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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.

Walking into Tula's as a patron, then as a journalist and club publicist, my first objective has always been to see who is seated at the large round table situated past the bar, next to the kitchen. The club does not have a green room, so the table serves as a gathering spot for musicians to prepare for the evening performance, have a bite to eat, and a drink to calm the nerves. During the show, musicians wander in and gather there to hang as well. Many musical acquaintances and friendships have been formed there. It is a place of pure fellowship, where familiarity gives way to fresh faces.

Directly above the table is the sign from the legendary Seattle record shop, Bud's Jazz Records. A Pioneer Square institution for decades, owner Bud Young was a close friend of Waldron's. The sign touts "Jazz In All Its Forms," something that could be said of the club where the last memory of Bud's resides. Indeed, the urn with Young's remains occupies an honored spot at Tula's. Waldron and Young represent the best in jazz personage. Their vision was driven by passion for the music itself, creating more than long term businesses under difficult circumstances. It created institutions that allowed a great American art form to thrive. It inspired artistic risk and original creation. It presented to the Seattle arts community its own treasure within its own ranks pushing forward America's quintessential art form.

While most American cities have jazz clubs that feature touring national and international artists, very few clubs are dedicated to jazz performed by resident artists. While they operate under very different business models, Smalls Jazz Club in New York, and Tula's in Seattle best represent this dedication to local resident musicians. Seattle lost another such dedicated landmark in the New Orleans Creole Restaurant in the Pioneer Square neighborhood. When owner Gaye Anderson passed in August of 2012, her family decided to close the storied club that featured jazz and blues. Though the building that housed the club is protected in Seattle's most historic neighborhood, the day to day rigors of operating the club did not interest them. The property is now divided into two businesses. Gone are the portraits of jazz legends that adorned the brick wall behind the stage. The room has memories that include visits from dignitaries such as Dizzy Gillespie, but it more commonly housed the best of the local scene beginning in 1985. Seattle icons like Don Lanphere, Hadley Caliman, Clarence Acox, Phil Sparks, Julian Priester, Floyd Standifer and Billy Wallace performed regularly on the stage in the odd angled, short sided room. In the later years, trumpeter Thomas Marriott held down a Friday night gig that featured many of the city's finest-saxophonist Mark Taylor, drummer Matt Jorgensen, pianists Anschell and Rick Mandyck, and the veteran Sparks were frequent contributors.

The New Orleans had entered the fray, just as John Dimitriou was planning to move his club, Jazz Alley, from its digs on University Way, to its current downtown location. Gaye Anderson's club kept jazz in Pioneer Square, after the demise of Parnell's and the Pioneer Banque, two jazz clubs just a few short blocks apart near First Avenue and Occidental. Parnell's was briefly Ernestine's before calling it quits, leaving Jazz Alley, with its now increased seating capacity as the lone purveyor of touring jazz artists.

Dimitriou's amazing run has surpassed 40 years, closing in on the Black and Tan club, once an iconic spot on Jackson St. The Black and Tan opened in 1922, and closed in 1966, along the way seeing the likes of Eubie Blake, Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan, Lena Horne, and Ray Charles perform there. Charlie Parker stopped in twice to jam at the B&T, once after a performance at the Metropolitan Theatre in downtown Seattle.

These two dizzying runs are followed by Tula's, and its nearly 26 year tenure. In many ways, Mac Waldron's club has an even more remarkable history. It has remained open six or seven nights a week, featuring exclusively jazz music performed by Seattle and Northwest based musicians. There is no filling the coiffures with rhythm and blues acts, or pop orientations of any sort. The stage is each night occupied by musicians of the highest caliber playing jazz in all its forms. All in all, the club has staged over 600 sets in the past year, giving Seattle musicians a place to allow the music to grow, and be paid to do so. The void the club will leave in its absence is cavernous.

And so it goes. It would seem there is an all out assault on historic Seattle performance venues. While the fate of the Showbox near Pike Place Market gets most of the headlines concerning the matter, the city lost its only viable blues club at the end of the calendar year of 2018. Highway 99 Blues Club was in many ways like Tula's in that it provided a place for the local scene to flourish. Snuggled up against the Highway 99 viaduct for 12 years, the demise of the viaduct turned an affordable basement room into valuable waterfront real estate. While performers will scatter to rooms such as Egan's Ballard Jam House, and the Royal Room, the loss of Tula's will need to spur some creative thought and investment to replace the number of dates the club provided annually. Pop-up clubs are a possibility until some sort of permanence is created in a new venue. But for the Seattle jazz scene, the loss of any downtown venue is a big blow in terms of visibility, and in terms of having the opportunity to make a viable living as a musician.

There are some who believe that once music is played in a room, the notes and sounds remain there forever. A building can be demolished but still the spirit of that music remains. One can still feel the vibe of Parnell's Jazz Club in Seattle in its current incarnation as an art gallery. The sounds of Bill Evans, Milt Jackson, Ernestine Anderson and Cedar Walton are housed in the memory of the room itself, accessed through the memories of those who were there. The vibe is passed on through fond recollections in the form of stories told to those too young to remember. If this is indeed the case, the stretch along Second Avenue between Bell and Blanchard will house the forever sounds of the 26 years Tula's graced the city's musical landscape. The spirit of a young Thomas Marriott playing alongside the wisdom and innovative spirit of Hadley Caliman will remain. The sweetness of Greta Matassa interpreting a ballad, of Bill Anschell in trio conversation will remain in the collective spirit of the neighborhood. This place, this gathering spot for the best Seattle jazz has to offer will continue to live in spirit in the performances of pianist Marc Seales, in the heavenly, angelic sounds of vibraphonist Susan Pascal. It will be celebrated, and it will be mourned. More so, it will be missed.
Tula's was recognized as one of the top jazz clubs in the 2019 All About Jazz Venue poll. View results.

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