Thursday, May 21, 2015

Paul de Barros, Seattle Times jazz critic and author

Paul de Barros, Seattle Times Music Editor talks about the history of jazz in Seattle’s Central Area.

Portrait of Paul de Barros. Photo: Madeline Crowley

Your book, “Jackson Street After Hours. The Roots of Jazz in Seattle” is fascinating. It’s
an encyclopedic view on an overlooked history and time. I can’t imagine a better history of that than what you wrote.

Thank you.

It had to have been a colossal effort and it’s a fun read too. It’s not possible to do justice to the book by covering it in an interview, but let’s try.


Can you introduce some of the main figures as well as explaining the time and the music scene then? Many people have no idea that there was this incredible music scene, all these musicians here because of the war effort with clubs packed with soldiers that never, ever, closed. There was this lively street and nightlife happening in that area. And it’s all gone.

The real core of that time was from 1937 to ‘51. My goal in the book was to break that stereotype of the Northwest as being strictly white and Scandinavian and thereby not having any role in the development of African American Music.

When I discovered that this really fertile period had happened here, it was like an antidote to a stereotype. I wanted to give people an alternative history; the history of jazz, of African American music here, that had really been ignored or erased.

The black musicians felt this even more sharply because they had lived through it, like Jabo Ward, the saxophone player, and Floyd Standifer, the trumpet player. That’s really how the book started. I was writing for the Seattle Weekly, then called The Weekly. It was 1984, and I was doing a cover story about an interesting moment in the jazz scene. As a part of that article, I wanted to include a couple paragraphs about what might or might not have happened historically in Seattle. At that point I had only lived in Seattle five years, I wasn’t really aware of the history of the city. I wasn’t aware of the history of African Americans here.

I had been talking to Jabo, who by that time I had gotten to know pretty well, because I had really made a point of meeting the local musicians.  I asked Jabo, to fill me in with a summary of the jazz scene before. There was this long pause, and then he started swearing at me. (laughs) I said, “What’s wrong? He said, “You don't know…” and I won’t use the words that he used. But, this city has this huge, rich history of Black music. He started naming all these people; I knew 

Quincy Jones had lived here, but I didn’t really know that much about Quincy at that time. I knew who Bumps Blackwell was, the producer of Little Richard, but I had no idea that he lived here. He just rattled off all these names and all these clubs. He didn’t mention Jackson Street by name, but he talked about the Central Area and how he worked with Al Pierre--who I had never heard of.

So I hung up, and wrote a couple of paragraphs just sort of dropping a few names and alluding to the history. It kind of stuck in my mind like, “Wow. How come nobody knows about this,?” least of all me, who has appointed himself chief jazz critic in town (laughs). I had just got here from California, and if I didn’t know about it, nobody knows about it.

So I started poking around, and the Centennial of the State of Washington was coming up in 1989. I thought, maybe there’s money available from the centennial commission to interview all these old musicians. And that was really going to be the project. I just wanted to illuminate this history and let people know who was here. Also, I can make a little cash -- very little (laughs)  to go find out. I think I received a $12,000 grant from the Centennial Commission.

I started with Floyd Standifer and Jabo. Floyd was a leader; he wasn’t just a guy who happened to play on the scene. He was also an intellectual in his own right. He was a college-educated guy who eventually wound up teaching at the Northwest School. He was a bebopper, he was very together and knowledgeable and could give an overview of the scene. I went to Floyd and said, “Let’s make a list. Let’s generate a list of everybody I should talk to.” I probably still have it somewhere. Gosh, we had maybe a hundred musicians, maybe more.

Then, I went to various other people who I felt were like kingpins on the white side of the scene. I went to Jerry Gray, who calls himself Jerome now. He was later on than Floyd and a masterful piano player. He generated another list about the next generation. I started going out to do these oral histories. The obvious people were Floyd, and Buddy Catlett a bass player who had grown up here. Actually, Floyd was from Oregon, he hadn’t grown up here but he moved up here to go to college. Buddy had grown up here and his family was an early black pioneer family; they had been here since the early 1900’s. Buddy had played with Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, and most notably for the longest time, with Count Basie. Then, with this great band that Quincy put together in 1959, that included four people from Seattle that he put together himself: Floyd, Buddy Catlett, and a pianist who had grown up here and had gone to Immaculate, Patti Bown.

