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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.

Moore began to apply his hands on approach to managing the club, changing the decor to a true night club look and vibe, adding higher end cuisine to the menu, and featuring fine wines and liquors. He worked every angle conceivable, brokering deals with liquor sales associates, skillfully managing personnel, and hiring the top tier of jazz talent in the city and beyond. To that end, he relied on the knowledge of long-time Seattle jazzers, such as trumpeter Thomas Marriott, drummer and Origin Records principal John Bishop, singer Greta Matassa, and pianist Bill Anschell. He brought in weekend ringers Marc Seales, Jovino Santos Neto, Gail Pettis and Susan Pascal. Long term big band engagements were replaced with small groups more amiable to the jazz supper club vibe of the new Tula's. The club continued its listening room policy, with intimate conversation only, placing the music itself as its top priority as it had always been under Waldron. Moore could be found behind the bar most nights, and after the club closes, performing janitorial duties most club owners or managers wouldn't touch. It helped hold down the bottom line and keep costs to a minimum. "People don't see this," quipped Moore, "The glamour of running a jazz club."

Gone were the three set nights, whittled down to two. The late night sets ended, as did happy hour, as Moore concentrated on smaller staff, and more focus on a 7:30 dinner set, followed by a 9:00 cocktail set. The weekly Monday night jam session ended, with Moore closing the club Mondays to give dedicated employees a guaranteed day off each week. This enabled him to maintain a long term wait staff in the unique environment of the traditional jazz supper club. It's as if staff members are half waitperson, and half family, welcoming friends and valued guests. The welcoming vibe and quiet attention one receives from long time Tula's employee Alana Lloyd will be missed just as the music will be, and the many friends one finds gathered there. Lloyd became a true friend of the jazz community, something that will not end when the club closes its doors.

There is no foyer at Tula's, much less a lobby. The swinging wooden doors are all that separate the infinite confines of a classic jazz spot, with the shuffling, wayward flow of the street beat in the heart of Belltown. The block where the club is situated includes an almost disparate variety of bars and restaurants under the shadow of a ramshackle apartment house that is the last standing structure dating back to Seattle before the massive Denny regrade project leveled the area that includes the Second Avenue strip. On the north end bordered by Bell Street, Mama's Kitchen served Mexican food and strong drinks, at prices musicians could afford. Often the evening hang would begin there for artists performing at the club. Mama's closed recently, open only for private events, they as well feeling the heat of imminent demise. Next door, Rocco's Restaurant and Bar is planning a move north on Second Avenue. Often a late night hang for Tula's patrons, there is typically a line to get a spot in the New York style pizzeria. The south end of the block is occupied by the famed Crocodile, the anointed ground zero of the grunge movement of the '90s. In the same way that Tula's has created a stage for up and coming Seattle jazz artists, The Crocodile has done the same for the vaunted Seattle rock scene. Bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and R.E.M all cut their respective teeth there. The tradition continues strongly, with national touring acts added to the mix.

The neighborhood vibe that surrounds Tula's has a character and vibrant funk that will be lost forever once the wrecking ball levels this hub of Seattle nightlife. On a given evening, music spills out onto the street, while the avenue hums with activity. Standing outside of Tula's you can hear the music venting out of the Croc, interspersed with the post-bop sounds emanating from the club. For a time, an upstairs club across the avenue offered a hip hop open mike that would as well add to the blend of pulses and sounds occupying the marine drenched air of the Seattle night. Hustlers work their way up and down Blanchard between Second and Third Avenues often in a mad frenzy offering heroin, or meth in plain fashion, prospective buyers lined up along the narrow sidewalk in the sad night. Panhandlers converge on the strip looking for cash carrying nightlifers, eyeing each and everyone who passes by the neighborhood weed store, as well as every cash carrying business along the strip.

Young, well dressed couples, silver haired patrons dressed in their finery, hipsters of a more casual nature, seasonal tourists, traveling hotel patrons, and local jazz aficionados all make up the diverse mix of souls in Tula's each evening. Jazz historically has attracted fans of all ages, the attraction being the music, the ultimate form of spontaneous expression. The music speaks to the soul, all souls. It doesn't identify generationally as many popular forms. There is a common language being spoken to all that care to listen. The people who walk through those doors each night, musicians and jazz fans alike, will share in the loss after the last downbeat at Tula's on September 29, 2019.
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