Though Seattle’s nightlife seems to brim during weekend evenings and late nights, there was a time when the streets were teeming every night and the entertainment never seemed to stop.
Enter the Washington State History Museum’s current exhibit highlighting Seattle from 1937-51: “Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle.” The exhibition includes historic photographs that detail how segregation led to African Americans playing in speakeasies after midnight, and how a tight-knit jazz community began to form roots that ran deep.
Research began for the exhibit back in 1988 by Paul de Barros, who worked in the music department of Seattle University and was a former writer for the Seattle Times. The project began as an oral history funded by the King County Landmarks Heritage Program through Earshot Jazz. The interviews compiled for the project span from 1988 to 1991. Black historical documentary photographer Al Smith has seven photos included in the exhibit highlighting this exciting time for Seattle, with his images taken during the 1940s.
In total, 34 nightclubs populated the areas between First and 14th avenues downtown, and celebrities and jazz bands were standards in the streets. Russell “Noodles” Smith built the nightclub empire at 12th Avenue and Jackson Street, and soon another hub opened at Madison Street between 20th and 23rd avenues.
No one would have imagined that Seattle would become a hub of jazz music, but after Jelly Roll Morton visited the city, he referred to a “Seattle Hunch” he had about the area. In the 1890s, Maynard Town (now Pioneer Square) was engrossed in a honky-tonk culture and sailors and loggers entertained themselves with wine, ladies and music. The theater circuit also brought jazz to the forefront as it exposed individuals to new forms of entertainment by way of the Pantages Theater, opened by Alexander Pantages.
A photograph of Nora and Ross Hendrix hangs in the exhibit, taken in Seattle in 1911. The picture describes how the legendary Jimi Hendrix’s grandparents first arrived in Seattle - they were stranded after performing in a vaudeville show. The photo is an excellent one. It is well preserved and highlights Ross in a suit and vest and Nora in a necklace and an elegant hat befitting the times.
The exhibit goes on to highlight many more notable bands and musicians of the period such as an Infantry band with jazz players from 1926 including Sam Barnett, Charles Adams and Floyd Turnham, who were each important figures in Seattle’s early jazz scene; Evelyn Bundy Taylor, whose music room was a focal point for the Seattle music scene in the 1920s; Mildred Bailey on the cover of Down Beat Magazine, who was one of the first white jazz singers of significance and is from Tekoa, Wash.; jitterbuggers dancing the night away and a poster highlighting Duke Ellington playing in Seattle in March 1941.
One area of the exhibit describes how the jazz clubs during the age ranged from elegant venues to rough dives. Police raids that occurred regularly were completely for show as the “tolerance policy” in effect for the city was a lucrative source of income for many types of individuals, ranging from cops all the way to the mayor. Due to segregation laws, black musicians could only play from midnight to dawn in illegal after-hours clubs.
Rock and R&B music eventually succeeded jazz music in popularity, and the Blue Note, a club where black and white musician union 493 met, was extremely historic and symbolic in the inevitable music takeover of the area. When the 493 disappeared, so did the focus of jazz in the area. The last of the after-hours jazz locales to close was the 605 Club in 1967. The catalyst for this dismantling was a grand jury investigation that inevitably exposed the “tolerance policy,” and all who were involved with it.
Yet thankfully, the jazz scene never fully collapsed in the area completely. A new golden period for the genre emerged with Pete’s Poop Deck and the Renthouse. Integration made the playing and enjoying of jazz open to all and modern jazz as it is known today came into being.
While the exhibit itself is relatively small in size, it makes up for what it lacks in square footage by saturating visitors eyes and ears with sensory experiences that hint at what life might have been like in the booming jazz age of Seattle in the early 20th century.
“Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle” is on exhibit at the Washington State History Museum through Feb. 7. The museum is located at 1911 Pacific Ave. Regular hours are Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and the museum is open until 8 p.m. every Third Thursday. Admission ranges in price from $6-25 and is free on Third Thursdays. For more information, call 1 (888) 238-4373 or visit www.wshs.org.