Seattle’s Rich History of Rhythm

Seattle, while not as large as the American metropolises of New York or Los Angeles, is host to a bustling, shucking and jiving culture. With a half million residents in the metropolitan area and another 3 million in the surrounding Puget Sound, Seattle has long had a vibrant Asian and Asian-American population, and well-established communities of Scandinavians, African-Americans, Jews, Latinos and thoroughly Native Americans. The city represents the “melting-pot” that logically (and thankfully) fosters around the coastal areas of the United States.

The term “thoroughly” Native American speaks of the original settlers of Seattle, a city named for Duwamish tribe Chief Sealth. The Duwamish, part of the Salish tribe, originally settled the area and prospered from the land’s rich soil and vegetation and the plentiful fishing the surrounding waters provided. The inevitable exploration by settlers looking to establish a seaport on the Sound first took place via two battling fellows, David Denny and Doc Maynard, in 1851. Denny, a well-educated if money-seeking sort, originally staked Alki Point (now the beachy area of West Seattle) for his “territory,” but was soon overwhelmed with the muddy ooze and floods of the Sound and resettled in the area that is now Pioneer Square. Doc Maynard, a humanitarian doctor from Ohio, purchased much of the land around the Sound at the same time. He gave away legions of acres willing businessmen ready to settle the area and open shop, and in turn financed a large part of the city’s boom. Strangely, Denny is credited as the founding father of the city, through misinformed history. Much of history, the adage claims, is written by the winners (whether economic or militaristic), and settlers—Native American tribes and humanitarian sorts such as Maynard are often ignored in American history.

The economy of Seattle has had several fluctuations, but was greatly augmented by the arrival of the railroad 1893. The population of the city in 1880 had been 3533, and grew to about ten times that amount during the following Yukon gold rush. As the largest city in the Northwest, Seattle’s banking and financing industry was aptly positioned for the fortunes made there. Later lumber plundering ensured a continued economic health, along with the shipbuilding industry and the establishment of Boeing’s factory in 1916. Although the company now has regular trade disputes and the rare maligned mechanics, it was a mainstay in the Northwest economy throughout most of the remaining 1900s. Seattle’s part as an aviation metropolis helped garner it the location title for the World’s Fair of 1962, for which the Space Needle was constructed. At that time, the city hoped to foster a forward-looking modernity represented in the UFO, Jetsons-like shape of the Needle. The monument remains, now a somewhat dated-looking symbol of a timeless ideal.

In the 1980s, Microsoft arrived in the area, and developed as the world’s leader in software, albeit monopolistically. The grunge proliferation and later Internet boom created a dreamlike atmosphere in the city. RealNetworks, Amazon, and Adobe populated the Employment Opportunities sections of newspapers with wanted ads. Seattle-based Starbucks replicated itself exponentially on a tidal wave of too-sweet “corporate” coffee to jolt the technologically inclined into their 12-hour workdays. Cranes towered above downtown areas at all times, constructing a seemingly endless set of skyline-fracturing high rises. Charming brick artist lofts that rented for $200 per month were reduced to rubble to make way for condominium complexes selling for $400,000 per unit. Code-writing teenage geeks founded companies that went public on the New York Stock Exchange at $2 per share and skyrocketed to $60 apiece in one month. Information technologists were made millionaires in months from stock options. Some retired at thirty; other aggressively invested folk saw their wealth decimated in the same ratio it grew, were laid off, and remained on Unemployment for years.

While the Internet boom and bust were a manic time of too much wealth and then too much poverty, they did help revolutionize the culture of Seattle. The limitations of the finite world were kept at bay, if only briefly, and allowed dreamers to indulge. The staid American work tradition of “business” attire was cast aside, and three-piece suits were retired in favor of ratty T-shirts and Levis. Tradition was scorned for new invention. It is perhaps for this reason that Seattleites insist on pridefully wearing jeans and Teva sandals with white tube socks to restaurants with $200 prix fixe menus.

Seattle is revolutionary in more ways than simple tradition spurning, if ratty, attire. The city boasts the largest population of educated folk of any American city, and international companies seeded in the fertile brain-soil of the populace have prospered. When viewed in light of other American cities, Seattle’s politics are also revolutionary, as residents are devoted liberals. The democratic vote in King County neared twice the republican vote for the 2004 election. The WTO riots in 2000 garnered press coverage internationally. Finally, Americans opposed to unchecked power were given media coverage, although much of that coverage showed police in riot gear, tear gas, and running protesters. Punk group Anti-Flag wrote in the song “Seattle Was a Riot,” “They tried to pin it on us / But we didn’t show up, with gas and billy clubs / An unarmed mass of thousands, just trying to be heard / But there are no world leaders, that want to hear our words.”

