Originally published in Earshot Jazz February 2014
David Keller’s new book, The Blue Note: Seattle’s Black Musicians’ Union A Pictorial History, is a pleasure to read. For the casual browser, there are more than 100 large black and white photographs printed on thick semi-gloss paper. For the curious reader, a few paragraphs of contextual history and anecdotes adjoin each picture. For history geeks, there are over 100 endnotes and a 13-page bibliography. While music history books typically get bogged down in names, places and dates intimidating to all but the most intrepid reader, Blue Note gives us an entertaining and informative slice of Seattle’s black cultural history that every jazz fan should have.
The book’s title comes not from the famous 75 year-old jazz record label, nor the pricey New York jazz club, but the name of a building on East Jefferson Street in Seattle that served as union headquarters, social club and home to jam sessions between visiting and local musicians in the 1950’s.
Keller began work on Blue Note as a graduate thesis at Western Washington University in the early 1990s, then labored for 20 years collecting additional source material and interviewing aging witnesses. This new book builds on many facts from Paul de Barros’ 1993 reference Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle and borrows an approachable style from Frank Driggs’ Black Beauty, White Heat: A Pictorial History of Classic Jazz, 1920-1950. In fact, Driggs supplied the book’s cover photo of Earl Whaley’s Orchestra spread on the wings of an airplane flying over Seattle.
And the pictures make this book special. While there are many still publicity shots of music ensembles, clips of newspaper advertisements and reproductions of sheet music covers, photographs by Al Smith practically jump off the page. In one, a pencil mustached Dick Wilson blows a heavenly saxophone chorus behind sunglasses in Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy at Seattle’s Senator Ballroom. In another, Clarence Williams croons some witty lyrics over a left-handed guitar while the rest of the band cracks up at Basin Street under the Bush Hotel. Smith even positioned himself upstage at the Moore Theater to shoot a smiling Fats Waller at the piano with the audience in the background. A candid shot of the crowded bar at the Rocking Chair (immortalized in song by Ray Charles) depicts dapper men and women with fancy hats enjoying each other’s company. In dance halls, jitterbugging couples are all elbows and knees in front of a rainbow of faces. From the wings at the Seattle Civic Auditorium, Smith captures vibraphonist Lionel Hampton leaping higher than the music stands of the saxophone section in front of his big band.
Before working on Blue Note, Keller wrote articles about Los Angeles jazz musicians and acted as an agent for notable artists like Horace Tapscott, Bud Shank, Randy Weston, Andrew Hill and Chico Hamilton. In 1991, he coauthored a bebop drummer’s autobiography There and Back: The Roy Porter Story. With this background, Keller’s nexus of scholarship and love of the music makes Blue Note sing.
To order a copy, contact David Keller at 714-538-3409, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit kellerjazz.net.