City Of Jazz -- It May Be Lite, Hard, Retro Or Ultra-Hip, And It's Alive And Swinging In Seattle
On a recent Sunday night in Seattle, Cassandra Wilson, the sultry vocalist from Brooklyn, was entrancing a crowd at the Backstage, having just played Dimitriou's Jazz Alley a few months earlier. Local showman Andy Shaw was at Jazz Alley, singing at the weekly Earshot series. Around the corner, Buddy Catlett's jam session bristled with energy at Salute in Citta.
And that was just Sunday night. Monday, the bustling yuppie bar at Wild Ginger sported Seattle vocalist Julie Wolf's quartet, the New Orleans Restaurant had a full room for Dixieland, and Catlett had moved his crowd over to Franco's Hidden Harbor, with svelte vocalist B.B. White.
And so it went, throughout the week. Jim Knapp's deliciously intricate new rehearsal band hit Patti Summers' on Tuesday, even as Hadley Caliman's quartet wailed at the Tractor Tavern on the other side of town, and Mardou Fox, a retro-beatnik jazz poetry ensemble, declaimed its verses at the Re-Bar.
Whether it's lite jazz or hard, retro or ultra-hip, domestic or import, jazz can be heard all over town these days.
"I'm having to add a third page to my calendar section," declares Sandy Burlingame, editor of Earshot Jazz, a local newsletter.
With the Earshot World Jazz Festival kicking off today with its most ambitious schedule yet, what's going on? Has Seattle jazz hit a new high?
Time was, 45 years ago, when Seattle could boast 34 after-hours clubs along Jackson Street. That was the scene that turned out Quincy Jones, Ernestine Anderson and Ray Charles. Is the scene bubbling back up to the level of its after-hours heyday?
How does the action now compare to then, or, say, 18 years ago, when the Jazz Renaissance got under way around the country? Who's going out to hear the music at these clubs? And how does Seattle stack up against other U.S. cities for jazz?
"We have one of the healthiest jazz scenes in the country," says KPLU-FM jazz host Jim Wilke, who plays the music of Northwest jazz musicians Fridays from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., books the new Kirkland Jazz Festival, and announces national jazz listings every week on his Jazz After Hours radio show.
"The scene in Seattle is comparable to Chicago and New York. It's pretty amazing. Certainly by comparison to San Francisco. Seattle has six times as much jazz as San Francisco."
In addition to full-time jazz clubs such as the New Orleans and Jazz Alley, Wilke points out that several neighborhood spots, such as the Latona, the Wedgewood and the Still Life, present jazz off and on, and, "even more encouraging, clubs where rock is usually played, such as the Weathered Wall, have opened up to jazz, too.
"When you go to Port Townsend to the jazz festival, and you see this sea of gray hair, you realize how important this is, that a young audience is coming out for the music (in Seattle clubs)."
One of the reasons some young people know about jazz is that they have access to stable institutions that have developed to nurture the music beyond the valleys and peaks of entertainment spending cycles.
Back in the Jackson Street days, jazz clubs were supported by bootleggers, police payoffs and segregation, which separated black and white musicians' unions. Today, things are more sedate, but a preferable support system is in place.
Take, for example, saxophonist Mark Taylor, who was subbing the other night in Jim Knapp's band. Just five years ago, Taylor's beyond-his-years improvising turned heads at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Moscow, Idaho, where Taylor played in Scott Brown's fabulous Roosevelt High School jazz band. Since then, Taylor has worked his way through the University of Washington jazz program and into the professional life of the city.
Not many towns could offer a young musician such an orderly progression of training grounds, from high school to a local composer's big-band. Clarence Acox at Garfield High School, and the Cornish College of the Arts, are part of the same rich mix.
Commercial institutions fuel Seattle's jazz fires, too. One of them is Dimitriou's Jazz Alley, among the finest-looking and -sounding clubs in the nation, and going into its 15th year. Owner John Dimitriou has succeeded in a field notorious for its noble failures.
"We're not buying any yachts," says Dimitriou. "But things are OK. We're stable."
Dimitriou and Gay Anderson, owner of the New Orleans Restaurant, agree that business was better in 1990, when national marketing for the jazz revival reached a peak, but even Anderson intends to book national acts again next spring.
Radio jazz alive and well
Far more people listen to jazz on the radio than go out to hear it live. According to the Arbitron Corp., 228,000 people a week listen to KPLU-FM. Aficionados complain the station plays it too safe, but at least it plays jazz all day, conservative or not. San Francisco recently lost its only jazz station to bankruptcy.
