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History of Tacoma Jazz

A brief snapshot of Tacoma’s rough and tumble history of jazz

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To check on the history of jazz in Tacoma, you’d have to go back to the end of the First World War when one of Jazz’s most flamboyant characters, Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton opened a tavern-and-brothel in Lakewood’s still-blighted Ponders Corner. It’s only fair to begin with Jelly Roll because he claimed he invented jazz. Alas, he never applied for a patent. But his formula of bar, brothel and beyond, tried earlier by New Orleans entrepreneurs in their Storyville section, helped to germinate the art form.

One of the earliest links between jazz and the Tacoma area, documented in Paul de Barros’ book, Jackson Street After Hours (Seattle’s Jackson Street), is a 1917 notice in Camp Lewis’ Trench and Camp about drummer Bobby Hayes being stationed at the military installation headlined, “Originator of ‘jazz’ in 347th Orchestra.”

Camp Lewis, long since re-named Fort Lewis, was one of the most active breeding grounds for jazz in Pierce County. At nearby Camp Murray, its most famous marching and dance band, the 41st Infantry Division Band of the Washington National Guard, helped launch the careers of Quincy Jones, Floyd Standifer, Buddy Catlett, “Bumps” Blackwell, Oscar Holden, Jr. and Harold Redman.

Around that time — the end of WWII — Seattle’s night life bottomed out and many of its jazzmen began traveling south to jam with Tacoma/Olympia natives like Bill Ramsay, Chuck Stentz, Jack Perciful, Fred Greenwell, Buzzy Bridgeford, Traff Hubert, Dean Riley.

“Rams,” as Ramsay’s friends call him, is still going strong at 79, with a recall as vibrant as his tone on all saxes and clarinets. He’s on call by Hollywood studios, the Count Basie band, and locally, where he would prefer staying, the Seattle Repertory Orchestra. He’s been described as “six-feet-five of anecdotes,” knows every humorous story about big bands and small combos, and remains the most reliable walking history of Tacoma, and his memory never fails him. Reciting names and addresses of local clubs to me, Rams listed the 1306 Club, the 1515 Club and the 1518 Club, which, in a sense was cheating: they were all on Pacific Avenue, at their respective numbers. He also recalled The Pirate’s Cove, The Tiki and The New Yorker. South Tacoma had The Players and The Hi-Hat; close by were The Broadway, Ping’s Gardens, The Towers and the Union House Club.

By the time I defected from Hollywood’s La-La Land and asked for musical asylum in Puget Sound’s Latte-Land, there was one  club that afforded night-blooming jazzmen the luxury of hanging out, sitting-in, plus syncopated camaraderie: the now-defunct Red Kelly’s, opposite the library on Tacoma Ave. At that cozy-but smoke-filled emporium, Tony Bennett, Ernestine Anderson, even the entire Count Basie band dropped by (not all at once!) to jam and jaw. It’s the club where Kelly held court, often played or told the filthiest stories between songs; the club where I heard a tenor sax duet between “Rams” and Olympia’s late Chuck Stentz that left me with an afterglow for months. 

It’s also the club where Olympia’s Jack Perciful was honored on his 75th birthday. That same night, Perciful revealed to me he still had a piece of wood paneling that belonged in the men’s room of a club in Pottstown, Pa. Reason for the “acquisition“: drummer Buddy Rich had circled “Red Kelly, bass; Jack Perciful, piano; Buddy Rich, drums” on the wall, adding “Greatest rhythm section in the world.” They were all playing with Harry James’ band at the time. Maybe they’re now known as “Heaven’s greatest rhythm section.”

Those are merely some of the luminaries from Tacoma’s hard-scrabble past. No present history can ignore those who keep the jazz torch burning, such as trumpeter Rich Wetzel, who keeps his big band working while carrying on the traditions of Maynard Ferguson and Stan Kenton; singer Karen Shivers, who got her start by cautiously sitting in with pianist Bud Schultz and bassist Marvin Vann at a now-closed Gig Harbor restaurant; singer Sommer Stockinger, the former belle of Bellarmine, who began at a long-shuttered coffee shop in Tacoma’s Antique Row; the famous singer, Maia Santell, who learned so much from her famous uncle, Frank Sugia, whose piano and accordion added spice to Seattle’s Italian Village in the early ’30s; and tenorists Cliff Colon and Kareem Kandi. Colon also has the good sense to be Ms. Stockinger’s soul partner; Kandi spreads good sense, teaching at the Tacoma School of Art.

Perhaps the greatest impact on the current jazz scene is being made by trumpeter/singer/ showman Lance Buller, from Tacoma’s Proctor District. He, and singer Stephanie Porter, front the swingingest, most spontaneous quintet in captivity. Modeled after the Louis Prima/Keely Smith combo, Lance, Steph and rhythm section always make a valid jazz statement without losing sight of showmanship.

Could be the future history of jazz: entertaining the fans with quality.

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