A Dustbin No Longer
Seattle – still a relatively young town – is certainly not the first to earn a reputation for its regionally distinct strains of music. Indeed, long before this area gained any notoriety for its tunes, places like New Orleans, Chicago, and Nashville were already the celebrated homes of jazz, blues, and country music. As recently as the 1940s while visiting the area, British symphony conductor [Sir Thomas Beecham] infamously quipped that Seattle’s arts scene amounted to an “aesthetic dustbin” – a harsh appraisal that wounded the town’s pride a bit, but surely also one likely shared by plenty of other worldly cosmopolitans.
So, though a late-bloomer in joining the music capitals’ ranks as a particularly inviting place to make and enjoy music, Seattle has, without a doubt, arrived. Our musical community has successfully developed an overlapping matrix of vibrant and resilient “scenes” that increasingly honor their pioneers and simultaneously nurture their emerging talents. Yet, in hindsight, we can also recognize that the path music-making takes is like a very busy two-way street –that traffic brings imported influences from the outside world, and simultaneously exports our local sounds to appreciative audiences in far-flung locales.
The earliest-known music created locally was that which suited the cultural and spiritual needs of the indigenous Dkhw’Duw’Absh (Duwamish) Indians during the thousands of years that they’ve dwelled here. Then came sequential waves of inbound musical traditions brought here by Spanish and British explorers, French-Canadian fur-trappers, missionaries, miners, loggers, sailors and soldiers, cowboys, Oregon Trail emigrants – and, much later, World War Two-era jobseekers. It was, in fact, the children of some of the latter who grew up steeped in the local music of the 1940s and went on to fantastic careers – notably jazz and R&B greats like Quincy Jones and Ernestine Anderson.
The Wild West
But a question arises: Why? Why exactly did Seattle, of all places, become a serious music-making center, a genuine “City of Music.” Among the popular theories advanced to explain this little puzzle are those that hinge on the notions of geographic and cultural isolation, the long-acknowledged “Seattle Spirit,” and, well yes, this area’s famous – “It’s The Water” – precipitation. Considering our relative geographic isolation, this turn of events would seem highly improbable given that Seattle was simply way off-the-beaten-path in the eyes of the power centers of America’s entertainment industries in New York City and Hollywood. During the early decades after settlement – when few professional entertainers dared brave their way out into the wilds of the Northwest – local talents made music simply to satisfy themselves and entertain their friends.
One theoretical reason that Seattle’s music is unique is the special character of the Northwest people. Perhaps inspired by the helpful friendliness of Chief Seattle (“Si’ahl'”) and his tribal members who greeted the arrival of the Denny Party here in 1851, those early denizens of the tiny village we now call Seattle kindly helped one another settle into their new frontier homes. Among the very first log cabins constructed was the large cookhouse for Henry Yesler’s steam-powered sawmill – and that structure served for years as the fledgling community’s public house. It was there that the villagers entertained themselves. The charming young daughters of Denny Party member Nathanial Bell (for whom the Belltown neighborhood is named) were known to perform for their neighbors on occasion. This sort of cultural isolation ultimately has its impacts on the art that blossoms from a place, and Northwest music – produced not to please distant music industry moguls, rather to appeal to local tastes – slowly began to take shape in its uniquely regional forms.
Rhythm of the Rain
Now let’s consider Seattle’s famous rain and what possible impact it may have on artistic endeavors. Though that silly ‘60s pop radio hit – “Seattle” – was all about “The bluest skies you’ve ever seen are in Seattle,” the truth is that this is one very soggy place. From ancient times onward, seeking shelter during the extended rainy months resulted in individuals spending an inordinate amount of time indoors. Cultural anthropologists have posited that a major reason why North Coast Salish artwork is among the most stylized – and easily recognizable – forms developed by any indigenous people on the globe is that they had abundant food sources which allowed them plenty of time to create art inside their longhouses.
In modern times staying inside during the dark rainy winters can bring a sense of the dreaded “cabin fever,” but it also can drive creative types to focus ever more deeply on their artistic endeavors. Musicians increase their skills. Songwriters hone their craft. Audio engineers perfect their techniques. Bands rehearse and develop formidable sonic profiles – musical sounds that more than once have managed to capture the attentions of the outside world.
Then there is that timeworn phrase – “The Seattle Spirit” – which was initially applied in efforts to describe the bootstrap vigor with which townsfolk rebuilt Seattle in the wake of the devastating Great Fire of 1889. Not waiting for others to offer help, those people displayed an admirable do-it-yourself approach to the disaster. This “D-I-Y” attitude became an ingrained aspect of the Northwest character – and one that has energized our artists down through the decades.
Along the way, this region’s musicians created their own unwritten ground-rules. They developed an informal set of attitudes and practices that evolved into a Northwest ethos. Among the tenets adopted were the rather novel notions that blatant, overt careerism is not ideal; that collaborative camaraderie amongst musicians is beneficial; and that a music scene is composed of far more than just the players. Indeed, that the audience – ideally with an openness to new artistic explorations and willingness to support the community’s creative individuals – is essential and must be respected. And on that front Seattle is second to none.
So, then: Why has Seattle evolved into an irresistible musical mecca that has attracted so many idealistic musicians from faraway places? (Hey, anyone remember those legions of rock ‘n’ roll pilgrims who sought the “Holy Grail” of Grunge here throughout the 1990s?) Well, in significant part, it is because we have established an open and supportive music community here. But even that reality is not something entirely new. Consider the historical fact that players have long relocated here from distant places in attempts to weave their way into the Northwest’s enviable and irreplaceable scenes.
