Seattle’s midcentury rhythm-and-blues crowd flocked to Birdland
By Clay Eals
Barney Hilliard stands beside the imposing, six-floor Summit at Madison Park, a self-described boutique retail-residential complex. Signs for Safeway and Starbucks hover above while cars whiz by on the adjacent arterial, freshly paved for the pending installation of a new RapidRide G bus line.
Any visible residue of history at 22nd and East Madison seems to have vanished.
But to Hilliard, 85, a lifelong tenor-saxophonist from Renton, it still feels like home. His school buildings — Horace Mann Elementary, Edmond Meany Junior High and Garfield High — are mere blocks away, as are YMCA and YWCA branches and churches. Likewise is true for the sites of long-gone restaurants, a pharmacy and a shop that sold rhythm-and-blues records that were banned from radio airplay.
And on this very corner stood the hub. “This was the place to be,” Hilliard says. The place was Birdland, also known as Club Birdland.
Named after legendary saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker and New York’s Birdland club, the Central District incarnation drew national acts from Cal Tjader to Big Jay McNeely for 10 years. The hot spot, razed in 1965, is a focus of Peter Blecha’s new Northwest music-history book “Stomp and Shout.”
Formerly the Gala Theatre moviehouse in the silent 1920s and into the early sound era (it screened “Frankenstein” in 1932), the two-floor building later hosted Democratic and Republican rallies and other gatherings. In 1942, soon after the U.S. entry to World War II, it also was a “civil control station” to register Japanese residents for forcible evacuation from Seattle.
It became the Savoy Ballroom, then Eastside Hall, when the city council, seeking to better serve Seattle’s Black community in 1946, relaxed its “unwritten but rigid policy” forbidding cabarets east of Eighth Avenue.
By the time the $1,000 Birdland neon sign went up in 1955, Barney Hilliard and friends had formed what became the influential Dave Lewis Combo, playing teen dances “from West Seattle to Ballard and all the high schools in-between.” Because the integrated Birdland stayed open until 3:30 a.m., the versatile “covers” band could finish a gig elsewhere and return to the club to enjoy late shows. In late 1956, the Lewis troupe landed a prime perch: opening act for the house.
Hilliard left the combo in 1959. For decades, with a law degree he assumed noteworthy, Seattle-based business, nonprofit and governmental roles. But he kept soaring with his sax, retiring only 10 years ago. He traces everything back to Birdland. With a hearty smile and laugh, his emotion for the era is right in tune:
“It was labor of love, but it was mainly love. We just loved what we were doing.”
Special thanks to Barney Hilliard, D’Vonne Lewis, Dave Lewis Jr., Molly Woolbright, Kait Heacock and Peter Blecha for their invaluable help with this installment!
Events for “Stomp and Shout” are scheduled April 19, 2023, at Town Hall Seattle, with music by the D’Vonne Lewis Combo, and May 23, 2023, at McMenamins Elks Temple in Tacoma, with music by Girl Trouble. For more info, click here.
To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photos, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column.