Movements abound in Seattle, it seems. The American music industry was revolutionized by the whole grunge thing as Big Money corporations pushing bloodless rock suddenly had hot garage-bred labels as competition on billboard charts. This is apropos, as grunge was a movement couched in the unorthodox. Labels grew quickly, and satellite industries like music production and CD duplication supported the clamor.

Seattle’s Rich History of Rhythm

Seattle’s storied jazz scene began in 1916, and was fostered through the alcohol Prohibition era of the 1920s. The Central District area of the city around Jackson Street proliferated with speakeasies, bootleg liquor, and jazz performers. Musicians Buddy Catlett, Patti Bown, Wyatt Ruther and Jimmy Rowles all got their start in the hotbed of 1940s Seattle. Ray Charles arrived in the mid ‘40s and, at age 16, began working with Quincy Jones, then 14. While the city’s jazz was often surpassed by that of New York’s in the national media, and misrepresented wholly in most of the local media due to prejudice, it remained a sweltering scene for many years.

This is especially remarkable when viewed in light of the political environment at the time, as lawmakers sought to force jazz clubs underground by strict governance. Paul de Barros speaks of this era in Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle: “As if national Prohibition itself were not enough, the city passed additional ordinances against dancing, imposed taxes on cabarets, and tried to enforce irrational regulation of entertainment of all kinds. Confusing prudence with intolerance, vice with artistic expression, these measures slowed the cultural progress of the region. A residue of that intolerance still exists, in the control exercised by the State Liquor Board over nightclubs.” This intolerance is also strangely replicated in Seattle’s electronic music arena today, as lawmakers have made it difficult for the musically inclined to gather peacefully, lawfully and with required permits.

In any case, jazz remained somewhat unhindered by the lawmakers’ lack of liberty, due to dirty policemen accepting quiet cash “contributions” from club owners. In 1969, when all that came to an end, Seattle grew much quieter. The quiet period was short-lived, however, as rock soon arrived.

Like jazz, when rock was introduced to Seattle, the conservatives arched their eyebrows. The discerning 1960s parent feared that the chaotic basslines of rock could lead to sex, drugs, and even more rock ‘n’ roll tendencies in their children. Were they right? Perhaps. The particular brand of Seattle garage rock was raw and untempered, with tonal inconsistencies, wild riffs, and staggered drum beats. The Wailers and the controversial “Louie, Louie” saga launched the city’s rock status into the national psyche, and the song plagued fraternity parties in the following decades. Seattle’s The Ventures produced an international hit here, and several local underground artists enjoyed cult status, but remained underground. Jimi Hendrix was one artist who will never remain underground, however, and there’s not much to say about his Seattle-bred rock psychedelia of the 1960s that hasn’t been said.

The underground paradigm of Seattle rock continued on through the post-garage and grunge scenes. Grunge music, as it is known today, got its start in the late ‘80s and continued through the ‘90s, and many Seattle groups became internationally known through a brief but massive worldwide fascination with the dirty rock that shared the same tendency to thick riffs and signature drums with garage rock. Sub Pop, who signed Screaming Trees, Mudhoney, and L7, was known for its gourmet curation. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains all hailed from the Jet City (so titled due to Boeing). Jello Biafra, the legendary singer of Dead Kennedys, gave Seattle cred when he organized No WTO Combo’s Live from the Battle in Seattle, giving voice to the aforementioned WTO riot fiasco. Grunge’s message of rebellion against mainstream and corporate culture resounded across a wide audience, though the scene was exhausted quickly. Perhaps it had always been something of an anti-scene, anyway. Some define the end of the era as the death of Kurt Cobain, who committed suicide in 1994, while others claim it ended with the breakup of Soundgarden in 1997.

Other Stuff

Other genres like hip-hop and electronic music have recently enjoyed a burgeoning, if relatively underground, following. Hip-hop artist Sir Mix-Alot hailed from the city, after all. “My Posse’s on Broadway” refers to Broadway Avenue, a main haul in the Capitol Hill former grunge area. The Stuck / Under the Needle record labels have fared well, representing artists like Boom Bap Project produced by Vitamin D, who also worked with Gift of Gab of Blackalicious. Several well-known electronic music producers and bands live here, such as Imputor? king Plastiq Phantom (Darrin Wiener), United States of Electronica, L’Usine, Matt Corwine, (Viva Recordings label owner) Jon Lemmon, Donald Glaude, DJ Dan, Jacob London and Lawnchair Generals. The success of the Decibel Festival, Seattle’s first Northwest electronic music fest, has also catapulted the city into national (if not international) recognition among the laptop-loving set.

This article was written for attendees of the Seattle Red Bull Music Academy in 2005.


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