Grace Holden: Living with a Legend

  • By Heather MacIntosh
  • Posted 6/21/2000
  • Essay 2505
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The following account was excerpted from an interview with Oscale Grace Holden (b. 1930), the daughter of Oscar Holden (1886-1969), who was, according to Paul DeBarros in Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle, the patriarch of Seattle jazz. The Holden children, Grace, and her brothers Oscar Jr., Dave, Ron, and Jimmy were all musicians who played in Seattle in the late 1940s and beyond. Grace Holden still sings in her church’s gospel choir. In this interview, conducted by HistoryLink's Heather MacIntosh on May 17, 2000, at Grace Holden's home in Madison Valley in Seattle, she shares memories of her father and of life as a Holden in Seattle in the 1930s and 1940s.

Grace was born on April 20, 1930, less than a year after the stock market crashed and closed up forever the roaring twenties. Her father Oscar Holden and his girlfriend Leala got married in 1929 on the day before Christmas. By 1930, when Grace was born, Oscar Holden was a seasoned, highly successful musician. Born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1886, Holden moved as far away from the South as possible, distancing himself from his past, and the prejudices he felt growing up there. He hoped to shield his children from that environment, and found hope in the Pacific Northwest, first in British Columbia, then in Washington state.

The Beat Went On, For Awhile

“I was born at 410 23rd East … at home. It was a finer neighborhood, north of Madison. We didn't live there long. We were there until the Depression reached and grabbed everybody. It wasn't like having to make a living on 9 to 5. We played music, and people had music regardless. And so it was like 33, 34, 35 before [the Depression] really had an effect on my family. They were doing quite well. After the Depression [dragged on], we moved down the hill closer in.

“In 1935 we moved down the hill to 25th and Howell ... Pops went to Cornish, so did mother. They were in Cornish, around 1940. When they went, I wanted to go to Cornish too. The family was constantly learning. They were perfect examples of 'you never know it all.' Never stop learning, never stop trying to learn. (They took courses in) basic harmonies, rhythms, from the best."

Grace fishes a few photographs of her early life out of a cabinet of family momentos. “This is me and my mother, and this is me and my father, at 410 [23rd East].

"This is me and my seven year older sister by my mother's first marriage. We had a mohair sofa.” She pauses at the significance of that detail. Mohair wasn’t cheap. They had been doing well.

“That's me and my brother Oscar, I think it was Madrona Beach. This is Arlene, my half sister and her husband Eddie Brown, they were entertainers, she sang and danced at the USO camps during World War II, this was in San Francisco.

“This is Papa and his drummer. That's a steamer. I don't know the whole story. They worked in so many places. Bill came from Chicago with him, and caught up with him.” Holden and his drummer are standing in a Canadian Pacific Railway depot waiting for a steamer. His drummer points to the Gate 4 departure for Nanaimo, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island.

During the War

"We moved to 14th and Fir, we did that in the forties before the war. That was a sort of International District because of the mixture, Jewish, Catholic, Chinese, we were all in that mix at 14th and Yesler, Fir, Jefferson, all the way up to Garfield, and then after the war it became just Chinatown.

“Fear during the war was pretty universal. The Jewish people were uncomfortable because of the attacks on their people.

"When colored workers from the South moved in, I didn't even know what they were talking about, with their draws, you know. Well they looked like me but they weren't like me. Because they were rigid around white people, and I was like, 'I don't know what's wrong with you. We do just fine.'

"I knew my neighbors. They were Japanese and they were taken away. Their houses, they stayed boarded up. Actually, they remained vacant. Some of them caught on fire. [Areas where the Japanese lived] were all locked up. There wasn't such a thing as boarding that puppy up like today. People were still able to keep their doors unlocked.

Real Life After the War

"I was the oldest of five brothers so I was a tomboy, although I set the table. My oldest daughter was born to me when I was fourteen, and that was painful because I was raped. And I went back to school, so I was "a bad girl." I already was a tomboy, and then I got a baby that I kept. But I wanted to be a teenager, have fun, and party.

"I got married and took on the adult life. I was 16 when I got married. I lived across the street from my father's house. I had an apartment across the street. We were still close. They helped me because I had been raped, but then [Oscar Holden asked] I wanted to get married and leave home? I lost my child ... she was taken because I wasn't coming home and home wasn't happy, and I couldn't go back, I was staying out overnight.

"My daddy came and took my daughter to protect her. Yeah, I was mad at him, but later on all the anger went away. I got her back and settled down and then everything got pretty good. Our mother passed away when I was 21.

"That's when I invited my brothers to come live with me. We always had some piano and some singing. As Dad got older, Dave was coming on strong, so he [Dad] passed his gigs off to Dave.

"Eventually I finished school in southern California. I graduated and married again, and we had six children. In ’67 dad got pretty sick and I came back to Seattle to take care of him for two and a half years. Then he died after he had had 8 strokes and a brain hemorrhage. I had to take care of him. After he passed on, I didn’t play anymore. I played for him. But I got away from playin’ and you know, you don’t use it you lose it. Then and now I sing with choirs, gospel choirs.

"My father told me he didn’t like the South, that he didn’t like slavery. He had the presence of mind to not marry until his children could be born free and as a consequence, looking back over our lives, everything we did and everything we redid was about being born free. Having studied the way that he did caused me to decide that I would never go down South.


"I was very grateful to my Dad, the decisions he made, and the life that he gave us. That kind of thing didn’t affect us because of the musical arena. That was the universal language. Now we could go anywhere and do anything because we were Holdens. I didn’t know about racism until I went to Los Angeles.

"Every now and then as a child [I felt racial tension] but it was very rare, because the people that we would go along with were music people. I recall in the first or second grade being taught to read and one of the books that we were to read from was about little black Sambo. And I didn’t read it well at school so I took it home and my parents saw it. They didn’t show their anger, but I never had that book again. They handled in such a way that the book just disappeared.

"Whatever our home, friends would come by, not only in our home, but in my Aunt Mary’s home and my brothers and sisters who lived nearby. I went to Bailey Gatzert [Elementary School], the children there, and at Mary Washington Junior High, were international. I often thought about the environment we were in, and I didn’t know [about racism].

"Playing music, you don’t even think about it. You just embrace it, you just get down."

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