She was a good friend of Bob Santos and Dorothy Cordova, they both mentions her in their interviews.

Yeah, Patti was a real character.

So, the first point people were Buddy, Floyd, and Jabo Then, I started talking to the Black historians who had already done work in this town to see if they’ve touched on any of the early history. I went to Esther Mumford. I read her books and then we did an interview. We did an 
informational interview. Anyway, Esther’s a sweetheart. She said, “Oh, you should look at the Seattle Comet Band, and the Black and Tan Orchestra, and you need to talk to so and so.” She gave me another list. Through these lists I found Ralph Hayes, he was a math teacher at Franklin High School who had entertained the project of doing the history of African American music in Seattle. But he was a busy guy and being involved with a lot of other things he never had gotten around to it. I went to him, and he said, “Oh you’ve got to talk to Palmer Johnson.” I said who the hell is Palmer Johnson? He said, he’s the oldest jazz musician in town; he was playing here in the Twenties! I said What?! Are you kidding? The Twenties?! I thought I was going to maybe get stuff about the war era, maybe a little bit of the Thirties, and I found out there was a guy who was playing Jazz in Seattle in 1928. So I’m there.

This was the find of the project. I went to his house. He was a very difficult guy to get up close to. I won’t go into the long story of how long it took. Eventually Palmer opened up and we did 11 hours of oral history. And I have to say, Palmer was a little crazy. He was out of touch with reality in certain ways. He told me stories about how flying saucers had communicated with him. He was also a little paranoid about the urban environment and a little obsessed with violence --not that he was violent. He just collected newspaper clippings about awful things that had happened in town, and always watched that horrible 6 o'clock news which is full of nothing but rape and murder. It was disturbing, he was a little cuckoo, but he had a steel trap mind.

He remembered everything that had ever happened to him. And he didn’t bullshit. At first I thought this is impossible, so I started double checking what he was saying, and everything that he told me panned out. He had had this amazing life. He grew up in Los Angeles, in the Central Avenue District, which was similar to our Jackson Street, but much more important in the history of jazz and more productive. He had been a tap dancer on the street, and an amateur boxer as well. He had learned piano by listening to people like Harvey Brooks who are like, immortal in the state, in the history of jazz. He knew all these early bandleaders in Los Angeles.

Palmer Johnson started talking about these bandleaders on a first name basis, when for me they were just names in history books. I just couldn’t believe my good fortune interviewing this guy. He was in his 80s; he was a tough customer. Palmer took me on up through his experiences of coming up here, because he heard through the grapevine that there was a lot of work in Seattle in the 1920s. Well, the reason there was a lot of work is that Prohibition, as in the rest of the country, had created this underworld of drinking and gambling, because alcohol was illegal.

Nationally, all these jazz musicians were playing speakeasies. The most famous was the Cotton Club, or where Duke Ellington played, or the clubs in Chicago that Al Capone ran. Still, the same thing was going on here but you sort of never thought about that in Seattle. So, Palmer came up here because he had heard there was work. And he stayed. He got a job in a speakeasy roadhouse, which when I was researching that book was still standing. The place was still there, The China Castle. It had a turret on top of it for someone to spot the Feds if they were coming. It was just like out of a movie, these stories he told about waiting for customers to come, and when they heard a car coming down the road they would all jump up and start playing really loud so the customers would come and stay. After midnight the prostitutes came by after they had finished their work and would hang out. So, he knew all the prostitutes and for a while ran a string of girls himself; pimped. I discovered that was rather common in the jazz world. Not just here, but everywhere. Which does make sense given the environment.

Palmer filled me in on all that he had done here. He also worked with Joe Darensbourg, another guy who had come here from New Orleans. He first came up here from LA on one of the cruise ships that would come up on the President Lines from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Seattle. On those ships you could gamble and drink during Prohibition because they’d sail was out past the 12-mile jurisdiction. Jazz musicians got jobs on these ships, it was a recreational thing; like going to a casino now. Eventually, all these musicians started to filter into Seattle.

