Jazz. It has to be high on the list of the most evocative of words. An American original, played in dark, smoky lounges in Chicago, Memphis, New Orleans, and Paris. Played by musicians with the coolest of names. Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Thelonious Monk.* Just reading the names makes one want to walk into a club in 1930s Harlem, order a martini, and take it all in. I got fairly close to that on Friday – caught the Kate Olson Quartet (have also seen it listed as Ensemble) at Vito’s Restaurant and Lounge on First Hill. It was excellent. The music was great, but I most enjoyed watching the band invite fellow musicians to join in on songs.
I know very little about jazz, but I know there’s a degree of mythology and nostalgia to it. But the good old days weren’t always good. Prohibition, segregation, racism, and the Depression. In my scenario above, you would have been breaking the law having that drink while enjoying music played by artists who might not have been able to sit next to you for a late night coffee at the diner around the corner. I also know that it’s not the most accessible of music genres. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve had friends tell me that they caught a great jazz show over the weekend. And I think two of those times were from friends making the Tinder rounds, both parties desperate to avoid that 15th consecutive Tinder Tuesday cup of coffee or happy hour.
But I’ve never regretted going to a jazz show. Each time I’ve left thinking that I needed to do that more often. And then several months slip by again, just like exercise. There’s a higher barrier to entry for grabbing drinks over jazz. You’ve got to be in the right mood, you’ve got to know a good place, and you’ve got to be with people who are into it. There are plenty of bands that label themselves as jazz but veer more towards a 1970s lounge ambience. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m sure they are talented musicians, and I wouldn’t be able to point out the technical distinctions. Probably get them wrong if I tried. But if I start looking around for leisure suits, I’m probably not hearing the jazz I want to hear.
There are also venues that just aren’t well-suited for jazz. You get the sense that the priority was to have entertainment on the event calendar. People who filter in are surprised to find a jazz band playing, rather than having set out to listen to some jazz. I’m not trying to conjure up an image of beret wearing revolutionaries sitting around drinking coffee and discussing anarchy. There’s no need to be an expert. I can’t name a single track by Thelonious Monk. I think the trick is finding a place you like, making a point of going once in a while, and appreciating the talents of musicians for whom jazz is an art that celebrates tradition but embraces improvisation. If you find yourself in Seattle, just track down the Kate Olson Quartet or hope for a jazz night at Vito’s.
* I’m not sure they are all even jazz musicians.
(Always pays to read something before posting, and then read it again. My initial version sounded like I was speaking of Prohibition, segregation, and racism in a positive sense. Definitely not my intention.)