Originally published in Earshot Jazz January 2012
For “Solitary Man,” guitarist Tim Young lifts his face, neck outstretched, high notes squeezing out the side of his mouth. Robin Holcomb crowds in next to him to harmonize. Wayne Horvitz purrs on the Hammond B-3 organ while Jon Hyde’s head slips and slides atop his shoulders in sync with the bar gliding over his pedal steel strings. Geoff Harper’s bass line locks in with drummer Andy Roth. All audience heads nod in unison. The fifth of seven bands on Saturday, December 17, at new Columbia City venue the Royal Room, Varmint carries the tagline “No original music. No rehearsals.” They also belong to the origin story of a noble idea for a new venue.
Between songs, Wayne Horvitz speaks to the standing-room crowd: “The idea for this place started a few years ago when we were playing at Lottie’s Lounge.” Erstwhile owners Tia Matthies and Steve Freeborn agreed to let Horvitz leave his B-3 in the small Columbia City club so that he wouldn’t have to transport it every week for the Tuesday-night gig. That accommodation germinated the idea of a neighborhood venue convenient for performers, attractive to audiences and conducive to hanging out. Two years of planning and negotiating later, the Royal Room was born.
For the opening gala between a Friday and Monday night in mid December, the room lives its ideal – convenient load in/out, a stage with a house piano, organ and drums, an insulated green room, a size conducive to blending acoustic and electric sounds, quality stage lighting and sound reinforcement, in-place audio and video recording, free admission, clean bathrooms, comfortable seating, surprising and high-quality programming, clear sight lines to visual cues between performers, good food and drink for a reasonable price, spaces to listen or converse, and local musicians of different stripes mingling and inspiring one another.
The twenty-two bands performing this weekend range from jazz and blues to country and classical, and the atmosphere is fresh. The room still smells of paint and varnish. A soft light from the votives and sconces bathe the audience in a friendly glow, and padded banquettes and bar stools comfort the relaxing crowd. The Steinway grand piano sounds warm and clear when playing in unison with the electric guitar. Waitresses dart among the tables and standing listeners. The musicians are happy; the audience is happy. Matthies, too busy to converse in the days leading up to the gala, says, “I’m just glad we’re open.”
The 125-seat Royal Room is the latest in a line of music venues and clubs by Matthies and Freeborn. They ran the OK Hotel in Pioneer Square until it was damaged by the Nisqually earthquake. Matthies and Freeborn manage the Rendezvous, home to the JewelBox Theater, and helped during the brief life of the gallery/bar/venue McLeod Residence in Belltown. Ballard is home to their nightspot Hazelwood. They opened, then sold, Lottie’s Lounge in Columbia City, a block away from the new venue.
A Place Where Things Happen
The Royal Room is the north end of a building owned by the Royal Esquire Club, a group founded in 1947 by five men that wanted a place where African Americans could socialize. Its members include prominent community figures John Prim, who drafted the initial by-laws and became the first African American judge in Seattle in 1954, and Lincoln Grazette, the oldest member and Washington’s first black corrections officer. Jazz luminaries Count Basie, Dinah Washington, Billy Eckstein and Nat King Cole visited the club over the years, and the archives are said to contain a photograph signed by Billie Holiday.
The club opened its first location at 4th Avenue and Yesler Way, moved to 12th Avenue and Jackson Street, and later to a two-story house at 1254 S. Washington Street in 1952. After 33 years, Seattle Public Schools bought the property to build Bailey Gatzert Elementary School. With proceeds from that sale, the Royal Esquire Club purchased a worn-out former pool/bingo hall in Columbia City in the mid 1980s for $140,000. After a major renovation, the north space was used for weddings, meetings and receptions until new tenants Matthies, Freeborn and Horvitz hired Guy Davis of GMD Custom to update and transform the space late last year.
The new public venue keeps the same location for the bar, kitchen and bathrooms but has refinished surfaces, big street-side windows, a raised ceiling, improved lighting and a stage. The outline of the old dance floor is still visible in the wood of the main dining and music room. Ron McGowen, chairman of the Royal Esquire Club and longtime nightclub proprietor, expects that the new public club will open the eyes of the private club’s 60 members and 2,000 associates to possibilities for updating the rest of the building.
Nearby, the Rainier Valley Cultural Center, host to the Valley Vibes Concert and Conversation Series, among many other programs, and the Columbia City Theater, presenting music on its stage and in the Bourbon Bar and home to an in-house production and recording studio called Bani-Love, both re-opened in 2010 after renovations. The annual Columbia City BeatWalk brings fifteen venues together in music for one admission on the first Friday of every month from May through September. The Royal Room joins these music venues and events in Columbia City, and further bridging musical communities from there is one goal of the Royal Room.
Horvitz is no stranger to creating new venues and programming interesting music. Back in the 1980s, he started rehearsal and performance space Studio Henry and booked artists for the early days of the Knitting Factory in New York. More recently, he coordinated music at Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, California.
Maren Wenzel is handling the booking, but Horvitz explains, “The Royal Room isn’t really being ‘booked’ in a traditional manner. The music – and by the way, we hope to include things beyond music, like poetry, performance and other artistic activities – is often going to be presented in a residency format. This means that people who bring projects to us that we are interested in will have weekly or monthly runs of 6-12 nights.
“My role is to work with Maren with the aim of creating a culture that addresses some of the issues that motivated us to start the Royal Room to begin with. I am also going to, on occasion, have a curatorial role, in that I will approach artists with specific ideas for specific projects. Anyone interested in doing anything at the club should contact Maren through the website first.”
The wide range of music produced by Horvitz for orchestra, big band, string quartet, jazz combo, voice, solo keyboard, dance, theater, film and television is evident in more than eighty commercial recordings. He is a tornado of prolific creativity. The photo on his website home page depicts the composer writing at the piano, stacks of music piled up, the air filled with pages of musical scores blowing in the wind, and more pages on the floor like crumpled leaves. Accordingly, the lineup of performers at the Royal Room’s opening weekend reflects his appreciation for American music, not just jazz.
During the opening weekend, drummer Eric Eagle played melancholy circus music with Horvitz in Sweeter than the Day, then backed pedal steel guitarist Jon Hyde in country-western band the 1 Uppers. Violinist Johnaye Kendrick performed original chamber jazz with Scrape, then sang Billie Holiday repertoire with Paint the Town Red, featuring a cameo by guitarist Bill Frisell, who followed with a three-song solo set that sandwiched Thelonious Monk’s “Crepuscule with Nellie” between two originals. The audience gave a standing ovation.
Earlier that evening, Horvitz conducted the JazzED New Works Ensemble, then tag teamed the piano bench with Robin Holcomb during a quirky arrangement of “Fever” with the Washington Composers Orchestra. Holcomb conducted a premier of her “Royal Blue Shadows,” and Horvitz led a rousing rendition of his 1987 piece “Prodigal Son Revisited.”
When asked if the new venue is for jazz, Horvitz responds, “Why call it a jazz room? We will have country, classical, rock, folk.”
“I want the club to tap into untapped creativity, a place where things happen that couldn’t happen anywhere else,” Horvitz says.
The Royal Room is located at 5000 Rainier Avenue South. Dinner is served from 5:30pm to 10pm, with a late-night menu until closing. After January 21, it will offer a weekend brunch from 9am to 2pm. The list of performers can be found at theroyalroomseattle.com/calendar.php.