Next, through interviews with Palmer and Esther, and Ralph, and through Floyd, I drilled down into the jazz scene here. I began to find how the music itself was part of the African American experience in this area. I learned about the community and the fiber of life here. Things like the Tennis Club, the development later of the YMCA, the racism, segregation - and - in some cases lack of segregation and lack of racism. I wound up interviewing people that were part of the community.

Floyd Turnham’s mother, [Edythe Turnham] a black woman who started one of the first jazz bands in the west, had come out here from east of the mountains. And I found Floyd in Los Angeles, and he told me his story. What I found was that there was a small but significant jazz culture in Seattle in the 1920s that probably had its origins, although I could never fully verify this, in the social clubs that were started in around the railroad. I’ve forgotten the guy’s name now, but there was a social club on 5th and Jackson where black people could go, black people who worked on the railroad as waiters, porters and whatnot. At that time, there was obviously racism and segregation, but it wasn’t as serious as Southern California or Texas.

The Club Dumas, that’s what it was called. Anyway, I think that’s probably where the jazz scene started, and then eventually there were public performances as you moved up Jackson Street to Jackson and 12th. In the 20’s, Noodles Smith, the guy who was really the first big kind of gangster entrepreneur started the Black and Tan, which was originally The Waiters and Porters Club. The Black and Tan became a focus for jazz. But then the neighborhood fanned out, so there were clubs on 12th and Jackson was the focal point, but there was also a place on 14th and Jefferson, and Washington Hall, 14th and Fir; they all held jazz performances and dances. You had clubs along 12th, along Jackson, and then you had the Chinatown clubs. It essentially was a strip which in its heyday (between ‘37 and ’51) some musicians described it as almost like a Mardi Gras. You would see musicians walking up and down Jackson street from Chinatown to the hill on 12th and Jackson at one, two, three o’clock in the morning. A guy’s selling newspapers on the corner, people are out and going to Chili Parlors. It was like a little Harlem. It was very vibrant.

I want to add that since my book came out there’s really been a bit of an exaggeration of the importance of this scene. In the big picture, it wasn’t very important at all. It was important for 
us. It was important, I felt, for Seattle to know that this had happened here. That there were credible, important musicians that came out of it.

But if you step back and look at the whole picture of jazz history from New York, Kansas City, New Orleans, Chicago, even Saint Louis or even San Francisco. It’s not that big of a deal. Minneapolis is probably closer [in size and impact].

Even though there were a lot of nightclubs and a lot of speakeasies, there weren’t enough black musicians in the city even during the heyday to form a big band. Now, that says something. I often ask people, where was our Count Basie? And they answer, “Oh, man, there was only like 5,000 black people in the whole Northwest. In the 40’s maybe the numbers went to 17,000. There weren’t enough musicians here where you could have a scene where you could have a Duke Ellington band, a Count Basie band, and an Andy Kirk band.

All the musicians played in Al Pierre’s band. It was a small scene. It was a modest scene, but I did discover people who did have significance in the history of jazz overall who worked here. In particular, Joe Darensbourg, who later became part of what was called the Dixieland Revival in the late 1930s early 40s. He had grown up in New Orleans so he knew that music. He was playing dance music and more modern, popular music in the 30s, but his heart was in improvised music that sounded like New Orleans street bands. That’s what he ended up doing in the 40s; playing with the best of them. Playing with people like the horn player, Turk Murphy. People like that who were revivalists. George Lewis, the trombone player.

One of the exciting finds was to find that Dick Wilson had performed here. That’s Dick, right up there with the sunglasses on (points to an Al Smith photograph); playing with the Andy Kirk band. Andy Kirk had one of the best bands in Kansas City in the 40s. Dick had come up in Seattle playing with Joe Darensbourg in a little club on Aurora.

