to sift through old newspapers and find review after review of mediocre chamber music concerts during the same period. This amounts to a systematic veiling, albeit unwitting, of one of the richest aspects of Seattles cultural history.

Looking back, we can see that constructs of race and class permitted this veil to be hung. Jazz often thrived in Seattle, as elsewhere, in what were perceived as dives, in a black ghetto where gambling, prostitution, and illegal drinking were as central to the action as the music itself. The notion that something of cultural importance might be brewing outside the law, on the outskirts of respectability, was virtually inconceivable to the white reporters, editors, and cultural pundits who might have documented what was going on. Even when such people did take friends down to, say, the Black and Tan at 12th and Jackson for a drink and some hot jazz, as often as not they saw only a colorful diversion from their routines, not the unfolding drama of an American music culture in the making.

There were exceptions. Thank goodness for black newspapers such as the Northwest Enterprise, with their listings of local black entertainers and occasional articles about them. Without this information there would be virtually no historical record of early Seattle jazz. Thanks, too, for Washingtons black historian Esther Mumford, who began this difficult investigative work long ago, documenting the contributions of blacks in Washington in the 19th century. Breaking out of the mainstream press mold were Johnny Reddin, the intrepid Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter who kept track of night people, and Doug Welch, another reporter who clearly loved jazz and advocated it in the Seattle Times. For the most part, though, Seattles newspapers and magazines ignored the music and the musicians who created it. (About the only time the clubs ever got any notice was when they were raided; today, these sensational reports are often the only reliable source of club addresses.) One neednt look very far to find a parallel in todays media coverage of black neighborhoods: the same kinds of cultural constructs are still very much at work.

Jazz was not only ignored by local pundits; in many cases it was actively suppressed. Though Seattle briefly turned into a city of sin during and after the Yukon Gold Rush, the predominant Northwest mood has always been a sober, pragmatic, and anti-expressive one in which the business of life is business. Though jazz was tolerated, even during the notoriously liberated Jazz Age of the 1920s bluenoses consistently pushed the music underground. As if national Prohibition itself were not enough, the city passed additional ordinances against dancing, imposed taxes on cabarets, and tried to enforce irrational regulation of entertainment of all kinds. Confusing prudence with intolerance, vice with artistic expression, these measures slowed the cultural progress of the region. A residue of that intolerance still exists, in the control exercised by the State Liquor Board over nightclubs.

Curiously, the culture of official corruption that arose in response to this repression kept Seattle jazz alive during the first half of the century. The citys notorious tolerance policy, under which policemen were paid under the table for winking at illegal practices such as gambling, prostitution, and bootlegging, ensured that bold entrepreneurs could continue to open nightclubs where jazz musicians thrived. When the tolerance policy finally collapsed in 1969, a curious disjunction occurred. Jazz, already on the downswing with the onslaught of rock, went into a decade of near-hibernation. By the time it reappeared with force locally, almost all the major players of the old era had died, moved away, or given up music. As a result, a generation of musicians and fans knew virtually nothing about Jackson Streets heyday. The few remaining older black musicians who had been part of the lively Jackson Street era felt passed over when the jazz scene revived, somehow robbed of their own legacy.

This book is an attempt to restore that legacy. For, in the face of these obstacles being forced underground, harassed by the authorities, ignored by the press Seattle jazz musicians have fared remarkably well. It is good for Seattleites to know that behind the bland veil of the official story there is also this rich and expressive history. This book is a tribute in many cases a memorial to the musicians who lived that history, the locals who have kept the jazz fire alive in the Northwest for eight decades.

Paul de Barros
Seattle, 1993

Additional Information

To learn more about Jazz History in Seattle visit the Experience Music Project (EMP) web site:

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