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Thursday, February 23, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Roy Parnell made a home for jazz

Seattle Times jazz critic

Roy's living room.

That's how jazz fans still lovingly refer to Parnell's, the Pioneer Square jazz club operated by Roy Parnell from 1976 to 1980.

Mr. Parnell died Saturday of pneumonia, brought on by the chronic disease scleroderma, from which he had suffered 6-½ years. He was 63.

"It's really precious to have been married to a man like that," said his wife, Sandy, who worked in the club's kitchen. "He loved me and he loved his kids. He was such a steady guy. Monty [Alexander, a renowned jazz pianist] always said, 'In the jazz business, Roy would be the bass player. The bass player is very steady.' "

When Parnell's opened in November 1976, jazz had been on the back burner for nearly a decade. The Bicentennial year would mark the beginning of a national jazz renaissance. Mr. Parnell, a lifelong jazz fan, saw it coming.

Born in Seattle, he played football at Renton High School and the College of San Mateo, in California, and later earned a master's degree at Central Washington University. In the '60s and '70s, he worked as a parole officer for King and Snohomish counties.

A tall, big-chested, imposing man who wore a trim beard and carried himself with the authority of a ship's captain, the former county employee did not fit the stereotype of a jazz-club owner.

"He wasn't a 'jazz guy,' " said his brother-in-law, Jimmy Manolides, who tended bar at the club and played keyboards with the classic rock band Junior Cadillac. "He didn't drink and he was not a night sort of guy."

A restless entrepreneur, Mr. Parnell started the club because he was bored with his job. Inspired by the success — and design — of the Portland club, Jazz de Opus, owned by his wife's cousin, he opened his night spot at 313 Occidental Ave. S. (now occupied by the Davidson Galleries).

Seating 125, the club had brick walls, large cushions and Tiffany-style lamps suspended over the tables. Airbrushed portraits of jazz musicians that now hang in Dimitriou's Jazz Alley adorned the walls. The owner created the illusion of a low ceiling by suspending 2-by-12-foot beams, painted flat black, across the room.

"Roy accidentally made the place sound really great," recalled Manolides, a hipster raconteur whose stories behind the bar were often as entertaining as the music. "The ceiling in that space was 16 feet. The sound would go up through those 2-by-12's and rattle around up above there and come back down, so it was like a big radiator of sound. The musicians said, to a man, 'We've never played in a place that sounds this good.' "

Recalled Seattle's Jim Wilke, radio host of "Jazz After Hours": "I don't know if there ever was a more comfortable jazz club. It was always like a party in Roy's living room."

The long list of musicians who played Parnell's over the years included Bill Evans, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Blue Mitchell, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Anita O'Day, Joe Williams, Harold Land, Milt Jackson, Bob Dorough, Ray Brown, Dave Frishberg, Ernestine Anderson, Phil Woods, Charlie Byrd, Sonny Stitt and Cal Tjader.

Mr. Parnell, who had a weakness for comedians, often booked Professor Irwin Corey.

Many name players in the '70s hired local rhythm sections, a boon for Seattle players, said pianist Dave Peck.

"It was really influential in the history of the scene," he said. "It was where we could essentially go to school together. It not only became a really great gig for us all, but it was the driving force for us to get better at playing."

In 1980, wanting to spend more time with his family, Mr. Parnell sold the club to Marv Thomas, a former big-band trumpet player whose son, trumpeter and saxophonist Jay Thomas, is a fixture on the local jazz scene. Thomas in turn sold the venue two years later to a group of four investors that included Seattle singer Ernestine Anderson, who renamed it Ernestine's. In 1983, the club closed, in bankruptcy.

Mr. Parnell got back into the jazz business briefly in late 1984, when he operated Roxie's, in Bellevue, but the club lasted only seven weeks. After a variety of projects, including a business that made chocolate fortune cookies, called Wisecrackers, Mr. Parnell, having become a born-again Christian, landed at Crista Ministries in 1986. When he died, he was Crista's vice president for human resources.

Crista, in Shoreline, is a nonprofit that includes churches, the relief charity World Concern, radio stations and King's Schools. (Coincidentally, the jazz vocal choir at King's Junior High School, has dominated regional competitions for years.)

"He used to say, 'I'm in charge of the care and feeding of 1,200 people,' " said his wife. "They did a little Roy Parnell Appreciation Day just a couple of months ago. He didn't want it done at all. All the employees came. It was very emotional to hear how he touched their lives."

The former football player was a lifelong sports fan.

"He sat in his chair and he watched basketball, on end," said Sandy. "And, of course, the Seahawks."

Scleroderma is a progressive, painful disease that hardens the skin and internal organs and affects the immune system. However, Mr. Parnell worked until a few weeks before his death.

Mr. Parnell is survived by his wife, two children — Angie Reimer and Alex Parnell — and one grandchild, Angie's son Nicholas "Niko" Reimer.

A memorial celebration, open to the public, will be held at 1 p.m. Monday at Canyon Hills Community Church, 22027 17th Ave. S.E., Bothell.

Remembrances can be sent in his name to King's School, 19303 Fremont Ave. N., Seattle, WA 98133.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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