Dick Wilson had come up here as a kid. I think he was a senior at Broadway High School, which is now Seattle Central Community College, in about 1931. He started playing professionally before he graduated high school. He was playing with Joe and then was picked up by what they call a ‘territory band,’ which is a band that plays just in a few certain states. Zack Whyte was the name of the guy who picked him up. He went to Texas with Zach, and then he [Dick Wilson] wound up getting stranded in Kansas City, which means the band broke up and didn’t have any way to pay him to get home. Which is the same thing that happened to Jimi Hendrix’s grandparents--which is the reason Jimi Hendrix was born here. They were stranded in Vancouver BC and ended up in Seattle.

I never thought about that, but it’s such a tough marginal existence. That probably happened to musicians all over.

All the time; all over. Lionel Hampton’s first band got stranded up here.

So, he wound up in Kansas City and Andy Kirk picked him up. By this time, Dick had begun to develop a really major saxophone style. The big tenor saxophone players at that time were Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. The second tier people were like Chu Berry and Herschel Evans. When I interviewed Dizzy Gillespie about the Seattle scene just to see what he knew about it, he knew all about Dick Wilson because he had played in the late ‘30s bands where he would have heard Dick. He said, “Dick Wilson was a bitch.” He said if he had lived, Dick died in 1941 of tuberculosis, he would have one of the major saxophone stylists in music; he had his own sound. That was a neat discovery. I think Dick had grown up most of his childhood in Los Angeles, but he spent his later teen years and his early formative years here; just like Ray Charles. So that was kind of a cool thing to learn.

There were a few other sidelines like the bassist who took Jimmy Blanton’s place in the Duke Ellington band. When Duke was working in LA in 1940 doing the musical “Jump for Joy” his bass player, who is one of the seminal bass players in the history of jazz, Jimmy Blanton was the first guy to solo on the bass. He played like he was a horn instead of just: thump thump thump thump thump thump thump. He played melodies and Duke wrote specific things for him. When Blanton died Duke hired a bass player from Seattle, a guy named Junior Raglin.

Junior actually is the guy who plays all the parts that everybody thinks is Jimmy Blanton because they were originated for Jimmy on all these recordings. I remember when I was researching this history I was like, “Man, is that solo on Jack the Bear by Junior Raglin? I looked at my records and it was Junior Raglin; it’s not even Jimmy Blanton. So that was interesting, because these solos are known. While Jimmy Blanton had his name pasted on those records, stamped on those solos, but often it was the case that the parts on those records were being played by Junior.

One of the most fun things doing this research was that I got Palmer to walk me around the ID, and show me where all the places were physically. That’s when I realized how good his memory was. We walked down Jackson Street and he says, “Paul, you see where this bank is? This was the Two Pals.” Then he would describe it, down to the color of the door because it was all still in his memory. Across the street, we had the Congo Room. He just walked me through all these places. It was pretty interesting that Junior had been here, that Dick Wilson had been here.

Then, the War Effort starts in earnest here with the shipbuilding for Roosevelt’s program to supply the Brits. The Lend-Lease Program was a way to get arms to Britain before we got into the war.  A lot of the economic engine for that came from Seattle. So you had, roughly 350,000 African Americans migrating to the west coast from Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Texas. That’s where the Black folks who live in Seattle come from, that’s their roots. They came for those jobs.

Yesterday I was talking to Dave Lewis’s grandpa; he came here during that time. It was the same time Ernestine Anderson’s people came from Houston. Ernestine's father had a job in the shipyards, if my memory serves me well. He was a carpenter. Quincy’s people came from Chicago; his dad had a job in the shipyards in Bremerton.

There was this huge migration of African Americans to Los Angeles, to Oakland, but not to Portland because Oregon is just dead racist. You couldn’t even own land in Oregon if you were Black. That’s for real. They are very embarrassed about this; it’s why they didn’t have as big a jazz scene. A guy in Oregon, Bob Dietsche, just did a book similar to mine but it’s very slim (laughs) about the Portland jazz scene. Eventually there was a little place called Williams Street where they had a couple of clubs, but Portland was just weird. Portland, Oregon was just known as a racist state by black people.

