Site 12 - Rocking Chair Club

Rocking Chair Club

115 14th Ave S.

Audio on this page read by Sean Divine

The Rocking Chair was another club of the era, famous largely because Ray Charles played there regularly from mid-1948 to the end of 1949. The Rocking Chair appears in the Green Book from the 1948 - 1952 editions. It operated inside of a house that used to stand on what’s now the grounds of Bailey Gatzert Elementary School. Before it opened as the Rocking Chair, it had operated for years as "The Blue Rose" under the same ownership.

The club’s name is said to have come from the name of a tune popularized by Mildred Bailey, a Native American jazz singer of Schitsu’umsh (Coeur d'Alene) heritage. Ray Charles later wrote his own song about the club, "Rockin' Chair Blues." The upstairs included a small gambling room, where Charles (then known as R.C. Robinson) was approached by a visiting L.A. businessman about recording his first record.

Being in a house, it likely had a cozier, more intimate feel than the expansive basement clubs along Jackson. Additionally, the Rocking Chair may have served as a more exclusive gathering place than the open-to-all atmosphere of the other clubs.

According to local white musician/producer Norm Bobrow (as stated in a 1989 interview with Paul de Barros), "[t]he Rocking Chair was unlike the other places. It was a place that didn't let just anybody white in. You couldn't go in until you'd really earned the right... See, the other places were open to the public really. There were mostly black people there and some whites. But the Rockin' Chair, you weren't allowed in. It had that old speakeasy hole. If you are not a brother or a sister, you just don't go below. You'd see people turned away. That was a black place. Unlike the WEC [Washington Education and Social Club] and the Moose, the 411 and the Green Dot, the Rockin' Chair just didn't allow white people."

Ray Charles in Seattle

When Ray Charles first arrived in Seattle from Florida, he had been preceded by his guitar-playing musical partner in Tampa, Garcia McKee, who scoped out the Seattle scene first. It was at the Black & Tan Club that McKee met longtime Seattle pianist and bandleader Derniece 'Melody' Jones, who told McKee to bring Charles out and if she liked what she heard she would find them some work. Indeed, after they arrived in Seattle, Jones’ uncle hired the pair for a regular gig at the Black Elks Club, a popular venue in the 600 block of Jackson Street. As reported in David Keller's book The Blue Note, it was Jones "who also paid for Mr. Ray Charles Robinson's Trailways bus ticket to Seattle from Tampa, Florida."

Despite this connection to the Black and Tan Club, Ray Charles wasn't hired there. Instead, he became a mainstay at the Rocking Chair Club, but only after several local club managers missed their chance to hire him.

Keller goes on to quote Dorothy Hilbert's recollection that "Louis Todd at the Black & Tan didn't hire him. My husband [Al Hilbert, club and gambling manager) who ran the Main Event didn't hire him. So finally Big Lewis at The Rocking Chair or The Rose then... well, he hired him." Throughout this time, Charles went by R.C. Robinson and adopted the stage name Ray Charles shortly after he left Seattle.

According to Paul de Barros in Jackson Street After Hours, "After Ray Charles left the Rocking Chair in 1949, its doors never opened again. An era was ending." The sale of 'liquor-by-the drink' (cocktails), which was legalized in 1948, forced the speakeasies, bottle clubs, after-hours clubs, and members-only clubs to compete with businesses which could now sell liquor legally, and the clubs were again targeted by law enforcement for operating under the table because the newly-established rules only allowed restaurants and hotels to serve liquor.

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The Musicians' Union - from segregation to integration

For at least part of his time in Seattle, Ray Charles was a member of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 493. AFM was the only musician's union, but it consisted of two segregated local chapters, which profoundly affected which music was played where.

From the early 1920s to the late 1950s, racial segregation was the official policy of the national AFM. The first non-white union in Seattle, AFM Local 458, formed in 1918, and was succeeded by AFM Local 493, in 1924. AFM-493 was predominantly Black and accepted members of many races; the local was briefly headquartered right upstairs from the Black & Tan Club during the 1940s before establishing their own headquarters and music venue, which became known as "The Blue Note."

The white union, AFM-76, ensured that only white musicians played the large, lucrative establishments downtown and uptown. The unmarked ‘boundary’ along Yesler Way contributed to the concentration of jazz clubs in the Chinatown-International District and the Central District.

Exceptions to this policy were made for nationally known Black musicians who were popular with white audiences. Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton would play big shows for white audiences at places like the Trianon and the Showbox, then visit the Jackson Street clubs to play after-hours jam sessions that went into the next morning. Some old advertisements for the Black & Tan Club list shows that didn’t even start until 2:30am.

The white musicians’ union set policies that both chapters were supposed to follow, despite Local 493 members not having a vote. AFM-76 tried to prohibit tips and to ban informal jam sessions in an effort to protect union jobs. Because of AFM-493’s disregard for these two restrictions, younger and less experienced players who were paid only in tips could still play with and learn from more established musicians. By accepting tips, Local 493 members could sometimes earn more per show than the white bands, despite being locked out of the big venues. AFM-76 placed the Black & Tan Club on its "forbidden territory list" at least once for violating these rules. Ironically, AFM 493 also temporarily banned members from playing in organized groups at the club (then known as the Colored Waiters, Porters, and Cooks Club) in 1945. The reasons for the dispute were not specified in the newspaper coverage.

African-American musician and union leader Powell Barnett spent decades fighting for integration. He was an instrumental figure in Local 493. He also joined white Local 76 in 1913 and remained its only African-American member (though he was asked not to go to the club house) until the two locals finally merged in 1958 under the name AFM-76.

In 1994 Pastor Patrinell Wright, then an AFM member and now renowned in Seattle as the leader of the Total Experience Gospel Choir, proposed combining the name. Today the organization exists as AFM 76-493, acknowledging both the history of segregation and the contributions of the Black musicians’ union.

More about the Black musician's union

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