THE UBANGI CLUB: SEATTLE'S HOT NITESPOT (1936-1938)

THE HISTORY OF SEATTLE'S WILD NIGHTCLUB SCENE of the Roaring ‘20s and down-&-dirty '30s is rich with tales of exciting Jazz Era music, bootlegged booze, reefer madness, lots of larger-than-life characters, and a goodly number of sketchy venues where, for years and years, all this frenzied action played out nightly well into the wee small hours.

Jackson Street Jazz Scene
In the early 1930s Seattle’s African American-oriented newspaper, The Northwest Enterprise, described the town’s notorious Jackson Street scene that, in part, ran straight through the neighborhood historically known as “Chinatown” – today’s International District. It reported that the area “attracts persons from all sections of the city and numerous migrants who are attracted by the bright lights and allurements. And there are allurements, if you know where to find them…Jackson Street might be called the ‘Poor Man’s Playground.’ Here all races meet on common ground and rub elbows as equals. Fillipinos [sic], Japanese, Negroes and whites mingle in the same hotels and restaurants and there is an air of comradeship.”

This was the social milieu in which jazz music had gotten its initial toehold in Seattle, and perhaps the first local entrepreneur to capitalize off the growing interest that young whites were exhibiting for this crazy new jazz stuff was none other than Seattle’s reigning speakeasy/nightclub king, E. Russell “Noodles” Smith. A fellow who Northwest jazz historian Paul de Barros noted as: “One of the earliest and most colorful black entrepreneurs” who (along with his partner) “lived the lives of flamboyant gangsters, driving fancy cars and showering food and drink on their friends and relatives.” 

The Black and Tan
“Smith was a gambler and a businessman,” de Barros further informs, “who was nicknamed ‘Noodles’ because no matter how much he risked in a crap game, the story went, he always set aside enough cash to buy a bowl of noodles before he went to bed.” He had begun to amass his considerable fortune back in the 1920s by co-founding the fabled Black and Tan club (12th Avenue and Jackson Street) – a long-lived room whose very name signaled its racially tolerant access policy.
But times were already moving on, as Kaegan Faltys-Burr has written: “In the climate of Roosevelt’s New Deal, Jackson Street jazz clubs began catering to more class-specific audiences.” And it was Smith who “saw the need for a more sophisticated club to satisfy the growing demand of wealthy whites for jazz venues.”

“Chinatown"
Thus begins the short-lived but legendary saga of Smith’s most ambitious nightclub enterprise of all, the Ubangi (710 7th Avenue S). He set out by renting a large space on the east side of the Louisa Hotel – which had originally been built (by a trio of Scandinavian emigrants) back in 1909 as the Nelson, Tagholm & Jensen Tenement (a 120-room boarding house that catered mainly to recent-arrivals and ethic workers awaiting passage to seafood canning jobs up in Alaska). “The Louisa was something of a sanctuary,” Ellis E. Conklin has written, “and in the 1920s and 1930s, Chinatown throbbed with excitement. Paper lanterns and glowing neon hung from the stoops of apartment dwellings. Children pitched baseball cards in Canton Alley. Adults gathered in social clubs, tucked away in basements and backroom parlors, for card games, and feasted on platters of” authentic Chinese delicacies. “The hotel, with its orange brick facade and windows with cast-stone sills and lintels, boasted a second-floor billiard room where seven two-story bay windows allowed light to stream in. Rumors persist that a secret casino with a surreptitious passageway may also have been on the second floor.”

Rumors aside, what is certain is that the hotel’s alley featured an entrance to one particular Chinese social club – the Blue Heaven (665 South King Street) – where illicit gambling flourished for decades. Recast later as the Wah Mee Club, the basement room would become widely infamous in 1983 as the site of one of Seattle’s most shocking robbery/murder sprees. Much of what had long occurred at this club was hidden and illicit, whereas the illegal activities at the Ubangi were rather more open, and Smith dealt with whatever fallout the traditional way: by paying off the police.

Direct from the Cotton Club
Smith’s goal was to run a swanky room that offered the finest in entertainment, and towards that end he and a manager, Bruce Rowell, took a trip down to Los Angeles to scout out talent. A visit to Frank Sebastian’s famous Cotton Club brought him into contact with one of that town’s leading black bands, Les Hite’s Cotton Club Orchestra. A deal was struck and Hite, his band, and a chorus line of singing/dancing girls were successfully booked for a twelve-week stint to mark the Ubangi’s grand opening. The two-story club featured two distinct ballrooms and a mezzanine that boasted a solo pianist, initially the legendary Seattle pianist Palmer Johnson. Seattle’s most glamorous black-owned rooms, the Ubangi offered the public the town’s first floor-show spectacle, in an atmosphere of elegance and exotica – replete with potted palm trees and an African-themed décor.

The Ubangi – which the Northwest Enterprise deemed “the largest race-owned enterprise…north of Los Angeles” – was an immediate hit. Especially with certain members of the white community who had extra money to burn during those Great Depression years – and Les Hite’s band got the joint off to a jumpin’ start. After a dozen weeks, Hite moved on but other fine talents kept the momentum up. Seattle’s own Howard Wyatt dance orchestra was brought in, as were additional stars from Los Angeles. Among the biggest names to work the stage was Gene Coy’s Black Aces, and Cab “Hi-De-Ho” Calloway.

It's A Raid!
“Smith spared few expenses,” Faltys-Burr wrote, “flying in musical and dance acts from Los Angeles, and as a result most of the patrons attracted to the club were white. But even the lavish Ubangi continued to deal with problems of police harassment.” Raids by the Seattle Police Department, and/or state liquor agents, were common along Jackson Street, even if they often only resulted in punitive fines (or were forestalled by cash payoffs). But the Ubangi’s physical layout afforded employees, like manager Rowell, opportunities for escape via secret doors, stairwells, and even a hidden slide.

Decades after-the-fact Rowell once gleefully recalled to de Barros: “That’s how I got away from the Washington State liquor board, three times! Heh-heh-heh! When they came in, I’d go to [my] office, see, and say ‘Let me get my overcoat.’ Then I’d zip down that little deal, you know, near the floor, and Sheeoop! I’m downstairs in the basement. Next thing I know, I’m coming out [in the back alley], go down to the Mar Hotel, get a room, take a bath, and go to bed! They’re all up there looking’ for me and I’m in the shower!”

The Ubangi Nighthawks
All this must have been a frustration for Smith, but he had enough income streams – additional nightclubs, his personal gaming and gambling, and various real estate investments – to forge ahead. Indeed, his profile within the community continued to grow with every step including his founding and supporting of a very popular black semi-pro football team called the Ubangi Nighthawks. Smith was renowned for attending each of their games, while Rowell attended to, as Brent Campbell has written, “the team’s financial and physical health.” 

Alas, the well being of the Ubangi itself couldn’t be maintained once the building it was based in was sold off in February, 1938 – and then 75 years later, on Christmas Eve, 2013, a fire destroyed the top floor of the historic building and ruined numerous businesses below.

A New Discovery
Now, in late 2014, I have recently unearthed what is perhaps the only known artifact related to this whole little realm of Ubangi club history: a vintage photograph of an as-yet-unidentified racially diverse band that includes a pianist, six sax and trumpet players, a bassist, a drummer, a leader, and three female singer/dancers(?). The 8x10 glossy print is autographed thusly: “9/27/36  To Hazel Simpson:  May you never get any nicer, may you never get any worse. Paula Walton  Ubangi Club. Seattle Wash.”