Jackson Street Jazz Scene (Seattle)

This is a look at Seattle’s legendary Jackson Street jazz scene. Sparked during the Roaring Twenties, it went on to nurture Ray Charles, Ernestine Anderson, and Quincy Jones, among many other young performers. Today historians recognize that musicians of various ethnicities collectively created the music we call jazz, but it is equally true that racial-settlement patterns played a role in the rise of this particular scene in this particular place. The first Black person to settle in Seattle, in 1852, was a drummer (and barber) named Manuel Lopes. As a tiny timber town, Seattle’s original business core was centered at Yesler’s Corner (at Mill Street, Today’s Yesler Way) and Commercial Street (today’s 1st Avenue S). Lopes was among the first people to build a cabin just south of Mill Street, a loud and rowdy zone where Seattle’s earliest saloons and bawdyhouses arose. As the population grew, and more cabins were built north of Mill Street, the additional Blacks, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants were “encouraged” to settle farther south of Mill Street. In this area there developed an early Chinatown, a Japantown – and along Jackson Street (and eastward toward what would become known as the Central District), a strip where Blacks ran businesses and built homes. It was here where the fabled Jackson Street jazz scene began.

Washington Hall

Address: 153 14th Avenue
On Site Now: Washington Hall

This Central District venue boasts the deepest cultural history of any vintage venue extant in Seattle. Built in 1908 for the Danish Brotherhood of America Lodge No. 29, it was recast as Washington Hall within a few years and began serving as a hub of Seattle’s growing African American community. This hall was the site of Washington’s “first documented jazz performance by a local band” on June 10, 1918, when Lillian Smith’s Jazz Band made its debut performing at a Grand Benefit Ball for the NAACP. Over subsequent decades it was the site of concerts, dances, lectures, and political events featuring the likes of W. E. B. du Bois, Marian Anderson, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and Mahalia Jackson. In 1960, a local guitar-playing kid named Jimmy Hendrix and his first teenage rock band, the Velvetones, rocked the house at a dance. In 1973 the building was bought by the Sons of Haiti Masonic Lodge, which rented it out to various event promoters. When 1970s punk rock emerged, shows by the Avengers, Cheaters, Dead Kennedys, D.O.A., and others took place. From 1978 to 1998 the hall was leased to the On The Boards arts organization. More recently, a consortium including Historic Seattle and 4Culture have been working to restore the hall as an arts hub for Central District organizations including 206 Zulu, Voices Rising, and Hidmo/Cypher Cafe. 

The Entertainer’s Cabaret

Address: 1238 S Main Street
On Site Now: Bailey Gatzert Elementary School playfield

Russell Walton and Gillie Richardson’s Entertainer’s Cabaret likely opened here around the time that Prohibition was enacted in 1916. The room was situated near the epicenter of what would become the Jackson Street jazz scene. Still, this early jazz era nightspot’s advertising definitely hinted at the illicit activities going on inside: “Thousands of Barrels of Refreshing, Exhilarating, Intoxicating Music Poured Out Nightly.” The owners touted that they had “the Best Syncopated Orchestra on the Coast. DON’T MISS IT.” Of particular note, however, was the week in August 1920 when the Cabaret featured a combo headed by pianist Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, America’s self-proclaimed “Inventor of Jazz.” Morton lived a famously wild life of whiskey, women, and song – and high-stakes gambling. Legend informs that one night he lost everything gaming, and on a hunch felt like he needed to high-tail it out of town. Maybe that’s why, after signing a recording contract with Victor Records, he cut an original boogie-woogie tune titled “Seattle Hunch.” Soon after, the club was moved to 12th and Jackson, where the music-making continued into 1966.

Doc Hamilton’s Barbecue Pit, The 908 Club

Address: 908 12th Avenue
On Site Now: The Chieftain Irish Pub

In this building thrived one of Seattle’s most notorious, elegant, and popular Prohibition-era speakeasies: Doc Hamilton’s Barbecue Pit. African American businessman John Henry “Doc” Hamilton had arrived from Mississippi (presumably with his “secret” BBQ sauce recipe in pocket) in 1914, and proceeded to open a series of illicit nightclubs. This one was his finest; it was considered the local equivalent to Harlem’s Cotton Club. It was a corrupt time, with rum-running from Canada, bootleg liquor stills, and payoffs to police, liquor agents, and government officials. But with Doc manning the pit, gambling underway in the basement, and jazzmen like Oscar Holden – who’d played with Louis Armstrong and is considered the Father of Seattle jazz – tinkling the piano behind singers, the draw was irresistible. As one historian noted: “Limousines lined the curb out front, while Seattle’s social elite, including the mayor, ducked in and out of the club.” But despite protection money Doc paid authorities, his club was raided repeatedly. In May 1931 he was busted and imprisoned. Later the place was recast by Dick Ruffin as the 908 Supper Club, featuring local Black jazzers such as band-leader Bumps Blackwell (with Ernestine Anderson), and periodic visits by touring stars such as Nat King Cole. Around 1950, Cecil Young’s pioneering bebop quartet gigged here. It became an outpost of beatnik culture and early rockin’ R&B before closing in 1956. 

