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Paul de Barros: Critically Speaking

By Published: March 13, 2007

AAJ: Jazz Alley has been around for a long time in Seattle in various locations. It has expanded in size and its owner John Dimitriou is booking more smooth jazz acts now. Do you think that the club's format change was inevitable or is it strictly a business move to stay afloat?

PdB: John, if nothing else, is a really canny business man and really knows how to roll with the punches. He's like a boxer in the ring and he's usually way ahead of everybody else, and I think a lot of people don't see how many times he's actually changed.

This isn't the first time Jazz Alley has changed. Go back to the original Jazz Alley, where it was basically like an old-time jazz club from the '60s. It had Marian McPartland and Dexter Gordon and the cover charge was three or four bucks. It was a little dinner house with unremarkable food, in the University district, and it catered to a kind of bohemian jazz crowd. It didn't work, he lost money. Everybody thinks of those as the glory days, well they weren't the glory days for John. So John pulled the cover charge off of Jazz Alley and started to book only pianists, and that was the period when we started Earshot. People have forgotten that; he had only pianists and there was no cover.

Then the scene started to come back for him, that worked for him, and he slowly introduced his cover charge. Then he became this kind of fancy room with a fancy chef and figured out that if he charged people 30 bucks at the door and got them to spend 30 bucks on dinner and 30 bucks on wine, and he never pulled the cover charge back off, because when he originally put it on he said he was going to take it off. And then he expanded, and then he expanded again to compete with larger rooms in town.

John has always had his eye on the bottom line. Whenever business is bad he goes back into the kitchen and fires six people. He says, "You might be coming back but you're gone now." He's a really good business man. So, yes, I hate smooth jazz; I wish it wasn't at Jazz Alley, but am I going to hold it against John personally? No, because I see that by booking smooth jazz and also a lot of lounge world music acts that Gary Bannister brings in, they have a crowd for it and it sustains John's genuine interest in serving the community with mainstream jazz stars like Nicholas Payton or Roy Hargrove that will fill the club now that he's boxed himself into a corner with the expansion, where he's got to sell so many seats to break even. But I think he saw the Triple Door coming too, which is trying to cut into his business. He's a very competitive, smart business man.

AAJ: You mentioned the Triple Door, a club that has live music every night, but not always jazz. They've been around for three years now. Could you comment on that club three years later and how you feel in there?

PdB: Well, I have to say that one of the great things about the Triple Door is its accommodating Origin (Records) in the Musiquariam. To have free sets in a really lively bar with really good jazz, we don't realize how lucky we are in this city to have that and Tula's and Bake's Place and the traditional kind of stuff that they have at the New Orleans (Creole Restaurant and jazz club).

Most cities don't have that kind of depth in their jazz scene, so I wouldn't spend a lot of time complaining. That said, the (Triple Door's) big room itself has a lot of problems as a jazz room. It's not making money, contrary to what anybody might tell you down there, I've been there for performances when there were seven people in the audience, but they do sell out a lot of shows. Hey, more power to them; they're bringing all these people in that Jazz Alley won't book because they can't make any money off them, but it can't go on forever. And as a room I find it very remote. I've been on that stage and I don't like feeling the distance between the stage space and the audience.

AAJ: It's almost like a Las Vegas feel.

PdB: That's how Phil Woods described it to me. I wouldn't go that far, but the piped-in music to the private dinner suites, that's pretty Vegas, and I find it very remote being in those tables, as fancy as they are and as nice as they are and as great as the light show is and everything, when you're in this kind of cul-de-sac of a table with waiters and candles and all this stuff, I can't relate to the musicians. I want more intimacy. It's not intimate enough for me as a jazz room.

AAJ: Of your fellow jazz critics, past and present, who do you most admire?

PdB: The people who really inspired me as a teenager were Ralph Gleason, Nat Hentoff, Dan DeMicheal who edited Down Beat for a while, Leroi Jones who later became Amiri Baraka, I think those would be the main ones. They inspired me in a real broad way. I can think of liner notes that I've read by them and columns that I've read by them that made me aware of an American culture that jazz was part of as a kind of alternative to what I was being taught in school, a world of poetry and painting and I guess what you'd call an outsider or bohemian world that included the painters that were hanging out in New York in the '50s—Jackson Pollack and Larry Rivers and Robert Motherwell—that made me feel part of something different that I wasn't going to get exposed to otherwise.

Those are the people that really informed my whole point of view because they were cultural writers. They weren't just writing about jazz; and I've always aspired to be that kind of writer who tries to draw in the whole social picture, the whole cultural picture. The piece I'm working on now for the LA Times asks, where does jazz fit into this culture? Why does it have so much trouble finding its place right now? What happened between 1959 when Miles Davis' Kind of Blue was made and John Coltrane was featured in Time magazine, and now, when jazz is on the margin and kind of off the radar of the average person? That's the kind of stuff that I was inspired to think about by writers like Hentoff and Amari Baraka and Ralph Gleason.

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