June 20, 2024

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Now 43 Seattle Jazz alley, became a premier destination: Video, Photos

Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley, that sleek, 400-seat Seattle music palace kitty-corner from the Amazon Spheres, where everyone from the late Dizzy Gillespie to Harry Connick Jr. has held forth over the years, planned to celebrate its 40th birthday in October 2020. COVID-19 spoiled that party but, owner John Dimitriou figured, why wait till the 50th?

Why, indeed? From Oct. 12-15, Jazz Alley salutes 43 years, with free commemorative Jazz Alley ball caps; an anniversary cocktail in a complimentary, limited edition glass; and a $43 New Orleans-themed dinner special. On stage all four nights, Crescent City pianist Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen will let the good times roll.

“The fact that there’s a place that has been solely dedicated to jazz and it’s been open for 43 years, that’s impressive!” observes the great bass player Christian McBride, who recently hosted a benefit at the club for Seattle trombonist Julian Priester, who is recovering from a heart attack. “They have put Seattle on the map as one of the premier jazz cities in the country.”

The credit for Jazz Alley’s success goes to Dimitriou himself. In its first rocky decade, the club struggled to keep its doors open, but through wit, gumption, stubbornness and an ability to learn from his mistakes, Dimitriou managed to turn his club into a world-class destination. There’s not a bad seat in the house, thanks to Dimitriou’s attention to superb acoustics and sightlines, and his well-trained servers — jazz fans themselves — know how to get in and out quietly with cocktails and meals without interrupting the flow of the music. Jazz Alley’s signature is the marriage of hip jazz with elegant dining, uncommon in the world of jazz clubs. The club’s rich history and quality make musicians want to play there and spur them to top performances.

An amateur musician who understands and deeply loves the music he has booked for 43 years, Dimitriou, 74, has no plans to retire, but his son, Ari, is prepared to take over when his father makes the call.

“There are only a few full-time clubs of this stature in the country, and most of them are in New York,” comments Seattle’s John Gilbreath, longtime executive director of the nonprofit Earshot Jazz. “And they’re not nearly as nice as Jazz Alley. … We are so lucky.”

Running a jazz club with fine food may have been written in Dimitriou’s stars from the start.

Born in Seattle and a graduate of Roosevelt High School (class of ’67), he comes from a long line of Greek restaurateurs. A cousin by marriage ran the Pioneer Square jazz club Pete’s Poop Deck in the ‘60s and in 1973, his half brother, Gus Boutsinis, opened a French restaurant in Pioneer Square called the Pioneer Banque, and hired Dimitriou to book jazz. There, Dimitriou learned the ropes, including how to cut a deal. (Jack Randall, a Boston booking agent who for 27 years has provided Jazz Alley with such acts as Chick Corea and Ravi Coltrane, humorously described a recent bargaining session with Dimitriou as “hand-to-hand combat with occasional bayonet use.”)

From the Banque, Dimitriou went east, working two years at Washington, D.C.’s Blues Alley, where he met his wife, artist Carla Dimitriou, with whom he returned to Seattle in 1978. The next year, while booking a venue near SeaTac called The Place, Dimitriou noticed that a cozy spot on University Way Northeast called Jazz Alley had closed after a six-month run. He offered to assume the lease and on Oct. 14, 1980, reopened the doors.

“We had no money,” recalls Dimitriou. “There was a marquee, and it would have cost a lot of money to put in a new one, so we said fine, let’s use that. We didn’t even choose the name.”

Locals have fond memories of the U District place, which often featured Seattle talent.

“I played there the first time when I was 22,” recalls drummer John Bishop, who went on to found the local jazz label Origin Records. “That I could do 20 years of playing dates at Jazz Alley … pretty damn lucky. I think that was one of the main reasons I didn’t leave town.”

Though charming, the original Jazz Alley was small and Dimitriou found it difficult to make ends meet. Worse, the building needed major repairs.

“One night, while [saxophonist] Stan Getz was playing a beautiful ballad,” recalls Dimitriou, “all of a sudden a big stream of water starts flowing down from the second floor. Someone was taking a bath [upstairs] and it overflowed. Getz looked at me and said, ‘I got to stop playing these joints.’”

In September 1985, after a disastrous, 10-month experiment operating a second club simultaneously in Pioneer Square — “I doubled my costs and halved my revenues,” Dimitriou says now — the club we know today as Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley opened in the United Airlines Building at Sixth Avenue and Lenora Street.

A huge step up

With its high ceilings, elegant décor, and great sightlines and acoustics — as well as free parking in the garage across the alley — the new spot was a huge step up. Over the years, Dimitriou has continuously improved it, with massive remodels that doubled the capacity and added the alley entrance appropriate to its inherited name.

Another innovation that helped Jazz Alley succeed was Dimitriou’s 1986 decision to incorporate the music side of his business (not the restaurant) as a nonprofit, the Pacific Jazz Institute, which exempted the club from the city’s 5% admissions tax (eliminated in 2009) and made it eligible for tax-deductible grants (though Dimitriou wryly notes that in 25 years only one grant came through). It also sparked the idea of adding the admission charge to the food bill, so customers would not be asked for money at the door. (In his early years, Dimitriou had encountered profound resistance to a cover charge and he often operated Jazz Alley without one, feeling it set the wrong tone for the kind of fine dining establishment he was trying to create.) It worked, and music lovers in general began to view the club as an upscale destination for special occasions. By 2015, the Alley was taking in more than $3 million in admissions.

Today, says Rob Perry, Jazz Alley’s assistant club manager and longest-running employee, the club is doing better than ever, especially in the summer, when crowds used to stay away.

Over the years, Jazz Alley has cultivated a strong relationship with Seattle’s Black community.

Donnie and Johnnie Follings, who have been regulars since the U District days, fondly recall a night when the late saxophonist Red Holloway’s wife sat down at their table.

John Dimitriou, at right, has owned Jazz Alley since 1980 and turned it into one of the nation’s premier jazz clubs. He has no plans to retire but his son, Ari Dimitriou, left, is prepared to take over when his father… John Dimitriou, at right, has owned Jazz Alley since 1980 and turned it into one of the nation’s premier jazz clubs. He has no plans to retire but his son, Ari Dimitriou, left, is prepared to take over when his father makes the call. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

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