The Blue Note, Local 493 Musicians Union Hall

Address: 1319 E Jefferson Street
On Site Now: Craft Apartments

In 1918, Seattle’s African American players formed their own American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Union Local 458 – because Seattle’s first musicians union (AFM Local 76) did not welcome non-white members. In 1924, Local 458 morphed into Local 493, and over the following two decades held its meetings in various locations (including, awkwardly, in Local 76’s office, where 493 members were not allowed to socialize). After holding fundraising concerts, 493 was able to purchase its own modest (circa 1937) building in April 1951. This spot was then used as the Musicians’ Blue Note Club, Inc. – both union headquarters and a private nightclub, soon known simply as the Blue Note. It featured a bar, tables and chairs, and a piano. Members of 493, including young trumpeter Quincy Jones (b. 1933), could stop in and jam with fellow players both young and old. Stars dropped by for after-gig jams, including members of the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras. After long struggles, 493 and 76 finally merged in January 1958, and the hall was sold. By the 1960s, the historic spot had been turned into a nondescript lunch counter, Debbies (later Nellie’s Café).

The Rocking Chair

Address: 115 14th Avenue S
On Site Now: Bailey Gatzert Elementary School parking lot

In the Roaring ’20s, in the midst of Prohibition, “Big Lewis” Richardson ran the Blue Rose club in a two-story wooden house on this site in the heart of Seattle’s Black community. Among the players who performed here were Creole jazz legend Joe Darensbourg and his pianist Oscar Holden. In 1946, the club was recast as the Old Rocking Chair, a room with a comfortable bar built from glass blocks, a small bandstand, and a not-so-discrete gambling room upstairs. One night in March 1948 a blind, teenaged pianist fresh off a Greyhound bus from Florida named Ray Robinson popped in, wanting to sit in and play a few blues numbers. The crowd was delighted and he was offered a weekly gig nearby at the “Black” Elks Club, where he performed with his guitarist pal Garcia McKee. He added a drummer, and soon his trio won the house-band gig at the Rocking Chair, where it was heard by a record execitove from Los Angeles.  Whisked into a recording studio, the trio recorded Seattle’s first R&B record, “Confession Blues.” Robinson went on to global fame as Ray Charles (1930-2004), the “Genius of Soul” – but not before he cut another early record: a tribute titled, “Rocking Chair Blues.” After Charles split the scene in 1949, the club closed down. 

The “Black” Elks Club Lodge No. 109

Address: 662 1/2 S Jackson Street
On Site Now: Medical offices

This fraternal chapter of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (Puget Sound Lodge No. 109) was founded (originally at 18th Avenue and E Madison Street) for the membership of African Americans in the Seattle community by at least 1938. With Prohibition having been repealed, the newer second-floor hall boasted a bandstand, a piano, a dance floor, and plenty of tables and chairs, but because the serving of hard liquor was still forbidden by law, customers had to bring their own bottle and purchase “set-ups” – ice, glasses, and cocktails mixers. Or, if they didn’t (wink, wink), such places often could still accommodate. When the serving of drinks was finally legalized in March 1949, authorities focused on raiding the “bottle clubs” in an effort to drive them out of business. Musically, the energetic Gene Coy and his Eleven Black Aces were a ‘30s dance favorite, and the Ray Charles Trio played its first gigs here in 1948. In 1950, the town’s first important be-bop crew, the Cecil Young Quartet, drew steady crowds, and young jazz singer Ernestine Anderson snuck in to sing. After a police raid netted 117 people in 1952, the Elks Club was shuttered. 

