America’s Most Fascinating Jazz Clubs

Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley
2033 6th Avenue
Seattle, WA 98121
206-441-9729
www.jazzalley.org

Grilled salmon with a cherry tomato chipotle pepper sauce served with creamy polenta. Spinach and ricotta torteloni with artichoke hearts, shitake mushrooms, and baby carrots in a lemon pinot blanc sauce. Grilled, marinated New York sirloin with a shitake mushroom demi-glaze served with roasted garlic mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables…

Among its many amazing attributes, food has the power to tantalize and transport us. It unites families around the dinner table; whether or not it’s accompanied by the copious commercials of mealtime TV viewing remains another question. Yet, at the root of it all, food forms a significant part of our basic needs for existence. Soon jazz may be similarly dependent on sirloin and salmon. Full menus at clubs are fast becoming a necessity, if presenting national talent is to remain economically viable.

As John Dimitriou , owner of Seattle ‘s Jazz Alley , rationalizes, “The ecomomics involved in running a club are dictated by the overall economy. Among other things, alcohol consumption, a major source of revenue for clubs, has been steadily decreasing in this country.” No one can be certain why this is true – it likely reflects growing health concerns, sensitivity about alcoholism , or avoidance of drinking and driving – but the upshot is obvious: clubs have had to find alternative revenue. Who wants to drink on an empty stomach anyway?

Jazz Alley’s recipe for success certainly involves its attractive, upscale menu (from which the above examples are drawn) as well as the sophisticated atmosphere in which one savors those meals. It’s the modern equivalent of the supper club, neatly set tables in white linens skirting the edge of the stage. Front windows, which allow passersby to gaze in, stretch to the heights of the two-story ceiling. A balcony provides additional seating at lofty heights above. Dinner reservations guarantee seating for the show. While the club does not charge a minimum, dinner patrons are given preferred seating and a small discount on the cover charge.

When it comes to food, drink, cover charges, and the talent one can afford based on those sources of income, Dimitriou has arrived at a delicate economic balance through years of experience in the business. He began working in clubs in the early 1970s when he booked Seattle’s Pioneer Banque , an emporium for big-name talent, and he also managed Washington DC’s Blues Alley , instituting their still current music policy. It’s from the latter that Jazz Alley takes its name. When he returned home to Seattle, he briefly managed The Place, a jazz club near Sea-Tac airport. With all this experience under his belt, he opened the first Jazz Alley in a location near the University of Washington campus (October 1979-85). Another location downtown operated simultaneously for a brief period (1984-85) before the current Sixth Avenue location opened in 1985.

The relationship with food and drink is more than meets the eye. When Dimitriou founded the Pacific Jazz Institute (PJI) nearly eight years ago, it turned out to be a savvy business move. PJI, a non-profit organization which presents the majority of the performers who play Jazz Alley, is a separate entity than the for-profit club. It’s a novel approach that ensures a certain amount of stability and enables the cover prices to remain affordable. Membership donations ($200 per person) entitle music lovers to 2 for 1 admission and entrees three nights a week along with preferred seating. It also benefits the community through outreach programs: “We’re trying to give something back with Meet The Masters. At least once a month, a headlining artist plays for 200 at-risk youth, those in shelters or foster care. Laidlaw busing, which provides free transportation, is a part of this.” Chuck Mangione , Dr. Billy Taylor , Maceo Parker , Ernestine Anderson , the late Betty Carter , and the Broadway Cast of Ain’t Misbehavin’ have all participated.

In general, PJI fits with Dimitriou’s personal, service-oriented vision. As he says, “You have to take into consideration the needs of the community. We’ve moved up our show times considerably, to the point where our second show is now at the time our first show used to be. We encourage families and don’t charge a cover for kids.” Whereas New York’s jazz clubs benefit from a thriving tourist industry, Seattle’s much more modest scene must depend on its locals.

And, while the stomach may provide a path to the jazz lover’s heart or at least a quick route closer to the stage, the menu is only part of the picture which draws Jazz Alley patrons. National level touring artists from the realms of straight-ahead, smooth jazz and R & B generally perform five night runs at the venue. A given month, like this January for example, could include Pinetop Perkins , Poncho Sanchez , Hasidic New Wave , Kevin Eubanks , and Tuck and Patti . The battle for the tastiest licks rages between the bandstand and the kitchen.

From America’s Most Fascinating Jazz Clubs
by Lara Pellegrinelli
© 2000 NewMusicBox

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