At Tula's, the last stand of the jazz open jam
A jazz open jam is an increasingly rare chance for amateur jazz singers to take the stage with professional musicians. Tula's, the venerable Seattle jazz club, is cutting the money-losing open jams from once a week to twice a month in February.
Special to The Seattle Times
Tula's Open JamThe next open jams will be Monday nights in February, a vocal jam with Greta Matassa on Monday and a jazz jam with the Darin Clendenin Trio on Feb. 16 at Tula's, 2214 Second Ave., Seattle. Both sessions start at 7:30 p.m.; $8 cover (Tula's is all-ages until 10 p.m.; information, 206-443-4221 or www.tulas.com).
About six months ago, Mack Waldron had the contract in his hand. Sign it and the club he had owned for 15 years, Tula's, would belong to someone else. All he had to do was sign his name.
His lease was ending. His rent was going up. He was 67. His knees and his feet ached (that was the gout and the arthritis). Still, he'd always told himself he could do any of the jobs in his club if he had to, the cooking, the cleaning, the serving.
He decided to tear up the contract.
"I just couldn't go through with it," Waldron said. "I couldn't part with it."
And so Waldron continued for at least another three years what has become both his love and his burden.
The static popularity of jazz, the economics of hosting live music, the current recession — all have taken their toll on places like Tula's, and in particular, on the open jam, a timeless ritual of jazz. Starting in February, Tula's will have only two open jams per month instead of one every week. Once upon a time, Tula's hosted two a week.
It is among a handful of clubs in Seattle that still host an open jazz jam at all. The Owl and Thistle, Egan's Ballard Jam House and the Whiskey Bar are others. But none has held jam sessions as consistently and for as long as Tula's.
On a recent Monday night, the Bill Anschell trio (which alternates Mondays with the Darin Clendenin Trio) played behind several singers who took turns on the stage. The singers are free. They'll buy a few drinks, bring in a few friends and relatives. But the professional instrumentalists cost money and get paid from the $8 cover charge.
For the amateurs who get those few minutes to perform on the stage, the opportunity is priceless.
"It's a gift," said retired schoolteacher Kathleen Donnelly, who has been singing at Tula's for five years. "Not just the chance to work with such talented musicians, but musicians who are so accepting and supportive."
The night Anschell played was typical of a winter night. About two dozen people sat at scattered tables and barstools of the Belltown nightclub. A few ate. Almost half were singers, who gave spirited if unpolished performances, carried home by the pros in the rhythm section. The singers are students and nannies and proofreaders, and, for a night, jazz musicians.
"You need to have them [open jams]" said drummer Matt Jorgensen, one of the founders of Origin Records. "They are part of the history of the music. For musicians that was the late-night thing to do. You go to your gig and after you're done, you find out where everyone's playing.
"If you have 10 musicians in a club," he continued, "you need to have 50 people listening. The club has to want to do it. It's got to be a labor of love."
The economics of the open jam rarely favor the club. It was as much a way to carry on a tradition as a way to make money. If a club broke even for the night, it was worth it. Most nights, Waldron can't even manage that, so he has to make enough money on the weekend to pay for the Monday nights he loses money.
"The people are wonderful," said Waldron, who makes ends meet because of his Navy pension. "I'd like to keep it going. But I can only do what the general public wants."
After he re-signed the lease, the liquor license came due. The next month he had to pay the liability insurance. His rent is higher by $800. By the end of the year, Waldron had not made enough to give himself a salary in December. But giving up the club and retiring didn't hold any answers for him.
"If you have nothing to live for, other than waking up in the morning," Waldron said, "old age can just go ahead and take you out. Sometimes, if you've got something to work for, it'll keep you alive."
Hugo Kugiya: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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