all that jazz

by Art Chantry (

AN old friend and client (and fellow rocket alum), paul de barros, wrote a wonderful book on the history of the jazz scene in seattle. it is titled “jackson street: after hours” and chronicled the history of jazz in the that city since the very beginning and founding. it seems, that the seattle jazz scene was (at one time, a looooong time ago) considered the hottest jazz scene in the country (outside of new orleans, of course. you never rank amateurs with professionals…) even jelly roll morton lived up here for a spell and wrote a song about it called “the seattle rag”. sort of a prophetic title, eh?

the scene developed because of the physical racial split and legal boundaries that existed forever in the city. yet, being in a remote corner of the nation, it still had a lotta slack. to this day, the city is noted for it’s liberalism and openness, but still manages to keep it’s tiny back population segregated to a tiny part of the city. quite an accomplishment. i’d hate to be black in seattle.

AC:another name of a performer that was a solid link to seattle's early blues/jazz scene was Mildred Bailey. she was a seattle gal, born and bread. and my, she was amazing. i find her records,i still grab them fast. highly recommend everybody go find mildred bailey's work and give it a spin. it'll blow yer sox off (even though mythbusters claims it's not possible). she was at one time one of the most popular singers in the country. also, ella mae morse lived in everett. not many people know that. she got married to a carpenter and 'retired' to everett,at the very peak of her career. it must have ended badly, because she re-emerged a few years later, but she'd totally lost her edge and her audience. but, she was pretty hot at early on in her career - one of the first white women to perform with a black band doing bawdy covers and off-color songs about sex.

nevertheless, the city, while maintaining these rigid borders and lines of social demarcation, still created “safe zones” for more ‘wild’ beahvior (today we call it “slumming”) and a wonderful jazz scene flourished inside these zones, almost totally without restrictions. well, aside form the puritanical “blue laws” in the state (which were only revoked in the late 1970′s). so, the best part of the scene grew in the private ‘after hours’ clubs that evolved in private homes and speakeasys. in fact, jimi hendrix’s grandparents were vaudevillians who became stranded in seattle and ended up staying here.

the scene spawned talent like quincy jones, ray charles (who began his career here) and ernestine anderson. these names are the tip of an iceberg, really. there was a torrent o’ talent that emerged in seattle, a clusterfuck o’ clubs and cacophony o’ careers birthed here. however, the laws changed a few times, and it got pretty much shut down forever in the 1950′s. a few little clubs (largely catering to white audiences) still survived in more mainstream parts of the city, but the era was over so completely that most folks have no idea that jazz ever prospered in seattle.

then along came rock and roll and smothered the dying embers of what jazz remained. the r&b music that was fitfully creeping into the ‘lower class’ black clubs (usually fronted by strippers as opening acts) was making the final stab in the back of what jazz was left. the only ‘jazz” that survived the sixties in seattle was the academic efforts of working college instructors-cum-jazz geek musicians – a puddle of jazz noodlers.

this poster is advertising an early 60′s show by the dave lewis trio at “oil can harry’s”, one of the of the fading jazz clubs (which were usually associated with more ‘dixieland stylings”.) as the jazz slowly stopped bringing in the crowds, the management of these places started to drag in acts like dave lewis. he wrote and performed a style of uptempo r&b that was only begrudgingly called “rock and roll’ (since it was performed by black folks.)

the local armory, grange hall, dancehall rock and roll scene was exploding as (generally) white acts were being promoted through the efforts of local dj’s like dick curtiss and pat o’day. together, they almost single handedly advanced bands like the sonics, the wailers, the kingsmen, the raiders, merrilee rush, the ventures and dozens of others onto the same stages with the likes of the beach boys, the rolling stones,the beatles and the who, exposing ALL of them to the northwest in a grand scale. even though these local bands were doing extremely well on their own, these ‘teen spectaculars’ (as some of them were called) produced an explosion of fandom.

dave lewis was among these bands. but he was black. never mind that he was the guy that the wailers and the ventures the raiders and the kingsmen were trying to sound like. dave lewis’s organ and piano stylings matched with his vocal work is THE seed that links old school northwest rock to it’s jazz roots. listening to dave lewis is like listening to early ray charles if he was a stone rocker. lewis WROTE so many songs that became northwest cover standards( J.A.J., dave’s mood parts 1, 2, &3, li

green thing, mr. clyde, and dozens more) that it’s a virtual inventory of the northwest repertoire.

the wailers spawned the sonics and (according to respected british music mag “MOJO”, who starts the history of punk with their first record) created punk rock music. certainly the wailers’ (and rockin’ robin roberts’) version of richard berry’s “louie, louie” became the first national anthem of punk.

also, lesser known is the wailers contributions to the more mainstream history of rock. a young jimi hendrix used to watch the wailers (peeking in from behind the stage because black folks weren’t allowed in the front door) and listened and learned most of his initial guitar chops from watching rich dangel’s work in the wailers. most music historians (like so many, never bother to come up here and check the whole story out) generally start hendrix’s learning curve from when he was touring with the like of curtis knight and little richard. etc. but, long before he could play well enough to be considered professional enough to tour withy heavyweight bands like the upsetters, he’d show up at wailers shows with his guitar and amp. he knew that the wailers were always supercharging their equipment and blowing it up (it was a regular and predictable thing). so, he’d step up and volunteer his equp – so long as he got the play with them. that way, young jimi sorta became an auxiliary member of the wailers. i guess rich dangel particularly took a shine to him and took him under his wing, so to speak.

paul de barros In “jackson street after hours) attempts to deal with this linkage between seattle’s dead (or dying) jazz scene and the exploding young rock scene. he found no connections outside of dave lewis, it seems. he claimed that he could hear absolutely NO connection in the music of jimi hendrix and the that of the jazz artists or even dave lewis. but, i beg to differ. if you listen to hendrix’s “fire”, it’s virtually a wailers rave up, almost note for note. it could have been rich dangel playing on that record. and dangel learned his chops from dave lewis and the local jazz scene. how much linkage do you “professional historians” need?

jimi even wrote a song called ‘spanish castle music’ (on axis; bold as love”) that is about the old spanish castle ballroom, which was a center hot spot of early northwest rock and roll activity (as well as r&b and country western and jazz)

of course, this little story is not remotely complete. recently, billy miller and miriam linna of the legendary norton records made an effort to explore the roots of northwest rock and roll. they not only re-discovered and re-released all of the wailers/sonics catalogs, but also several additional volumes of great dancehall r&b flavored white AND black rock music from the vaults of long forgotten record companies.

here’s the part that floored me – they released FOUR volumes of northwest ROCKABILLY music! i’ve spent my whole life being a fanboy of music in the northwest, but i had absolutely zero idea that there was any sort of rockabilly scene in this corner of the united states. yet, billy and miriam unearthed enough to comfortably fill four full compilation records with extremely viable and even great rockabilly music (largely from the tacoma area, natch).

so, there ya go. it never ends. how much really went on up here in this forgotten corner of the nation? nirvana did NOT emerge out of nowhere – the traditions they worked in go all the way back the inception of the the first city here, buried in the dark forests. ‘grunge’ is as old as the hills. country/western. blues. jazz. R&B. rocknroll. rockabilly. who knew?

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