Seattle was born with an independent spirit. That may be why prohibition could never take more than a tenuous hold here. Hardly surprising – no one has ever accused Seattle of being a dry place to live. But 1916 brought more than a new law, it brought an influx of new faces, new clubs, and a brand new sound.
In the early 1900’s Seattle, like much of the world, fell in love with Jazz. Prohibition may even have nurtured the fledgling music scene on Jackson Street. Entertainment was forced to go underground, and one businessman was more than happy to oblige.
Russell “Noodles” Smith had arrived a few years earlier with $17,000 and a wild story about the three-day gambling spree behind it. He was a gifted businessman with a flexible moral code when it came to the law: As long as the police were happy to take bribes, he was happy to provide them. Noodles and his partners opened and purchased a series of clubs and hotels in the more colorful parts of town, building the stage for jazz to flourish.
Socialites danced with maids, and immigrant laborers drank with businessmen.
These underground clubs peppering Jackson Street, the so-called “Poor Man’s Playground,” struck a unifying note in a wildly diverse city. Under the bright lights, racial and economic divisions were drowned out by powerful music. Socialites danced with maids, and immigrant laborers drank with businessmen. When the Great Depression took hold, those economic divides narrowed, but jazz was here to stay. The Seattle community was bound together by music and gin.
When state liquor law enforcement officers staged their “spectacular” raids, it was a diverse crowd getting hauled into jail. For Noodles, such raids were simply the cost of doing business. He might even pay the bail just to get the musicians back onstage for the next round of guests. Seattle was hungry for entertainment, escapism, and connection. Jazz was food for the soul.
We love good stories like this one. It’s just one of several that are inspired by our coffee-loving region.
“International Sweethearts of Rythm” Photo Credit to MOHAI, Al Smith Collection.