By Eric Andrews, Off The Wall Student
While its voice may not be as loud now as it used to be, Seattle has always been home to a thriving jazz soundtrack. So, while celebrating Jazz Appreciation Month, let us look back to the days when jazz filled the city’s air more than any other sound.
As early as the 1910s, Seattle was considered one of the more welcoming cities for African-Americans in the days before Civil Rights. New arrivals from places like Houston and even Chicago started settling in the area. Budding musicians eventually turned Seattle into one of the West Coast’s most vibrant jazz centers. These included homegrown future greats like Quincy Jones and the recently passed Ernestine Anderson (1928-2016).
The International and Central districts, particularly the Jackson Street corridor, were home to a variety of jazz clubs. Of key importance was The Entertainer’s Club, on 12th and Jackson. In the basement, a smaller nightclub, called the Alhambra, opened in 1922. It was later renamed the Black And Tan.
Clubs like this enjoyed brisk business even after the repeal of Prohibition took away the “underground” status of secretive establishments. Perhaps this was because most African-American musicians were prevented from playing larger venues downtown, so the clubs on Jackson Street were where people came to hear the cool sounds of jazz.
Most surprising was that even when Jackson Street clubs hosted big-name, national stars like Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong, the atmosphere around the district retained a unique kind of intimacy. One could spend a night out on Jackson Street without fear of being recognized or judged.
The advent of rock and roll in the 1950s and the subsequent decline in jazz’s popularity eroded Jackson Street’s allure. The Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s also played a part, as old taboos broke down and African-American musicians were invited to play in establishments once considered off-limits to them. Even the resilient Black And Tan closed by 1966.
However, even as Jimi Hendrix later rocketed to international stardom, and as grunge remade popular music in its own image, Seattle’s jazz heart continued to beat with local greats like singer Grace Holden, the daughter of jazz great Oscar Holden who died in 1969, and pianist Overton Berry, both who you can still see on the local circuit.
Certainly, jazz may now be just one of the many sounds that permeate the city’s music scene, but it is nice to remember that there was a time when it was the most robust.
All this great musical activity inspired Paul De Barros, a local journalist and a music historian, to write a book about the golden age of Seattle Jazz called “Jackson Street After Hours.” The cover, shown at the top of this blog, features a picture of Oscar Holden at the piano.
Did you see yesterday’s Jazz Appreciation piece? Featuring Ella Fitzgerald and her lasting contribution to jazz. In fact, it is her legacy that made this Jazz Appreciation Month possible!