The secret is in my genes

two generations of jazz

Mother and Son Jazz Musicians in the 30s

I was born in a house where the basement served as a secret bar and nightclub, a small hotel, and the first stop for black jazz musicians coming to Seattle to perform in the first half of the 1900s.

I was born in my grandparent’s house in Seattle while they were living in Alaska. They were musicians, but like many musicians, they had to earn their money elsewhere. My parents lived in their house while they were away.  I came home from the hospital to the bed that was my dad’s his whole life until he moved in with my mom and went to college. My grandfather was a plasterer, one of the first black plasterers in Seattle, the first to be allowed to join the union in Seattle. During the 50s my grandfather got work on the Bearing Straight where massive construction was going on so their house was available to us.

But when my grandparents first got married they were both musicians. My grandpa played the drums, and my grandmother played the piano. That was jazz in the 20s and 30s. Although Seattle didn’t have the race laws that prevented blacks from going to certain public places, like hotels, black musicians were well used to having to stay with friends when on tour in US cities. My house, well, my grandparent’s house that later became mine for a time, was the place where all black musicians came to stay and play in the 20s and 30s and 40s. I don’t know where they slept when they stayed because it was a small 2 bedroom house just off Yesler Street in Seattle, not far from Jackson Street which now is finally given for being the center of Seattle Jazz. My grandfather built this house himself. It is small for the neighborhood, but I’m sure it was more room than he had ever lived in, growing up as he did in a family of 13 children.

There was a basement. It wasn’t really a basement to me when I was a child. And it certainly wasn’t just a basement to some of the greatest American jazz musicians who spent countless nights jamming and drinking there. It was a nightclub, a secret musical paradise, a welcome port in the storm for weary musicians – Lionel Hampton, Ray Charles, Erskine Hawkins, Lena Horne and countless others on tour. It was a second home to Seattle musicians like Quincy Jones, Ernestine Anderson and Buddy Catlett. When I was small the only musicians who played the piano down there were my dad and my grandmother, but mostly they played the baby grand squeezed into the tiny living room upstairs. I could imagine the basement filled with smoke and people, the black and white photos on the walls that included one of my dad’s band playing behind Billy Holiday. There was a real bar with bar stools and I often snuck down there years later when my grandfather had moved down there, when he was no longer sleeping with my grandmother in their bedroom. I waited for him to leave and just opened boxes, looked in cupboards and pretended to be a grown up sitting on a bar stool in this mystery wonderland of artifacts from the most influential period in the history of jazz. I didn’t know what it was like at the time, but it crept into my soul, was in my genes and became part of who I am today.

My grandmother, Evelyn Bundy and later Evelyn Taylor, started the Evelyn Bundy Band in 1926, an early and important fixture in the Seattle jazz world. Evelyn played drums, piano, saxophone and banjo. She was the only women on the board of the black music union. My dad was a musician too, and it was in his band that gave Quincy Jones his start. My grandparent’s basement wasn’t a speakeasy because it was built in the late 20s, after prohibition. But was the heart and soul of Seattle jazz and it was certainly secret to those who were not in the know. I guess it is in my genes. I didn’t realize until tonight that my history has been leading me to my destiny. It is no accident that I would have a secret special place for special people in my home, where we jam with food, flavor and friends. I am not a musician, but food is one of my instruments and is music to my soul.

1 thought on “The secret is in my genes

  1. Alysoun

    Powerful story! I see how it motivated your Secret Restaurant, which is an inspiration in itself. Phenomenal food . . . YUM. Interesting people . . . real conversation. I could do this every week. Please keep me posted on your openings?

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