Washington was known as a place that had a Civil Rights lawdating from the 1890s. It was also known as a place where a black and white mixed couple wouldn’t be harassed. On the underground grapevine, Washington was said by African Americans to have a specifically tolerant attitude to black people. A lot of black people told me that when I was doing this research.

That migration for the War Effort came in here. Then, the scene had people who became more well known: Quincy Jones; Ray Charles, who comes up from Tampa, Florida; Ernestine Anderson who gets modestly famous at a certain point in the 1950s and the 60s; Patti Bown, who played in New York for a long time; Floyd Standifer, who would never really make a reputation outside of Seattle. With Patti, it was not fair to say of her, but she never really made it big. Also, Buddy Catlett, who’s not going to get a lot of attention because he is a bass player, but plays with the best people in the world and is valued for the quality of his playing. That generation comes out in the 40s.

At that time, the late 1930s and early 40s was when things started really popping economically. Al Hilbert, who worked as a bartender at the 411 Club at 411 Maynard Street, told me that they had a card game that went 24 hours a day; it never stopped. They had different dealers filling in and he did that for three years. He said that was the heyday, economically. That was when the soldiers were coming through Seattle. I think right up until ‘44, ’45  things were pretty hot; and then even after the war because the state of Washington never legalized liquor to be sold by the drink when the rest of the country did in 1933. There was still basically a kind of semi-prohibition in the state of Washington. So that whole speakeasy culture kept going here, whereas it ended in the rest of the country in the 1930s and 40s. We didn’t legalize liquor by the drink in a public place until 1949. So, all through the 30s and 40s the speakeasy culture endured here.

Other things that were going on with that, although I have to say that I didn’t do enough of the homework to really establish this -- I wish that I had and maybe at some point I will -- gambling was really a big part of this scene. The question was, who’s going to make the money on gambling here? Is the money going to continue to flow through the black community? Now, there were parts of that community that weren’t happy that all these speakeasies are here. I mean, it’s part of the culture, and there’s money flowing, and a lot of people have fond memories of it now, still there were also more straight-laced people in the community who were not happy that those clubs were there. There wasn’t a lot of violence, I must say, but there was alcohol, there were drunks on the street, and there was gambling…

…prostitution, and quote-unquote immoral activity. So you had people who were nascent politicians in the African American community, leaders who were very staunchly against all that. I think, though, the community at large, was attached to the economic viability of it. My theory is, though I’ve never done the homework to back this up, my theory is that the reason the Jackson Street clubs started to be attacked by the powers that be in the 1950s…

The white powers that be?

Well, there were no black powers that be (laughs). The reason that the clubs started to be raided… You see, previously there had been what they called the (vice) tolerance policy, and the police were paid off, and the politicians were paid off. It was like Kansas City under Mayor Pendergast. In the 50s, my theory is that those who were running the show--mayor, governor, and also the underworld, wanted the income from gambling to remain downtown in the hands of white people. And so that’s when the Jackson Street clubs started to be raided. And most of the gambling moved into the downtown white clubs where black people weren’t welcome.


Now, this is a conspiracy theory, I confess. But it’s a conspiracy theory that’s held widely by most of the black community.

It makes an awful lot of sense.

I believe it’s true. If you talk to anybody in their 50s, 60s, or 70s in this town, that’s the narrative that they believe. Like I said, I never did the homework to prove it, but I think it’s true. I think that the demise of the Jackson Street clubs was probably brought on by the greed of downtown club owners and politicians. They continued to take bribes to look the other way, to keep quiet, but they wanted the money to come from their friends who were getting them elected. It’s an ugly story but it’s probably true. Until 1969, everybody was on the take. That’s been pretty much demonstrated until there were two federal grand juries. So this whole system was in place to make sure that some of the money from these underground activities: prostitution, gambling, and alcohol would go to the city and go to politicians, as if they were running it! That had been going on in this State since the Gold Rush in the 1890s.

That book, “On the Take” by Chamblis covers some of that corruption here.

He does.

Not just what you talked about, but how the whole governmental structure here was just riven with corruption.

