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

Paul Rauch By

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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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