Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth, whenever it is a damp, drizzly November or a sweltering dog bark- and firework-afflicted July in Southeast Seattle, whenever I find myself cursing the Rainier Avenue traffic and dreading another descent into the hell that is Lowe’s for lack of a real hardware store, and especially whenever only a strong moral principle prevents me from methodically knocking hipsters' pork pie hats off — then I account it high time to get to the Royal Room.
What goes on at Columbia City's "restaurant, bar, and project room" might have been news when I first intended to write about it, more than two years ago. But I shirked doing so, preferring at first to remain an anonymous ear in the crowd. Then it wasn’t news anymore. Now, however, something happening at the Royal Room tomorrow (Saturday— more about it anon) gives occasion to revisit its history. First, a little background.
Since it opened in December 2011, this establishment — commonly called a jazz club, though it’s much more — has become a musical crossroads like none other in Seattle and perhaps anywhere else since the downtown New York scene of the 1970s and ’80s. Its location itself a crossroads: 5000 Rainier Ave. S., the near-perfect center of the Rainier Valley, in the gentrifying cultural mixing chamber known as Columbia City.
The Royal Room inherits one legacy from its landlord, the Royal Esquire Club, Seattle's classic black nightclub (with the most nattily dressed clientele in the city). Its co-owners bring their own legacies: Tia Matthies and Steve Freeborn, who run the nightly operation, including a pretty good restaurant and bar, formerly operated the OK Hotel and Rendezvous. Wayne Horvitz, the protean and prolific composer/keyboardist who is its musical demiurge and chief booker, was at the center of that downtown New York scene — the first booker at the Knitting Factory, in fact.
Horvitz (below) transplanted himself to Seattle 26 years ago and became a passionate Southeast Seattleite (once you make it your neighborhood, it becomes your cause). But he conceived the Royal Room as, in his words, “a place like ones I knew in New York. When I first moved there you’d go to hear all different kinds of music, and communities, mixing it up.” Seattle has many venues for many genres, but limited crossover and much less cross-collaboration and fertilization. Tula’s, the Tractor, Re-bar and the rest do what they do, and rarely the mix shall meet.
The Royal Room’s calendar (seven nights a week, excepting the occasional private party) finds room for everything from classic and progressive jazz to salsa and soul, funk and blues, Afrobeat and oud, bluegrass and rockabilly, Brazilian samba and (especially hot of late) chorro, occasional chamber music, the inevitable singer-songwriters, and even the odd irksome ’60s happening. Plus tribute nights to the likes of George Harrison, Thelonious Monk, Leon Russell, Keith Jarrett, Woody Guthrie, “the Disney Songbook” — you get the idea.
What makes such eclecticism possible is the Royal Room’s unusual pay scheme: no cover charge, except for name acts, usually touring, that are sure to draw. Everyone else, including Horvitz's groups, depends on church-style pay envelopes and teasing reminders from the stage to make a (rather modest) suggested donation of $5 to $15. (I like to pay by the set, as at the old Preservation Hall.) This lets curious rookie listeners and chance drop-ins sample and flee, or maybe stay and discover aural capacities they never knew they had. It may make the players work harder, but it also lets them try new things and return more often without fearing they’ll exhaust their audiences.
How does this honor system work in practice? “It really depends on the type of audience,” says Horvitz. “Listening audiences are very good about paying. Dancing audiences are sometimes good, sometimes less so.” Maybe they’re distracted by the sweat and hormones.
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