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Originally published Friday, October 28, 2011 at 5:32 AM

Book review

'Before Seattle Rocked': music history as social history

Kurt E. Armbruster's "Before Seattle Rocked" is as much a social history of the city as it is a musical history.

Seattle Times arts writer

Author appearance

Kurt E. Armbruster

Armbruster discusses "Before Seattle Rocked," 7 p.m. Saturday, New Orleans Creole Restaurant, 114 First Ave. S., Seattle, with music following: Pete Leinonen's Olde Seattle Rhythm Band at 8 p.m., pianist Overton Berry at 9 p.m., Alice Stuart and the Formerlys at 10 p.m. Book discussion is free; music cover charge at the door is $8. (206-622-2563 or www.neworleanscreolerestaurant.com).
quotes Thanks to Armruster for his book and thanks to The Seattle Times for mentioning it. ... Read more
quotes In the category of music history as social history it will be interesting to compare... Read more
quotes Interesting. Think I'll give this one a read. Nice to have affirmation that higher... Read more

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It's amazing how much musical history Kurt E. Armbruster has uncovered and packed into his book, "Before Seattle Rocked: A City and Its Music" (University Press, 374 pp., $26.95).

For instance, did you know that the first piano in Seattle turned up by 1856 and that piano instruction was being offered (24 lessons for $20) by one Virginia Calhoun at the University of Washington by 1862? Or that a Cantonese opera house was up and running in Seattle by the early 1880s? Or that the first silent-film house opened on Pike Street in 1901, and by 1908 "picture-show" pianists were earning $26 a week?

The sheer number of facts and figures that Armbruster has at his command is astonishing. But "Before Seattle Rocked" isn't merely a dry chronology. It's just as much a social history of the city from the time before the Denny Party arrived in 1851, right on into the 1970s. After all, what could be more social than music?

We're talking every kind of music: classical, jazz, folk, gospel, experimental fare, Native American song. Armbruster brings them all to life with a pithy gusto, whether he's chronicling behind-the-scenes drama at the Seattle Symphony or musicians-union maneuvers in an era when labor bosses did their best to keep black nightclub artists segregated from whites (a state of affairs that lasted well into the 1950s).

He clearly has talked to everyone he could get ahold of, and as lucid and lively as his own prose is, he's often upstaged by interviewees who are born raconteurs.

"I've played for arts commissions and I've played for gangsters," says bandleader Pete Leinonen. "Gangsters are nicer."

When not wisecracking, Armbruster's interviewees are candid about what it took to make a living as a musician in the city.

"There were a lot of players in Seattle who didn't work because they wouldn't take every gig," drummer Howard Gilbert says of the 1960s. "But to survive and not have a day job, you had to play everything. And that was fun, because you had to master all the different styles." (Gilbert was active on the classical, jazz and parade-band scene.)

Armbruster details how professional musicians were affected by the technological advances of their day (recordings, radio, television) and social upheavals (Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II). He pays due attention to the big names who got their start here: Ray Charles, Broadway star Pat Suzuki, folk singers the Brothers Four. He also notes those who passed through town: Gershwin in 1936, Stravinsky in 1962.

He revealingly recounts the controversies surrounding jazz (a long time in being accepted by polite society), as well as the air of scandal that was often attached to being a musician. Even the glorious Wurlitzer, accompanying silent films, drew its critics.

"This leaky, wind-driven instrument," church-organist Harry Colwell complained, "is really not an organ at all. ... Where the regular organ is dignified, sonorous, reverent and pastoral, the theater organ shouts, wails, screams, sobs, moans, cries, barks like a dog, and shoots itself with a bass drum."

And then there are the moments of sheer spectacle. The most remarkable, perhaps, was a 1927 outdoor production of "Aida" that drew audiences of 12,000-15,000.

The complex jazz-lineages Armbruster serves up, tracing every influence and collaboration, can be a tangle. But almost everywhere else, things are clear and lively.

The symphony proves especially fertile ground for him. Have you heard about the maestro who had two wives? Or conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, who may — or may not — have called Seattle a "cultural dustbin"?

It's all here, and it's juicy stuff.

And then there are all the other fascinating Seattle "firsts" that Armbruster has tracked down: the first performance of Beethoven's 5th (1903), the first Seattle radio broadcast (1922), the opening of the first espresso cafe/folk-music venue (1958) ... .

The list goes, revealingly, on and on.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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