Rhythm & Roots: Birth of Seattle's First Sound

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 11/25/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3641
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Long before grunge -- even before "Louie Louie" -- there was a vibrant music scene in Seattle, one that was grounded in the speakeasy culture of the 1920s and nurtured by the wartime boom of the 1940s. New musical traditions mingled with old to produce a rich stew of jazz, swing, and rhythm and blues in nightclubs and dancehalls along Jackson Street and in the Central Area. It was here that up-and-coming stars such as Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Ernestine Anderson, and, later, Jimi Hendrix began to make their marks on the world.

Northward Migration

Seattle's musical legacy was shaped by demographic changes that began in the early 1900s and accelerated during World War II. Tens of thousands of African Americans migrated to the city, drawn by the prospect of jobs and greater opportunities. They brought with them jazz, blues, and other styles of music that had originally developed in black communities in the South and Midwest.

Seattle proved to be fertile ground for jazz in part because of what writer Paul de Barros has called "a culture of legalized corruption" (de Barros, 1). Nightclub owners regularly paid off police and politicians in return for semi-official tolerance of gambling, prostitution, and illegal alcohol. The speakeasy climate developed after the enactment of prohibition in Washington State in 1916, but it persisted even after the law was repealed in 1933, largely because of the state's reluctance to legalize the sale of hard liquor by the drink. Public establishments were not permitted to sell liquor by the drink in Washington until 1949, and even then they were subject to strict regulations.

The Jackson Street Scene

Although illegal activities could be found in nightclubs throughout the city, gradually "the action" came to be concentrated along Jackson Street. During its heyday, from 1937 to 1951, Jackson Street boasted 34 nightclubs. These were places, one former habitue recalled, where people "did everything but go home" (de Barros, portfolio). The freewheeling, anything-goes atmosphere extended to the music. Talented musicians -- locals as well as members of visiting "name" bands fronted by Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and others -- came and went, learning from and teaching each other in jam sessions that often lasted all night.

For black musicians, the Jackson Street clubs were not only a proving ground but also a major source of employment. Until the 1950s, the music industry in Seattle was formally segregated. White musicians, represented by Local 76, played for white audiences in uptown theaters, nightclubs, and ballrooms. Black musicians, represented by "Negro" Local 493, found work primarily in small nightclubs and dancehalls in racially mixed neighborhoods. The wages were lower on Jackson Street but, ironically, the tips were better.

More "respectable" venues began to open up on the eve of World War II, in response to population growth in the Central Area. Among these was the East Madison branch of the Young Men's Christian Association, established in 1936 in a small frame building at 23rd and E Olive (although not funded by the YMCA until 1942, when it became, in effect, a black servicemen's club). The Savoy Ballroom, later renamed Birdland in honor of legendary saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker, opened at 21st and E Madison Street in 1941. It was followed in 1944 by the Washington Social and Educational Club at 23rd and E Madison.

These establishments provided alternatives to the "joints" on Jackson Street. They also tended to draw wider audiences, a benefit of being located on the border between the predominately white Madison Valley and the primarily black Central Area.

From Back Alley to Mainstream

Some of the hottest musicians in the Northwest, including some who went on to find international fame, honed their skills in the clubs, ballrooms, and community halls of Jackson Street and the Central Area.

Among them was the multi-faceted Quincy Jones (b. 1933), whose talent, vision, and hard work as a composer, arranger, and producer have made him a Renaissance Man of popular culture. Jones launched his professional career at the East Madison Y, earning $7 for his first gig, at age 14. Born in Chicago, Jones had moved to the Northwest when his father, a carpenter, got a wartime job at the naval shipyards in Bremerton. The family settled in Seattle in 1947. Jones joined an after-school band at Garfield High School and was soon a veteran of the local club scene, occasionally performing with two of his friends: Ernestine Anderson and Ray Charles.

Anderson (b. 1929) was still a bobby soxer at Garfield when she began demonstrating the honeyed voice and sense of swing that would make her famous. A native of Houston, Texas, she moved with her family to Seattle in 1944, when she was 15. She had been in town only two weeks when a friend introduced her to a bandleader at the East Madison Y. She soon began sitting in at YMCA dances and socials, branching out from there to fraternity parties, weddings, and bar mitzvahs. She also became a regular on Jackson Street, even though her underage status meant she always had to be prepared for a quick exit in case of a police raid.

Rhythm and blues pioneer Ray Charles (1930-2004) was 17 and living on his own when he came to Seattle in 1948, picking the city because it was as far as he could get from his native Florida without leaving the continental United States. He stayed only two years, but during that time he cut his first record -- "Confession Blues" -- and formed what would become a lifetime friendship and collaboration with Quincy Jones. Charles performed regularly at the black Elks Club on Jackson Street and at the blues-oriented Rocking Chair Club, on 14th just off Yesler. His "Rockin' Chair Blues," recorded just before he moved on to Los Angeles, pays tribute to his Seattle days.

Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970), considered by many to be the most influential guitarist of the twentieth century, was a third-generation Seattleite. His grandparents, Nora and Ross Hendrix, were members of a black vaudeville troupe that broke up during a trip to Seattle in 1911. Stranded, the couple decided to stay. Half a century later, their grandson got his musical start by playing R&B for high school dances at Birdland. During one such dance, in 1960, his guitar was stolen from the stage. Left-handed Hendrix was forced to borrow a right-handed guitar, which he restrung in a way that made it appear he was playing it upside-down. He was already demonstrating the virtuosity that would make him a superstar when, in 1961, he joined the army and left town.

Rhythm and blues transformed the Northwest music scene in the 1950s, breaking through racial barriers and laying the groundwork for the "Northwest sound" in rock and roll. Many of the pioneers of Northwest rock were white teenagers who grew up listening to black R&B. When Northwest garage bands began growling out "Louie Louie" in the early 1960s, they were traveling on a train that could be traced back to Jackson Street.



Eugene Clinton Elliott, A History of Variety-Vaudeville in Seattle, From the Beginning to 1914 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1944); Paul de Barros, Jackson Street After Hours (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1993); Quincy Jones, Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones (New York: Random House, 2001); James Bush, Encyclopedia of Northwest Music (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1999); Harry Shapiro and Caesar Glebbeek, Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995); "Rhythm and Blues," and  "Ray Charles," and "Quincy Jones," Encarta Africana 2000 (CD-ROM), Microsoft Corporation, 1999.

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