"Besides, if people want to listen to a two-hour Ornette Coleman show, they can tune in KBCS," says KPLU disk jockey Dave Brisker, referring to Bellevue Community College's more adventurous jazz and folk station. "We are mass-marketing jazz. People will always outgrow us."
KPLU's growth speaks for Seattle's expanding jazz audience. The station has 11,000 subscribers, up from 5,000 10 years ago; its budget has doubled in five years, from $1 million to $2 million.
Jazz has become an equal partner in Seattle's nonprofit arts arena as well. Earshot Jazz, begun as a newsletter in 1984, now has a budget of nearly a quarter million dollars, a threefold increase over the past five years. Earshot's free newsletter is one of the best little jazz rags in the country, and its festival, though lacking a clear artistic concept, is gaining maturity.
Beyond stable institutions and a thriving club scene, something else has happened in Seattle jazz. Ten years ago, a new perspective began to emerge among players, something pianist Allen Youngblood called a "national attitude." Over the past decade, that attitude has become second nature to the Seattle scene.
Back in the Jackson Street days, though there were terrific musicians, many of them thought what they were doing had no importance. Today, that's not the case. Young players know Seattle is on the map.
This is not only true of superstars like Kenny G and Diane Schuur, but of the last crop of Cornish kids, such drummers as Mike Sarin and Aaron Alexander, guitarist Brad Schoeppach and saxophonist Briggan Krause, all of whom are working and touring with national and international groups.
Many musicians here are connected to an international network. Pianist Larry Fuller just returned from a road trip with Los Angeles drummer Jeff Hamilton. Danny Deardorf recently formed a quartet with the brilliant Brazilian pianist Jovino Santos Neto. Saxophonist Denney Goodhew is teaching in Berlin, and will soon record with the Northwest-based supergroup, Oregon.
"We're not just the farm team anymore," says Deardorf, who heads the Cornish jazz faculty. "When we started out (in the '70s) we always thought, `Hey, someday we'll be real jazz musicians.' Now, everyone I know has been out and seen their place in the jazz world."
The new generation of experimentalists coming up, who play a fuzzy-edged jazz/grunge blend Deardorf has humorously dubbed "Pearl Jazz," is as exciting as the last bunch.
Two Cornish grads, the wildly creative violinist Eyvind Kang and guitarist Tim Young, are part of it; so are drummers Mike Stone, who works with composer/pianist Wayne Horvitz (who has had no small influence on these players) and Andrew Drury.
"These guys are open to anything," says Knapp. "Rock, playing with dancers, theater. Jazz in all directions. And they're sticking around town, too."
"Jazz is the guilty pleasure of the grunge generation," says KPLU's Brisker, who gleefully watched one night as a spill-over crowd for 7 Year Bitch at the Weathered Wall filtered cautiously up to the jazz gig upstairs - and stayed. Other venues where the Pearl Jazzers often show up include Moe, the Re-Bar and the OK Hotel.
With bright young players, strong and stable institutions, a surge of club activity and international connections, Seattle jazz would seem to have come of age. But, naturally, there are places where the scene could be improved.
It's still hard to find a good selection of vintage used recordings. The level of pay afforded local musicians is also an outrage: $75 for a night's work (if they're lucky), which is what they were getting 20 years ago! And for a town that boasts of its jazz values, it's an embarrassment that only two rooms - Jazz Alley and the New Orleans - have real pianos.
Fans of contemporary electric jazz, on the other hand, point out that Seattle has no fusion club and followers of progressive sounds complain that promoters won't take a chance on great new groups with no name recognition, such as Joe Lovano, Wallace Roney or Eight Bold Souls.
From a stylistic viewpoint, master saxophonist Hadley Caliman, who teaches at Cornish, perceptively points out that Seattle rhythm sections either play in a "tight," bebop mode, or "all energy, all freedom. There's nothing in between. They don't get loose and melodic."
Knapp mentions that Seattle still lacks a jazz record label. And gospel choir leader Pat Wright, recently hired as an organizer by Local 76 of the Musicians Association, feels that players from the old black musicians' union, Local 493, still go unheralded and unhired. To remedy this, she has put a resolution before the membership to change its charter number to Local 76-493.
If people stopped complaining, of course, it would be time to start worrying. Things aren't perfect, but they're as good or better than they've ever been.
And getting better all the time. ----------------------------------------------------------------- Paul de Barros is a Seattle freelance jazz and arts critic. His recent book "Jackson Street After Hours" chronicles the history of Seattle's jazz scene.
Published Correction Date: 10/30/94 - Chuck Deardorf Is Head Of The Jazz Department At Cornish College Of The Arts. This Story About Seattle's Jazz Scene Identified Him Incorrectly.
Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.