Jamie Ford, author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, writes about a Seattle that his grandparents knew; an Emerald City overflowing with booze, gambling and jazz; a place where on any given night musicians such as Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington might ply their trade. Local author Paul de Barros takes an in-depth look at the jazz scene of this same Seattle in his book Jackson Street After Hours.
“Imagine a time when Seattle, which now rolls up its streets at
10 o’clock, was full of people walking up and down the sidewalk after midnight. When you could buy a newspaper at the corner of 14th and Yesler from a man called Neversleep – at three in the morning.”
This vivacious Seattle, alive with depraved music and good-time girls, with culture slapping the sidewalk at all hours of the night, seems as foreign now as the remote jungles of Borneo. Out of this boiling cauldron of jazz arose legends-in-the-making Quincy Jones and Ray Charles. As these larger-than-life performers cometted from oblivion to international renown, their lives became the stuff from which legends are forged.
Quincy Jones, producer of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, commenced his brilliant career in late-1940s Seattle playing trumpet in the Bumps Blackwell Junior Band, sharing the stage with jazz luminaries Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole and Louis Jordan when they came to town.
In his journeys Quincy met one Ray Charles Robinson, better known to you and me as R. C., Papa Ray or Ray Charles. At age 16 Charles came to Seattle from Florida, knowing only one person in town, fellow musician Garcia McKee, and having no idea of how to find him.
“Always the survivor, Charles called the police department and
several radio stations, asking them to broadcast McKee’s name,
and to say that his friend R. C. had arrived.”
Ray and Quincy went on to forge a friendship that endured until Charles’ death in 2004. Jones fondly remembers their first days together in Seattle.
“Ray seemed o-o-o-old. He was so mature. And he was only two years older than I was! He was sixteen and I was fourteen. He had his own apartment, his own suits, and everything. Oh boy, did I look up to him. He was just so wise.”
Jackson Street After Hours weaves together these and many other stories of local musicians destined for fame, also-rans, and outstanding musicians of old who made stops in Seattle. The nightclubs and the nightlife come alive with tales of police corruption, racial tension and flagrant disregard for the law. De Barros’ book is an exciting read filled with encyclopedic detail and captivating adventures.
The names and faces have changed, but the Seattle jazz scene remains vibrant, largely thanks to Earshot Jazz, a local organization which Paul de Barros helped create. On any night of the week one can hear a local or national artist tinkling the ivories (or brass, or cat gut) in a variety of greater Seattle area clubs such as Bake’s Place. And Tacoma radio station KPLU offers its own steady diet of the bebop boogie-woogie doo-be-doo jive. Of course, one can also choose to explore local jazz artists at Everett Public Library.