That is certainly why jazz and R&B legend Ray Charles moved here from Florida in 1948. It is why the struggling country singer/songwriter Willie Nelson moved to the Northwest in 1957. Same story with Bakersfield’s honky-tonk hero, Buck Owens, in 1958. Then there was the amateur songbird Loretta Lynn who moved here from Kentucky around that same time, got a guitar in Seattle, and launched her remarkable career. Fresh and inviting, Seattle proved to be a land of opportunity for many additional soon-to-be famous musicians including the American folk icon Woody Guthrie, who penned 26 Northwest-themed songs here in the during the 1940s, and America’s premier avant-garde composer, John Cage, who moved here in the 1930s. A decade earlier our rough-&-tumble jazz joints provided steady work for the self-proclaimed “inventor” of jazz, Ferdinand “Jellyroll” Morton, who wrote and recorded his boogie-woogie piano classic “Seattle Hunch.” In each such instance the Northwest offered a nurturing environment replete with roadhouses and dancehalls and a receptive audience who supported them on their paths to stardom.
The Northwest’s most notable talents, however, were not visitors or recent emigrants at all, but rather, our own native sons and daughters. Among those who the expansive world of music has embraced are Bing Crosby (the “world’s most recognized voice”); Mildred Bailey (“the first female big-band vocalist”); Bonnie Guitar (‘50s country/pop star & pioneering female producer); the Ventures (world’s most successful instrumental rock band); the Brothers Four and Chad Mitchell Trio (hit-making folkies); the Kingsmen (purveyors of the region’s signature song, “Louie Louie”); the Sonics (‘60s garage/punk pioneers); Jimi Hendrix (psychedelic bluesman); Larry Coryell (jazz fusion guitar pioneer); Heart (hard rockers); Mark O’Conner (fiddle virtuoso); Danny O’Keefe (folkie songwriter), Robert Cray (superstar bluesman); Queensrÿche (heavy metal heroes); Sir Mix-A-Lot (hip-hop star); and Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana (gods of the 1980s-1990s grunge scene). On an equally as impressive level, the Seattle Symphony has in the last couple decades earned a reputation as one of the world’s most-recorded orchestras.
Making A Scene
Having outstanding musicians alone, however, does not define a genuine music scene. Just as Seattle continues to grow and mature, so too does its music biz infrastructure. Seattle’s audio recording industry has come quite a ways since Joe Boles’ modest home-basement studio cut the town’s first string of hit records back in the 1950s. Those teenaged rock ‘n’ roll musicians – including the Fleetwoods, who enjoyed a few international hits – each scored national hits for Seattle’s first successful pop label, Dolton Records. Inspired by Dolton’s sudden success, a handful of additional labels – including Jerden, Seafair-Bolo, Etiquette, and Camelot Records – also got in on the ‘60s action. Subsequent years saw the emergence of fine new recording studios like Bad Animals and hit-making records companies including Nastymix and Sub Pop. Today, Seattle is home to many high-quality studios and several dozen active record companies.
For musicians, recording a song and then having it marketed by a record company is but the beginning. The next step has been getting radio stations to support it with airplay. Luckily, Seattle has boasted radio stations that supported locally produced records. KJR was an extremely influential hit-breaking national leader throughout the 1960s, and more recently KNDD and KEXP have followed suit. Yet another – the high school-based student-run station, KNHC – has established itself as one of only six Nielsen-monitored stations that contribute song selection data to Billboard magazine’s national “Dance Airplay” chart.
The City of Music
Seattle has always benefited from having outstanding music schools including the Cornish School of Fine Arts and the University of Washington’s Music Department. In addition several local high schools’ jazz studies programs – most notably at Garfield and Roosevelt – have for decades consistently been recognized as among the nation’s best. Seattle is also the home to many music-focused organizations including one of America’s major music museums – the Experience Music Project (EMP) – and the city government’s own Office of Film + Music which helped found the Seattle Music Commission in 2010.
Considering the ubiquity of live music performances found here, Seattle – the “City of Music” – has especially earned its new tagline. Aside from the seemingly endless variety of tunes one can hear in obvious venues like nightclubs, taverns, theaters, concert halls, and elevators – remember Muzak (the “background music” company) was based here for many years! – music can be enjoyed in countless other settings – including the City’s OnHold program which provides locally produced tunes as background music heard by people telephoning City departments when they are placed on hold.
Among those are the traditional street-corner buskers down at Pike Place Market; lunchtime concerts at Freeway Park; various Seafair events; the Vera Project’s all-ages live music shows; the Woodland Park Zoo’s Zoo Tunes concerts and the music scheduled at numerous scattered neighborhoods’ weekend farmer’s markets. And that doesn’t even include all of the many annual festivals at which music plays a key role – such as, Bumbershoot, the Capitol Hill Block Party, the Decibel Festival, Earshot Jazz Festival, Northwest Folklife Festival, REVERBfest, the CityArts Fest, and various ethnic events. So, to summarize, in Seattle, music is everywhere!
This city has long sought a definitive identity that could be easily encapsulated in a punchy marketing tagline. A century ago it was somehow agreed that Seattle’s preeminence amongst the region’s sparse settlements had earned its crown as the “Queen City.” Later – when widely viewed as a company town for the Boeing Company – people started applying the moniker of “Jet City.” Struggling to escape that inaccurate nickname, a concerted rebranding campaign began in the 1980s – one that inexplicably seemed to lean on Wizard of Oz iconography by asking us to click our heels and try to believe that we live in the “Emerald City.” Luckily, one can’t always choose how one is perceived, and today it is quite clear that many years of community effort have finally established this place as nothing less than: Seattle: The City of Music.
[Note: This essay by Peter Blecha was originally commissioned by the Seattle Mayor’s Office of Music + Film, and posted on their website from 2011 through 2015.]