The Black & Tan

Address: 404 1/2 12th Avenue S
On Site Now: Seattle Herbs & Grocery

Seattle’s early jazz scene arose along S Jackson Street – the area where many of the town’s first African Americans (and Asians) discovered they were allowed to settle. As time went on, that zone extended eastward (on Jackson and surrounding streets), past Chinatown, and into what would become known as the Central District (CD). By the 1940s, dozens of nightclubs were strung along the route – including such fabled spots as the 411 Club (411 Maynard Avenue S), Club Maynard (612 Maynard), the Ebony Café (5th and S Jackson), the Green Dot (509 S Jackson), and the Dumas Club (1040 S Jackson). Local Black nightlife kingpin Russell “Noodles” Smith opened the latter in 1917, and in 1920 he relocated the Entertainers Cabaret to this corner and hired West Coast jazz pioneers Reb Spikes’ So Different Orchestra to play. In 1922, Smith opened the Alhambra Cabaret in this site’s basement, and by 1932 it was given a new name – one intended to convey a policy of racial tolerance: the Black & Tan. The joint had its own Black & Tan Orchestra, and decades of great music followed: in 1929 Joe Darensbourg played here, as did the Harlem Knights in 1933, and ragtime piano ace Eubie Blake in 1934, and Gene Coy in 1937. Others followed, including Louis Armstrong, Louis Jordan, Duke Ellington, Lucky Millinder, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker, and Ray Charles. By the early 1960s, young local R&B/jazz players such as Dave Lewis (1938-1998), Mike Mandel, and Larry Coryell performed here, up until 1966. 

Pete’s Poop Deck

Address: 77 S Main Street
On Site Now: Former Flatcolor Gallery

In 1957, 20-year old entrepreneur Pete Barbas decided to open a bohemian/beatnik hangout in Seattle. He scoped out Seattle’s Skid Road, saw that the area was dilapidated, largely boarded-up, bereft of restaurants or other attractions, and thought it was simply perfect. Renting this spot in the shadow of the looming Alaska Way Viaduct, he outfitted the space with apple crates for chairs, wooden slabs on boxes as tables, and a floor covered with peanut shells. Booking local and nationally known jazz artists, along with the requisite beat poetry readings, a bearded and black leotard- or beret-clad clientele began showing up. Among the outside talents who performed here were Ahmad Jamal, Cal Tjader, Shorty Rogers, Chris Connor, and the Horace Silver Quintet. Local stars included Ernestine Anderson, Floyd Standifer, Woody Woodhouse, and Vernon Brown. Soon after the World’s Fair ended in October 1962, Barbas sold the club. 

The Penthouse

Address: 701 1st Avenue
On Site Now: 1st & Columbia Parking Garage

Seattle’s newest nightclub was launched here by Charlie Puzzo in January 1962, and it had a profound effect on the town by offering shows by many of the greatest jazz stars including John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and Anita O’Day. This site originally held the 1884 Merchant’s National Bank Building, which burned in the Great Fire of 1889; soon the seven-story Safe Deposit Building was built, and then in 1956 it was sold and renamed the Reliance Building. Finally, in 1961, with legions of crowds expected in 1962 for Seattle’s Century 21 World’s Fair, Puzzo leased the ground floor space to create The Penthouse. One reason the room got so popular so quickly was that KING-FM radio DJ Jim Wilke broadcast shows live from here for seven years. Among other highlights were shows by comedian Bill Cosby, rocker Little Richard, and young gospel/soul singer Aretha Franklin. Top local jazzers including Ernestine Anderson, Larry Coryell, Carlos Ward, and Joe Brazil played here, as did Seattle folk/pop hit-makers the Brothers Four. Perhaps the most fabled booking of all was the Coltrane combo’s gig from September 27 to October 2, 1965. The night of the 30th was recorded by a local studio engineer and later released as the famous Live In Seattle LP. In 1968 the club was shuttered, the building razed, and a parking lot built.

Ernestine’s, Parnell’s

Address: 313 Occidental Avenue S
On Site Now: Davidson Galleries

Not every successful musician gets an opportunity to launch their own namesake nightclub, but Seattle’s longtime jazz diva Ernestine Anderson (1928-2016) did exactly that on this site in December 1982. A veteran of the local scene since she was a teenager in the 1940s, Anderson’s path to stardom was incredible. Early on, she sang with fellow teenagers Ray Charles and Quincy Jones before she was discovered by touring star Johnny Otis, who took her on the road at age 18. That led to work with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, a recording career, and countless world tours. Finally settling back home in Seattle, Anderson and three partners acquired the lease for Roy Parnell’s 150-seat jazz nitespot, which had operated here from 1976 through 1982. In addition to Anderson’s frequent performances, the club showcased a who’s who of other top talents – including Chet Baker, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Milt Jackson, Marian McPartland, Esther Phillips, Howard Roberts, Bud Shank, Cal Tjader, and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. By March 1984, Ernestine’s was superseded by the Three Thirteen jazz club. Since 1986 the site has been the home of Davidson Galleries.