How My Basement Led Me To The Jazz Scene On Jackson Street

Sep 3, 2014

Nia Price-Nascimento lives in a house built in the 1920s in the Central District, Seattle's historically African-American neighborhood.  Last year, she found out there are two chambers hidden under the wooden floorboards in her basement creating a sub-basement. That led her to a journey back in time, as she explains in her own words.

E. Russell 'Noodles' Smith, the owner of a famous club in the Central District in the 1900s.
E. Russell 'Noodles' Smith, the owner of a famous club in the Central District in the 1900s.
Credit Public domain, via BlackPast.org

Before I get into the story, you need to know I’m African American and Brazilian. I grew up in a mostly African-American neighborhood, but most of my friends are white, and I never really felt like I fit in. I recently got curious about my heritage.

It started in my basement. I used to think it was so creepy. My mom found dead rats down there.

But then I found out there was a sub-basement. That sub-basement led me to stories about West Coast jazz, segregation and prohibition. Sounds like a gangster movie, but all of this happened right here in my neighborhood, the Central District. 

Before we moved into our home, the realtor told my mom, Lisa Price, that this was a rum runner house. My mom says she asked him what that was.

A sign commemorates jazz history on 12th and Jackson, in Seattle
A sign commemorates jazz history on 12th and Jackson, in Seattle
Credit KUOW Photo/Nia Price-Nascimento

He said this is a place where bootleg was made or stored and they used to bring the rum trucks right up to the garage, back them up and load it on. I almost felt like I was in some sort of mobster scene.

During prohibition, people made hooch in their bathtubs. They also made wine. The house next door used to have many grapevines, my neighbor Chalice Stallworth recalled.

“You don’t see those kind of grapes anymore, the wine grapes. Where I grew up there was a whole orchard full of those grapes and those were the most wonderful grapes in the summer. But you don’t see those that much anymore,” she said.

Stallworth has been living here in the Central District most her life. Her father was a saxophonist who played at African-American jazz clubs on Jackson Street. That’s where the illegal alcohol was taken. 

“That’s where the action was,” music writer Paul de Barros told me. He’s a music contributor for the Seattle Times and the author of "Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle."

He told me African-American porters and railroad workers used to stay at hotels near 12th and Jackson in the early 1900s. “That’s where this community evolved,” he says, as these workers asked themselves “well what am I going to do for the next three nights while I wait to get back to Chicago. Well maybe let’s have a card game or somebody sees an opportunity to sell these guys a few drinks. He opens a bar, a pool room. Somebody says, well why don’t we have some music too.”

One of the popular clubs on Jackson Street was the Black and Tan that was owned by E. Russel 'Noodles' Smith, who, de Barros says, was “nicknamed Noodles because every night at two or three o’clock in the morning, he would always have a bowl of noodles, probably so he wouldn’t have a hangover in the morning cause he was hanging out selling bootlegged liquor to people.”

He adds, “The polite way of describing Noodles Smith is to say that he was an entrepreneur. The impolite way is to say he was a gangster.”

Smith came to Seattle in 1910 with $17,000, which was a lot of money for the time. African-Americans like Smith made Jackson Street an economically thriving community.

The former location of the Black and Tan nightclub on 12th and Jackson.
The former location of the Black and Tan nightclub on 12th and Jackson.
Credit KUOW Photo/Nia Price-Nascimento

And according to de Barros, African-American musicians in these jazz clubs were creating a new sound combining blues, swing, bebop and other sounds that formed West Coast jazz. It has a very spunky, happy feeling, like the song “Seattle Hunch” by Jelly Roll Morton, who played on Jackson Street in 1920.

My mom and I visited Jackson Street to see if there is any remnant of this vibrant jazz scene, and it’s a little sad. Standing on the corner where the Black and Tan operated for more than 40 years, there’s nothing left except a metal stand commemorating the history of this “musical crossroads.”

“So this is where it used to be,” my mom mused. “It’s kind of strange that this used to be a place that was so full of music and life. It’s so different now. There’s nothing left.”

I had no idea I’ve been passing through a piece of culture that was so rich, and now is completely gone.

My neighbor Chalice Stallworth thinks that the Central District has become prime property and that people with money are pushing out the older families. I’ve noticed that my neighborhood has become more economically and culturally diverse since I was a little kid.

Everything is changing: the houses, the music and the people surrounding me. But Stallworth hopes with this change we don’t lose any more of our history. She said she hopes we retain some of the feeling of yesterday, the families of yesterday, and the traditions of yesterday.

“I think it’s good to evolve but you’ve got to keep a piece of the old to remember where we came from and how we got to where we are now,” she said.

RadioActive is KUOW's program for high school students. This story was produced during RadioActive's Summer 2014 Introductory Workshop. Listen to RadioActive stories, subscribe to the RadioActive podcast and stay in touch on Facebook.