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Local Jazz in Seattle: Is There A Resurgence?

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CultureMob takes a snapshot of the local Seattle Jazz scene.

by Cedric Ross

Steet Art from Bainbridge Island

A few months ago, I went to Tutta Bella in Columbia City. On my way there I passed by the Hendrix Electric Lounge (the bar next to the Columbia City Theater) and looked into the window to see a quartet playing some jazz music. There was a small audience closely listening. They looked enthusiastic too! It almost made me want to go inside to see what was happening, but I was hungry. When I arrived to Tutta Bella, I saw that they too had live jazz going on. Then it dawned on me that I’ve noticed several live jazz shows through the windows of Hendrix Electric Lounge or Tutta Bella, but have never really paid attention. In fact, I’ve seen more jazz music in the city as of late than I have in a very long time. That got me thinking about the local jazz scene in Seattle. Are we seeing more venues supporting local artists these days? Are there more local artists playing out? I could recall seeing other venues showcasing jazz with their dinner audience. Is this live jazz with dinner thing taking off or am I just trippin’ (aka seeing the world through my little narrow point of view)?

What am I asking here? I guess I should first define my theory in a way that I could easily articulate. Okay, try this; I think that jazz music is on the rise in Seattle. Not just any jazz, mind you. I’m talking about homegrown local jazz. So potent, it should be illegal. There is more live jazz music being played in restaurants and venues than I’ve personally seen in the past 10 or so years. That’s my theory. But what’s a theory if you can’t attempt to prove it right? And for that matter, what’s proof if you don’t have any credibility? So I decided to stimulate my curiosity by talking to a few experts on the subject to get their opinion. What I found out was not what I expected.

“First of all, thank you for noticing!” Says Gary Bannister (the Booking manager at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley and an unofficial jazz historian). I arrived at Jazz Alley early in the afternoon. Gary was outside opening the doors for jazz artist Chris Botti and his band. Chris Botti (Trumpeter, Composer and sometimes singer) was in town for a multi night gig. Gary seemed excited to see them. He had just picked up the band from the airport and was letting them into the venue to set up and sound check. We talked while Gary was driving the bus back to where his van was. It was cool of him to let me tag along. It turns out that Gary was a founding member of Earshot Jazz (1984). In Gary’s opinion, Jazz has come full circle in Seattle.

Gary tends to agree that there’s a growing interest in live jazz in Seattle. He’s optimistic but believes that the majority of patrons going out to hear jazz music for the first time get less exposed to the diversity of the genre. Which is something that he works hard to remedy night in and night out as a booking manager. He sees a change in the casual music listener. There are more people willing to get out and experience live jazz. Gary thinks music has become more of a social activity. People have also become less intimidated by the venues that support it. There will always be those that prefer to patronize the smoke filled rooms or dives of course, but the majority of listeners prefer a more inviting atmosphere.

Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley, Tula’s Jazz Club, Bakes Places, New City Theater have supported jazz music over the years. As I mentioned previously, Tutta Bella in Columbia City, the Hendrix Electric Lounge, The Triple Door, Serafina, La Spiga, and Wasabi Bistro are but a few of the newer local Seattle spots that also support jazz music.

Seattle based composer and improviser artist Christopher DeLaurenti voices skepticism with the notion that there’s a resurgence of the local Jazz scene. Christopher, who covers classical, jazz, and experimental music in a weekly column for The Stranger speaks about the jazz scene from a different perspective. “The local jazz scene activity is healthy and vibrant”. Claims Christopher. He accepts that more people are becoming aware of jazz music but to him, it’s hard to gauge if there’s a significant increase in the interest. Furthermore, there appears to be no increase in venues. He doesn’t see a lot of focus on the artist at restaurants that support live music. You know that saying about the difference between hearing and listening right? My mom used to always tell me I never listen. She’d go on to say other things but I can’t remember what she would say…but I digress!

Christopher and I had a great conversation about all the artists we know that have often complained about the music listener. Do local artists stand more of a chance of being ignored? What are their chances of actually being heard? Will the music they play have any effect on someone’s life? His father who was also a musician, used to play at the local restaurants. He once told Christopher about a time when he played in a noisy restaurant, not too many people were there to listen to the music. It was more background than anything else. Then, during the playing of one tune, a patron stopped whatever he was doing and got interested. Christopher’s father noticed that this one patron got involved. I’m retelling this story in my own words but you get my meaning. One tune had made the difference.

Gary Bannister has similar ideas regarding the relationship between the listener and the artist. He gives a lot of credit to the late Al Hood, Piano player and composer. Alastair “Al” Hood recorded one of the first Experimental Jazz albums in Seattle (Not Quite Right – released 1978). He died on April 25, 2003 at the age of 67. It was Al that hipped Gary to the likes of Cecil Taylor, Andrew Hill, and so many other great artists. He instilled in Gary a love of music that Gary seems to instill in others. Myself included. I mean, I just talked to the man for about an hour but I walked away with a tremendous respect for his experience and sense of history. “Those great artists who contributed to history are often undervalued. “Younger people get little doses of their history”. There are some very good magazines and blogs about jazz. The magazines tend to highlight current events but many of them will feature an artist and expose readers to the rich legacy jazz music has to offer.

Christopher shares that there are a number of really cool magazines out there he likes. NW Jazz Profile, Earshot Jazz and All About Jazz Seattle are great resources. Earshot Jazz is the oldest and most in-depth of the three. There are also a few excellent blogs that seem to capture the scene pretty well. It’s not like there’s a lack of musicians to write about. At times it seems like musicians are coming out of the woodwork. Christopher DeLaurenti recalled a conversation he had with Doug Haire (Artist, composer). They talked about a theory known as the Six Month Rule. Every six months seems to bring up new crops of artists out of nowhere. Or a defunct band re-formed…again, these are my words in the retelling of the story. Doug Haire is also the producer of the local Seattle radio show Sonarchy, which is recorded at Jack Straw Productions. You can hear Sonarchy every Saturday from midnight to 1am on KEXP 90.3 FM in Seattle.

Throughout my conversation with Gary and Christopher, I started to appreciate their depth of experience, and their commitment to inspire the next generation of artists and enthusiasts out there. In fact, I soon realized that the most notable thing they had in common was their belief in the artists, enthusiast and the venues that support them. I’m looking forward to talking to Gary and Christopher more in the future!

At the end of the day, I don’t know if I definitively can say that the local jazz scene is on the rise. What I do know is that there are plenty of opportunities for you to get out and decide for yourself.

My thanks again go out to Gary Bannister (Booking Manager for Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley | www.jazzalley.com) and to Christopher DeLaurenti. (www.thestranger.com, www.delaurenti.net).

Go to Culturemob.com to find out about Jazz artists, events and venues in the Seattle area.