I think depending on the decade or the person in power it was probably more intense sometimes and went the way to the top and was less intense at other times. But the cop on the beat was always getting a payoff in a paper bag. Too many musicians actually saw this for me to not know it’s true. As for my theory about downtown versus the Central Area and black versus white, Italian versus African American, I don't know for certain. Just on the surface of it, to me, it looks like that’s what happened.

There was that club owner who had a place on 12th. I can’t remember his name… It sounded very much like a vendetta. They kept raiding him and raiding him until they finally just broke the man; literally.

You’re talking about Doc Hamilton. Yeah, they had it in for him. The white take on him was that he was an “uppity negro.” He thought he was good as white people. And they didn’t want that.

Yeah, it’s really sad to hear about somebody broken that way. I’m sure it wasn’t uncommon. If you dared to be truly self-possessed, you became a target.

Right, and he did. He didn’t take guff from anybody. He had a very strong sense of who he was.

Now, I wanted to return to something, because for younger people this would be something new to them. You had talked about how music was part of the glue in the African American community. So, for somebody who’s 15 or 16 years old, coming from outside that community, they’re not going to understand how that functioned at all. I’m wondering if you would be willing to talk about that.

Well, hmm. There are two kinds of music. There’s church music and there’s secular music. And in both cases in the black community - not just here but everywhere - they were stitched into daily life. It’s not like music was something necessarily recreational or something that was attached to church. It was part of your life, because a lot of the people in the Seattle scene weren’t professional musicians by trade. They were really good amateurs, a lot of them. They were professionals but they also had day jobs. They were people you knew.

One of the things that really blew my mind in talking with people like Buddy Catlett is that when I would mention somebody that I was curious about, there was no possibility that there could be somebody he didn’t know. That life was a neighborhood thing. If I mentioned a musician, usually his response was, “Oh yeah, that’s Nora's boy, or he came here from...” Everybody knew everybody, because there were only two high schools in this community, Franklin and Garfield.

You knew to never go to the north end unless you wanted to get into a fight. That’s what Buddy said, if you got in a car and you went to the north end, it was because you wanted to fight because that’s where the white people were. Down here it was black people, Japanese, Chinese, Jews, Italians, it was a big conglomerate mix. So, you stayed down here and you knew everybody. So I think the music, I don’t know if the music was the glue but it was part of that fabric.

People sang in church and they also sang in a jazz group. They did jazz, they did R & B, they did dance music, they did bebop. It was all… it wasn’t separate. It wasn’t some separate activity; it was just part of life.

Perhaps, in a way that might not have been as true in the Scandinavian community, or the Italian community. Music sounds like it had a much bigger presence in daily life.

I think it did, although in other ethnic communities it’s folk music. Jazz, is just a really fancy folk music. So, I think folk music is really a fabric (connecting) a lot of ethnic communities. You mentioned the Scandinavian community; parents here still are still sending their kids to these classes where they learn to do folk dances and come to Folklife to perform Norwegian dances or Swedish dances. Keeping the culture alive is important for immigrant communities. In the African American community, I think it’s even stronger, because music has been so tied up with the struggle for civil rights, the struggle to survive emotionally. The blues is really at the heart of jazz, and it is really an embodiment of the emotional and psychological struggle of African Americans to survive slavery. That’s the reason it’s so compelling. It’s not just about having fun, it’s not just about complaining, it’s about a way to actually get through a day that you probably weren’t to happy about waking up to.

And a day that was meant to break you.

A day that was meant to break you and use you. So yeah, I think music was more woven into the fabric of life.

The way you explained it makes perfect sense. It’s one thing to teach your kids to do folk dance, because you want them to have that connection to the mother country, and another thing when it was not only your means of income, it was emotional survival. And it was also sometimes a coded way of communicating things within the community that could be heard but not understood outside of that community.

That’s right. Plus, there’s an economic aspect to all this, this is before the Civil Rights Act when black people were essentially consigned to either be servants or laborers, and in many cases weren’t even allowed to be laborers because the unions weren’t open to them. One of the ways to be upwardly mobile was to be a musician, was to be an entertainer. And we know the other way was to be an athlete.

