BY ERIC OLSON
I’m shooting the breeze with pianist/organist Ron Weinstein when he delivers a precious bit of lore. “I was gigging at Vito’s when the fire started,” he says, kicked back with partner Dillyn Kost on their South Seattle couch. “That building’s fire alarm was always going off. So we usually ignored it. But this time we smelled smoke.”
Among a bevy of Weinstein’s stories – arriving to Haight-Ashbury as a wide-eyed teenager in 1968, taking a “hippie jaunt” across North Africa, helping launch Seattle jazz-punk outfit Crack Sabbath – the Vito’s tale sticks out. It’s eerie. It’s familiar. I’ve seen the aftermath firsthand.
Weinstein held court for over a decade in that dim-lit Italian lounge, cranking out jazz standards on the baby grand with all the dependability of your local postman (and a higher entertainment quotient). Most of the local jazz scene saw him at it.
“We had no idea it was, like, seriously on fire,” he continues. “I very calmly stopped playing and got on the mic and said, ‘Listen, will everybody, please, without stampeding, head to the exit.’”
The blaze erupted in the apartment building above Vito’s, not in the restaurant itself. “They were pulling people out for hours,” says Weinstein of that night. “I wound up getting interviewed by KOMO news – I said I’d been playing piano in there for ten years, only they didn’t realize there was a venue downstairs. They assumed I was a resident, hanging around in the basement or something.”
The fire broke out in June 2022 and a collapsed ceiling did a number on the retail space. Vito’s remains shuttered. Luckily you don’t have to travel far to catch Weinstein’s idiosyncratic jazz interpretations. I found him on a Tuesday afternoon fresh off three straight gigs, a musical turkey: Saturday at the Tractor Tavern with tequila funk outfit REPOSADO, Sunday at the Sea Monster on his Fender Rhodes (Jeff Johnson and Geoff Harper trading bass duty, a mix of D’Vonne Lewis, Brad Gibson, and Eric Eagle on drums), and Monday at the Owl ‘N Thistle alongside Danny Godinez, Farko Dosumov, and Doug Octa Port.
The latter two are weekly appointments, standbys to replace Vito’s on Weinstein’s performance calendar. “With those two weekly spots,” he admits, “I’m totally spoiled. I guess that’s something to be optimistic about.”
Weinstein drops the o-word because we’ve been talking, in broad strokes, about Seattle’s music scene. Where it’s been, how it’s changed, where it’s headed. While things might not be as dire as, say, a multi-story apartment fire, Weinstein thinks it’s trending in that direction.
“Everyone likes what they like now,” he laments. Some names and trends get thrown out, perennial boogeymen of the working jazz musician. Taylor Swift. Algorithms. Beyoncé. Pop music. Television. “Not to insult anyone’s taste – I like Beyoncé.”
Weinstein reasons, “People have too many good things to do at home. They’re comfortable. Obviously, there’s still an appetite for it. For live music. But tastes have changed.”
Most glaring, he says, is a dearth of Seattle clubs. Weinstein, 75, relocated to the Evergreen State from San Francisco in 1987 and found a thriving blues scene in Pioneer Square. “The New Orleans, Old Timer’s, Doc Maynard’s.” He lists the venues with Kost’s help, both of them smiling as if remembering forgotten friends. “J&M had fewer shows back then. The Central and Colourbox did the new grungy stuff…”
Weinstein says these clubs offered a joint cover, a single ticket that covered as many as nine establishments a night. Wow, I say, a joint cover. That sounds like a fantastic idea.
He agrees. “There’s nothing like that now. The blues bands have to play all these weird out-of-town places.”
Weinstein admits that he sounds like a grumpy old man with this stuff. I remind him that our interview falls under the jurisdiction of a jazz magazine, so hey, we’re within our rights.
“Do you think anything’s improving these days?” I ask.
“No,” says Weinstein, blunt but possibly hiding a smile. He leans back and says, “In San Francisco back in the day, you could pay your rent in basically two ballroom gigs. I used to pay–”
Kost cuts him off, something to the effect of, “Yeah, yeah that was a long time ago, Ron.”
But I’m curious about San Francisco. Haight Ashbury, 1968! How could I not be? So I press for some stories, not that Weinstein needs pressing.
“It was an odd period of time between ‘64 and ‘68,” he says. “I mean, in 1964 it was almost like 1954 everywhere in America. And then things just flipped.”
Weinstein grew up in Great Neck, New York, real-life inspiration for West Egg in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. “My high school went from one day being regular ‘50s people to one-third freaks,” he says. “The next year, two-thirds freaks. Then the whole high school. People were so optimistic.”
As for music, Weinstein says, “I was too incompetent to get into my high school rock band. There were two bands in my town. Awesome bands. Mostly they played R&B, some Beatles and Rolling Stones.”
Like many others he made west, lured by the promise of the weird, hauling a Farfisa organ. “The music scene was all in ballrooms,” he says. “The great SF blues bands. Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Dead, Santana, Quicksilver. Also shows in the park…”
Weinstein says he “hardly gigged” during that period. “Oh – I played piano at a Holiday Inn in Chinatown,” he recalls. “And also in a Filipino variety band. Man, they could really sing.”
Weinstein started taking jazz lessons at 24. He dropped out two years later with new musical direction and myriad tunes to learn. As indicated by his current gigging schedule, that introductory education served him well.
I’ve brought my guitar over to Weinstein’s place and before I leave I plug in to roll through a few tunes. Wayne Shorter’s “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum,” Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments,” the old show tune “Limehouse Blues.”
“Trade eights,” says Weinstein, stomping his left foot in time with the beat. “Okay, okay. Now trade fours! Here, I’ll go first.”
I need to look at sheet music for this stuff, but Weinstein has it internalized. Well, kind of. “Stolen Moments.” He squints. “That’s this weird turnaround thing, right?” He feels around for a bit and then fishes it out of midair.
After our session, he’s energized and eager for more. “I’m always, always, always trying to practice,” he says. “I have people over all the time!”
On the rainy drive home, I’m trying to dial up a story opener. Vito’s – it’s got to be Vito’s. And in that decision, I recall one specific night there, six or seven years ago, when I sat up front and watched Weinstein’s trio with a fellow jazz pianist. Ordering another round, we leaned over the dark bar when my pal turned to me and said, “You know the thing about Ron? It’s his rhythm, man. So distinct.” He thought for a bit, tapping fingers on the countertop. “Ron’s got a little bit of Monk in him.”