Once Hub Of Seattle's Jazz Scene, 100-Year-Old Washington Hall Continuing Arts Tradition

Mar 26, 2014

Seattle had more than two dozen jazz clubs at the height of the jazz era. Only one of them is still catering to live music: the 100-year-old Washington Hall.

‘There’s Nothing Like It Around’

Dave Holden grew up watching his father, Oscar Holden, perform jazz shows at the hall, and grew up to be a jazz singer and pianist himself.

Oscar Holden, considered to be the patriarch of the Seattle jazz scene, regularly played at Washington Hall.
Oscar Holden, considered to be the patriarch of the Seattle jazz scene, regularly played at Washington Hall.
Credit Courtesy of the Holden family

“When Dad would put on a tuxedo and head off to a gig, the kids used to follow him to work. We snuck in the side door and we’d go to the back of the stage and look at our dad playing the piano,” said Holden.  

Holden and his family grew up right across the street from the two-story brick building in the Central District. The club, on 14th and Fir, was one of the places where black musicians could play consistently.

“When Dad would put on a tuxedo and head off to a gig, the kids used to follow him to work. We snuck in the side door and we’d go to the back of the stage and look at our dad playing the piano,” said Holden.

People came from all over the city for the entertainment.

“There was always dancing ‘cause there was a big dance floor. That’s one of the few places around that has a big dance floor and a balcony. I mean, there’s nothing like it around in Seattle,” said Holden.

A New Life

For an historic building that has survived a fire and was almost demolished, Washington Hall is very much alive these days.

On a recent Sunday, I found three dozen boys and girls practicing ballet in the large ballroom upstairs. Downstairs, I came across Pastor Jerry Brooks and his New Zion Missionary Baptist Church.

“We got preaching. We’re going to have singing. Going to be some talk, some testifying and everything. Just sit and enjoy yourself, and I guarantee it – you will like it,” said Brooks.

The church has been renting space inside the building for about three years. In fact, a whole host of groups have been connected to the hall, which was first built in 1908 as a lodge for the Danish Brotherhood in America.

“Predominantly most immigrant communities that have come to Seattle, this was usually their home,” said Lulu Carpenter, the building’s caretaker. “The Filipino community, the African American community, the Jewish community.”

The main hall still has the original floors.

“It’s kind of on its last legs. So we’re really trying to take care of the floors, ‘cause we just sanded all the nicks out,” she said.

Continuing The Tradition Of Performance

Many performances have taken place inside the hall. DJ Afrika Bambaataa has funked out in here. Mark Morris has danced, Duke Ellington has swung and Jimi Hendrix has rocked the hall “when he went to Garfield High,” said Carpenter.

 Dave Holden, son of Oscar Holden, in his home studio in Kent, Washington.
Dave Holden, son of Oscar Holden, in his home studio in Kent, Washington.
Credit Florangela Davila

Holden himself never saw Hendrix perform at Washington Hall. But he still remembers watching his father perform.

“It was quite a spectacle for us. You know, we were excited to see,” he said.

Holden will relive those memories when he takes the stage at Washington Hall on Saturday – “the same bandstand that my dad had worked on several years before” – and plays his own music.

Five generations of the Holden family will be performing, along with the jazz group The Teaching. The benefit concert will help Historic Seattle raise $2 million for renovation of the hall.