Eventually, the major leagues opened up to black people in. Entertainment was a way up. Jazz was a way out and a way up for an African American who was smart, talented and wanted to do something creative. You could be paid money, you could have a real shiny horn and play in a band in the spotlight. You could travel in the train, not be harassed and be respected and you could get a good paycheck.

And if you became somebody who played in society rooms you had that chance of a certain amount of patronage. There were more opportunities just from the audience itself.

Yep. Look at Duke Ellington.

The only thing I’ve really left out (about the history of jazz in Seattle) I think is some kind of concise way of saying that the scene really rested on social forms that are no longer appropriate or acceptable.

How so?

The foundation blocks of the Jackson Street and Central District jazz scene were based on racism, that is to say a segregated musicians union, which prevented black musicians who were qualified from playing in Local 76, the white musicians union. (That prevented black musicians from) playing on jobs that would have been highly paid, organized and regulated by a union)

For starters, then, we’re talking about an outsider scene. We’re talking about a scene that structured itself in opposition to the Establishment that wouldn’t let it in. So the Jackson Street clubs operated on Jackson Street and Madison because black musicians weren’t allowed to play anywhere else. So that’s the first thing: racism, segregation.

The second thing is that the reason that the clubs lasted, or the music lasted all night, is that they were illegal after hours joints. They were serving illegal liquor, and they were supported by this corruption: the tolerance policy. I think it’s really important to know that corruption and illegal liquor sales and a segregated musician’s union (until 1956) are the pillars that supported this scene.

So, the scene ended, people used to always ask me, whatever happened to all those great Jackson Street clubs? Here’s what happened: in 1949 they legalized liquor sales, and the nexus of the gambling went downtown. There was a profit to be skimmed by corrupt officials and the police mainly, and it moved downtown. Then the musicians unions amalgamate the white and black unions in ‘56 so Local 493 disappears. Finally in 1969 when the feds come and investigate all this corruption and they fire about 80 police officers, there’s just a bloodbath politically and in the police department.

Interestingly enough, the Federal Government gets involved when white people are doing something crooked. They don’t give a damn when it’s happening in the ghetto. It’s when somebody says, White people are stealing from white people (laughs). That’s when the Feds come in. I always thought that was kind of ironic.

Here’s an interesting sideline but it has nothing to do with the Central Area. The reason the whistle got blown on the downtown clubs actually was because was of something that happened in a gay bar. It was a civil rights issue over a gay bar, because the cops came in and busted a gay place because they didn’t like gays. They busted a gay place for serving alcohol or having gambling, I can’t remember the specifics. Then the Feds got interested through that incident in a gay bar downtown. I think I’m right about that. I may be wrong. Ever since then Seattle’s been a pretty clean town as far as anybody knows as far as civil corruption.

The scene, the foundation for that scene is gone. There’s no reason for it anymore. Black people don’t have to play on Jackson Street, they can play Pete’s Poop Deck, or later Jazz Alley, clubs that are integrated. Clubs that present bebop and jazz as a form of listening music as more of a bohemian thing. It’s no longer a neighborhood thing where people go drink and dance and see friends. It’s an ‘art form’.

It begins that whole other journey. And society just begins to change. Seattle itself begins to change, and sees itself as having potential. Although I’ve been counseled by historians that this actually goes way back to 1909, that there was this recurring sense among city fathers that Seattle wanted to be an important West Coast city. It goes through ups and downs.

Back starting with the Alaska–Yukon–Pacific Exposition in 1909. This was a world’s fair on the the campus of University of Washington. You have these kind of flowerings, then Seattle crawls back into its hole, and was content to be not noticed. Again, in the 1930s and 40s it was content to be not noticed. In the 50s it began to have this sense of Boeing’s getting to be a big deal, and so it was Jet City. Again, you had a bunch of city fathers who got together and planned the next world’s fair in ’61 for 1962. And again, you had this sense somehow of Seattle wanting to be noticed, wanting to be important, and wanting to clean up its act. It’s like there was a decision we can’t have this going on here. I mean, what are we, a town in Montana that Dashiell Hammett’s writing about with a corrupt mayor? No, we can’t have that.

