Site 10 - Black & Tan Club / Alhambra Cabaret

Black and Tan Club

1201 S. Jackson St. // 404 1/2 12th Ave S.

Audio on this page read by Karen Toering

Welcome to 12th and Jackson, former site of the Black & Tan Club, which first opened as the Alhambra Cabaret in 1920. The Black & Tan Club never appeared in a single issue of the Green Book. Here is the story of the club and our theory of why it did not advertise in the Green Book.

Seattle’s Black & Tan Club was a popular venue for local bands, as well as for touring musicians of national renown who would hold late-night jam sessions at Black-owned clubs after playing for white audiences at downtown venues. Legendary entertainers Ernestine Anderson, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Count Basie, and Gladys Knight are among those known to have played at the Black & Tan.

Noodles Smith - owner of the Black & Tan Club, the Golden West Hotel, and numerous nightclubs - was a real estate titan in the 12th and Jackson area. If you crack open a book that talks about the Black & Tan Club, odds are that it credits Noodles as the Club’s founder... but that’s not what really happened. Noodles did own the Club at one point and he gave it the name under which it ultimately gained fame, but he was not the founder.

This basement venue opened its doors in 1920 as the Alhambra Cabaret, founded by an African-American businessman named Harry Legg, who owned and operated the Alhambra Cash Grocery at the street-level retail shop in the same building, and whose name had been largely lost to history until recently.

Harry was born in Tennessee in 1883, and came to Seattle in 1911 via the railroad as a dining car waiter for the Northern Pacific Railway, which terminated at Seattle’s King Street Station. Seattle was literally the end of the line for Harry - he was fired, and the discharge paperwork stated “Have tried this man out with three or four different conductors on the West end and each one has turned him in saying he is no good. Principal fault seems to be too much mouth and not enough work.” This seems unlikely, especially given Harry’s later accomplishments and reputation. Discrimination was almost certainly at play.

Railroad jobs were more open to African Americans than other industries, but this was in part because the Pullman Company tended to hire Black porters for minimal wages, expecting passenger tips to make up for the low pay. It wasn’t until 1925 that the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters formed and began negotiating with the Pullman Company for better wages and working conditions. In 1911, that was still a decade away and at a different railway company than the one that fired Harry and left him to find his way in Seattle.

By 1916 (and possibly sooner), Harry had opened the Alhambra Cash Grocery at 1038 South Jackson Street. Harry’s grocery was open to all customers but sought Black patronage by carrying produce used in Southern cuisine, such as “southern yellow yams” imported at Christmas time. He also sold Madame C.J. Walker’s hair and beauty products. Through his grocery, he built up enough capital to move the business to 12th and Jackson, right on the streetcar line, and to remodel the building’s basement into a social gathering space that became the Alhambra Cabaret.

Now we’ve come full circle, and hopefully you understand why the ‘end of the line’ for Harry Legg marks the beginning of our story.

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Brief Biography of Harry Legg

Note: this audio recording covers only the first two paragraphs of this text segment. We will update it soon with a recording of the full segment.

When the cabaret opened in 1920, Legg would have been in his mid-30s and had already achieved several local ‘firsts’. He was a business owner, a member of the King County Colored Republican Club, and the first African-American precinct committeeman for Washington's Republican Party. He became the first African-American member of Seattle’s Chamber of Commerce.

Within a few years of his arrival in Seattle, he became friends with African-American newspaper publisher Horace Cayton, Sr., who often wrote about Harry in the pages of Cayton’s Weekly with a rather paternal pride. His frequent mentions of Harry were key to preserving Harry’s story. In 1918, over a decade before Noodles Smith owned just about every corner of 12th and Jackson in the 1930s, Cayton’s Weekly proclaimed, “Harry Legg has put 12th and Jackson on the map.”

Sadly, Harry died in September of 1923 in a late-night accident when his car ran into a cemetery fence on I-5 between Tacoma and Seattle. He may have married shortly before he died, as the death notice listed a widow, Willa Legg, and a new home address at 22nd and Yesler. It’s hard to be sure because Horace Cayton’s newspaper, Cayton's Weekly, which had so faithfully reported on Harry and his ventures, folded in 1921. Harry is buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Queen Anne, the same cemetery where Elbe Smith, Noodles Smith, and Noodles' second wife Zelma Smith all lie in repose.

Soon after Harry’s death, the Alhambra Cash Grocery went bankrupt and the Cabaret was sold to people who were closely involved in jazz music and in liquor smuggling, which together transitioned the Cabaret into its next incarnation as an underground club.

By 1924, the Alhambra was owned by another African-American man named Felix Crane. If the hysterical accounts in the white-owned newspapers of the time are at all reliable, Felix Crane may have been as close as Seattle ever got to a true ‘crime boss of the underworld.’

By 1933, Noodles Smith owned the Club and renamed it "The Black & Tan Club," and used his connections to musicians and performers to usher in its heyday period.

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Why isn’t the Black & Tan listed in the Green Book?

So why isn’t the Black & Tan listed in the Green Book? As noted at our Jackson’s Liquor Store stop, the Black & Tan Club closed in the spring of 1939 after repeated raids by the Liquor Control Board. The club just missed its opportunity to be listed, because 1939 was the first year that the Green Book included Seattle.

After the closure, the club kept operating as a nominally ‘members-only’ organization. This was a common tactic for clubs to evade scrutiny. Ads from this era listed it as the "Colored Waiters, Porters, and Cooks Club, Inc." alongside the name “The Black & Tan” and the note “FOR MEMBERS.” This new name hearkened back to the club’s origins as a place for railroad car service workers to socialize at all hours of the day and night, no matter when their train arrived. The new club also used a different address, 404 1/2 12th Ave S. This was in the same block and possibly was just a different part of the same basement. Based on the address, the entrance was probably on 12th Avenue rather than on Jackson Street.

Headline acts were occasionally advertised in the Northwest Enterprise - a young Ernestine Anderson gave many performances there while still in high school - but the Club wasn’t listed in public directories.

Most likely, the club tried to keep a low profile and advertising in the tourist-oriented Green Book would have undermined its image as a private club and renewed the attentions of the Liquor Control Board. Washington’s strict liquor regulations remained in place through 1948. In 1949, the Colored Waiters, Porters & Cooks Club applied for a ‘liquor by the drink’ license when cocktails were legalized, but it was denied.

From the 1950s onward, it stopped using the name "Colored Waiters, Porters & Cooks Club, Inc." and mostly went back to the "Black & Tan Club," though some advertisements from the 1960s say “Formerly known as the Blue Room” which suggests other incarnations and changes in ownership.

The club was last mentioned in the Seattle Times in early January 1969, when the owner at that time was shot and killed in a dispute over a cover charge (this was at least the third murder to take place at the Club in its long history). After that, the club closed its doors permanently.

Though ownership changed hands many times, we believe the Club was continuously Black-owned throughout its five decades of operation. Unlike the Cotton Club in New York (which featured Black musicians but catered to white audiences) the Black & Tan Club was Black-owned, featured Black musicians, and catered to Black audiences while welcoming revelers of all races who wanted to partake in the music, dancing, drinking, and gambling that occurred there.

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