Tula's Jazz Club: Soliloquy to a Seattle Jazz Institution

Paul Rauch By

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It was the tail end of a long weekend. Temperatures had risen to 80 degrees under a sunny only-in-Seattle blue sky, the waterways and markets humming with a sea of humanity. It was not a night one would expect many to venture into the quiet, dark solitude of Tula's Jazz Club, where for nearly 26 years the best of Seattle's vibrant jazz scene had come to roost. The scene up and down Second Avenue in Belltown was its usual interesting mosaic of bars, restaurants, and music clubs. With no outdoor access, or air conditioning, Tula's manager Jason Moore was not expecting a big turnout. This was Seattle, and when the weather turns warm and sunny, Seattleites tend to shake off a little rust and soak in the sun while they can.

Opening the door to the club from the sun drenched pavement, to the intimate, lowly lit confines of this historic Seattle jazz spot is like entering another realm, an alternate reality. There was a buzz in the room, even with the first set still an hour away into the distant night.

An hour later revealed the source of the intense anticipation in the room. Jay Thomas, a Seattle jazz legend was bringing a few friends in on the rebound from the Jazz Port Townsend Festival across Salish Sea on the Olympic Peninsula. The audience would be fortunate to see the great George Cables at the piano, baritone saxophone great Gary Smulyan, and drummer Matt Wilson join Seattle stalwarts Thomas, and bassist Michael Glynn.

While the stage at Tula's is largely occupied with the deep talent pool that currently resides in Seattle, it is commonplace to see international jazz stars stop in to Tula's to share in the wealth of talent here. In the past quarter century, the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, Hadley Caliman, Larry Fuller, Clarence Penn, Joe Locke, Gary Bartz, Orrin Evans, Eric Revis, Ralph Peterson, and the Curtis Brothers have graced the Belltown night spot with their inspired talents. Then there is Cables and Smulyan, on that night playing New York fast, or sweet and slow in tow with Glynn and Wilson. Thomas moved from trumpet to alto saxophone, then doubled down on flugelhorn and tenor. There was no sheet music on the bandstand, only musicians with great intuition and curiosity. The mood on stage was celebratory, the tiny 96 seat room packed with jazz fans seated around tables draped in white linen, intently all in as listeners.

Stepping outside into the night, there was a young woman seated outside the club appearing distant, reflective. The music poured out of the room onto the sidewalk on Second Avenue with a certain intensity, Smulyan projecting his deep throated sound into the Seattle night. Cables, Glynn, and Wilson surged along as a veritable rhythmic pulse, Thomas playing counterpoint on flugelhorn, a deep look of joy and satisfaction on his face. The young woman noticed me exiting the club, smiled broadly and said, "So THIS is jazz beautiful." I smiled, and told her there should be a seat opening up at the set break. She would later tell me she had never experienced jazz before, and that taking in the second set changed how she "thought about music." Delightfully I shared with her that I had heard that often at jazz gigs, and that everyone in the room had experienced the same. She left with the same smile she greeted me with upon first chancing upon her seated on the sidewalk leaning against the outside wall of the club being drawn in by the music.

With the onset of the long summer days of July, the jazz community was burdened with the sad news that the club would be closing its doors for good after the last performance in September. The news sent a shock wave through the community despite the fact that everyone knew of the eventuality of the closing, and the destruction of yet another historic neighborhood in favor of high rise, high priced apartments, and flavor of the month corporate retail. Waldron and manager Jason Moore had dealt with the stress of operating the club without a lease, to the point of trepidation in terms of investing and making badly needed improvements to the room. The Yamaha grand piano that graces the stage needed attention, as well as the sound system. The website needed modernization, and the lighting needed an upgrade.

Jason Moore came to Seattle from his native North Carolina, by way of Cocoa Beach, Florida. He was maitre d' of a restaurant that featured jazz and was frequented by a Navy acquaintance of Waldron, bassist "Rabbit" Simmons. That connection led to Moore being hired to improve the economic standing of the club, which Waldron had kept afloat at times with his own money. He understood then, as he does now, of the importance of the club to the sustainability of jazz music in Seattle, and the well being of the artists that create it. His motivation was his love for the music. Bringing in Moore to pull off the band aids and replace them with new revenue streams was rooted in that love and sense of responsibility to the jazz community. He most certainly could have retired then and there, but bringing in Moore with the idea of him taking over the business at the current location seemed to be a way to continue the Tula's tradition well into the 21st century. Moore loved the music and his new home in Seattle, and so the patrons and musicians who frequented the club saw nothing but a bright future for a venue seemingly on the rise, with the then 33 year old Moore at the helm.
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