Jazz is the Lens: A Sit-down with Paul de Barros & Alexa Peters


Paul de Barros and Alexa Peters photo by Daniel Sheehan


Channeling a quote from the saxophonist Eric Dolphy, writer Paul de Barros concluded his magnum opus of early Seattle jazz, Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle, with the line, “And then it was gone.”

“It,” in this case, was Seattle’s legendary Jackson Street jazz scene, which de Barros and his research assistants had investigated down to its most elusive nook and cranny. For de Barros, the sentiment pertained in equal measure to his book-writing career. (“And then it was gone.”) Asked if he thought about penning another full-length work right away, he barks, “Hell no!” Then he laughs and repeats himself. “I had absolutely no plans for a sequel.”

As time heals wounds, it wears on convictions. Jackson Street came out in 1993. The same year de Barros stepped away from his role as Seattle Times pop music editor, 2016, his former book editor sent him an email regarding the staying power of the Seattle jazz scene. So many great musicians spent time here – Bill Frisell, Julian Priester, Ernestine Anderson, Wayne Horvitz – there had to be more worth writing about. The editor wondered if de Barros might focus a longer work around Frisell and Horvitz.

De Barros, in classic fashion, figured that if he was going to do this thing then he’d do it right – another magnum opus, picking up approximately where the last left off. Today, eight years after the ramifications of that phone call, he’s neck-deep in research for After the Bottle Clubs Closed: Seattle Jazz in the Modern Era (The History Press).

This time, de Barros, 77, knew he’d need a steady assistant from the start. With some help from a 4Culture grant, he hired fellow journalist Alexa Peters, 32, a contributor to Rolling Stone and The Washington Post, to aid him in sifting through six decades of Seattle history. Peters will be a coauthor for the finished product.

“Some books have touched on this stuff,” says de Barros. “But there’s never been a comprehensive history of this period of jazz in Seattle. There’s interest in it because we have a singular scene. We’ve got our own record company, Origin Records. We’ve got nationally known artists. We’ve got an important jazz generation from Cornish. The city has produced amazing stars. And there’s a lot of variety.”

The titular “Bottle Clubs” were 1940s and ‘50s establishments, that, sidestepping post-Prohibition liquor laws, set up outside city limits and encouraged patrons to bring their own spirits. Those venues shuttered in the years leading up to the 1962 World’s Fair, which transformed the Emerald City and, along with it, music venues.

“Jackson Street was about a localized Black jazz scene in Seattle,” says de Barros. “But that scene disappeared in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The next phase, you have a more modern, integrated jazz scene. Jazz became an art thing, a bohemian thing for Black and white audiences. We still live in that era.”

Peters expanded on this concept, prioritizing research on gender as well as racial integration. “Women in jazz is as close to a major theme as we have in this book,” she says. “This is a story about jazz becoming something for everyone.” The women highlighted include Jay Clayton, Greta Matassa, Jessica Williams, and Peggy Stern.

Peters and de Barros have spent years combing historic Seattle print sources for jazz stories and listings. Their examination runs the gamut, from the obvious The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer to smaller (but often more jazz-heavy) periodicals like The Facts, Helix, and The Argus. Most of these collections aren’t digitized. When Peters was hired on in 2016, she worked part-time for a year at a microfiche machine at the University of Washington Library – “The one near the door,” she says with a patient grin – scanning rolls of Seattle P-I microfilm dating back to the ‘50s. Peters stepped away from the project in late 2018 because of a full schedule but returned in 2022. Now she’s working on Seattle Weekly.

For an idea of scope: the library’s P-I archives are stored in eight head-high pullout cabinets, each holding 15 rows of microfilm. A row consists of 21 rolls. A typical roll includes about two weeks’ worth of papers. There’s some math you could run here; de Barros made an early call to his publisher and said, “There’s no way we’re going to meet our original timeline for this thing.”

Still, de Barros and Peters have maintained their momentum and are optimistic about a 2026 pub date. Along with document study, they run regular interviews that de Barros says, “take anywhere from thirty minutes to four hours – people love to tell stories.” They’ll interview more than 150 subjects in support of the project. After our weekday sit down, de Barros will drive out to the Blue Ridge neighborhood to track down a manager of a short-lived 1970s venue called The Gallery. “I have an address. I’m just going to go knock on the door,” he says. “A bit of shoe leather reporting!”

Along with the aforementioned musical greats, de Barros lists off some names that arise frequently in the timeline of modern Seattle jazz: “Jim Knapp, Dee Daniels, John Bishop. Oh, Jay Thomas – he spans the whole book. And one of the local heroes, of course, is John Dimitriou.”

There’s plenty of material here. The trick will be culling it to the most imperative narratives. On that front, Peters says that After the Bottle Clubs is being written as a larger cultural history, one that charts the city’s path from relative backwater to international recognition. She thinks the story should draw a broad audience. “This is a book about jazz,” she says, “but it’s also about Seattle. Jazz is the lens through which we look at the city.”

As far as their process goes, Peters says, “The book writes itself if you do good research.”

De Barros agrees, with a caveat. “Countless books have not been written because of the over-fastidiousness of the research,” he says. “If you don’t cut off the research at some point, you don’t write the book. Our investigation is part of a fabric. People will continue to find stuff out after we’re done here. Sometimes, you have to put aside your ego and let that happen.”



Posted on

May 29, 2024