We got to clean this stuff up. Something else that happens right around the same time is that they start this ridiculous Seafair. The reason they start Seafair, and I don’t mind having this on the record, is that they want to get rid of the Indians who have been getting together and having a Powwow down by the lake in the summer every year and getting drunk. Just like they do in Williams Lake up in British Columbia. I don’t know if they do that anymore, but they did that for years. It was just a week long drunk that happened on Lake Washington as a powwow. So the city wanted to get rid of the powwow because it was embarrassed by it. So, they started Seafair with the hydroplane races and booted everybody off the lake. This all goes hand in hand with a city that suddenly started wanting to be respectable. Not be looked at as this frontier town full of cowboys and Indians and corrupt police officers. Because that’s what it was. It was a backward, corrupt, cowboys and Indians town from 1890 to 1960. Then it decided it wanted to grow up and be respectable. That’s my take anyway (laughs).

Seattle has finally gotten over its inferiority complex. It finally arrived in the 90s with Microsoft and Nirvana and Starbucks. It’s hard for people that don’t know the city well or haven’t been here a long time to realize that when organizers of the world’s fair got together one of their biggest concerns was that no one knew where Seattle was. They organized the first ad campaign around that idea.

It wasn’t just that they didn’t know what went on here; people didn’t even know where it was. For people in New York, or Chicago, they’d think, Seattle...That’s somewhere out there. Isn’t it up in Canada somewhere? Honest to God.

I learned this actually when they were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the World’s Fair. This couple did a book about it and did a presentation at Folklife. They showed the old ads, and they made a map showing where Seattle was. That was part of the first ad campaign.

A poll was conducted and they found out from research that most people had no idea where the city was. That was the first hurdle. Well, now it’s not a problem. When you travel to Hong Kong or Paris or Sydney, Australia and you mention Seattle, people say Nirvana and Starbucks and Jimi Hendrix. They know where you’re from, because they know these people that came from here.

So that whole past that we’re talking about is gone. But back when the jazz scene I’m talking about was happening? Nobody knew where Seattle was. And when black people got here from somewhere else were like, wow. I’m not going to tell anybody else about this place. This place is like paradise. It’s not very racist. One of the musicians I interviewed said, “and there’s roses blooming in June.” He was from Omaha. He said, Man I’m staying here; this is amazing! It’s mellow! A black man can actually own property here and get a job and get along. And white people don’t bother you that much. And truly there was very little persecution going on here.

Obviously there was racism and segregated musicians’ unions and it took a long time to break the unions during the war to get black people in. But they did. And it happened. We didn’t have the racial violence you had in Detroit or Oakland or Watts in part because it was a smaller black community. You know, to this day I think the black community is only 8.2% of Seattle. Which is very nonthreatening for the majority. There are more Asians here than there are Blacks. Which is unusual for an American city if you look at Atlanta or Chicago for comparison. Here, it’s mostly a white and Asian city. The Central Area that you’re researching really has a history of like I said: Jews, Japanese, Italians, Filipinos. You've got a lot of different ethnic communities mixed in.

Jackson Street after Hours by Paul de Barros at

Special thanks also to our valued intern, Zachary Hitchcock of Seattle University, for his indefatigable help with many things, one of them this transcription 

©  Madeline Crowley People of the Central Area 2015   All material is covered by copyright. Express written permission must be given for any copyrighted material on this page. Email to request permission to copy or paste materials. 

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About Me

Seattle, WA, United States
I am not a professional photographer nor a trained journalist. At community meetings, it became clear that many of us don’t know each other. We haven’t heard each other’s stories and don't know each other’s circumstances. This is my attempt to give a few people the chance to tell their story, to talk about our community, to say their piece in peace. As such, comments have been disabled. The views and opinions expressed here are those of each narrator and do not necessarily reflect the position of views of the CentralAreaComm.blogspot blog site itself. The is not responsible for the accuracy of any information supplied by narrators of this project. All interviews have been edited and in places condensed.

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