It doesn’t get the attention (or the volume of tech bros) that Capitol Hill or Ballard do, but Columbia City is one of Seattle’s top music neighborhoods. While Columbia City Theater — where legend has it a young Jimi Hendrix once performed — lands the occasional indie buzz band and touring jazz luminaries often grace the Royal Room, music is gently woven into the fabric of the South End community where a handful of venues along a two-block stretch of Rainier Avenue regularly host live bands, DJs and open mic nights.
The neighborhood’s sonic pastiche gets its proper showcase during Columbia City Beatwalk, a monthly summertime tradition for 25 years. The community-driven music-crawl-meets-block party returns June 9 for its silver anniversary season, with bands staggered across 10 participating bars, clubs and storefronts, plus several buskers and a side-street dance party.
“I just love seeing the soul train line from Rainier up to here,” says booking coordinator Tish Gallow, pointing out the window of Lottie’s Lounge to where Beatwalk’s resident DJ G. Prez sets up shop, “with 80-year-olds and 5-year-olds and everything in between.”
Across the table — at least until he jumps back into the kitchen when the dinner rush picks up — sits Lottie’s mustachioed proprietor Beau Hebert, a former musician and one of a handful of volunteers who help organize the low-key Beatwalk, which is now backed by the Columbia City Business Association.
Held every second Sunday from June to September, Beatwalk is a family-friendly, music-centered gathering for a still-diverse (if ever-gentrifying) neighborhood where you might get cajoled into Cuban salsa-dancing lessons at historic black men’s club the Royal Esquire Club or catch local sax man Carlos Overall throwing down with his Overall Express in the corner of barbecue sports bar Backyard.
“We got all these killer musicians right in this neighborhood,” Hebert says. “It just feels like a great spot to have an event like this.”
The monthly lineups, which rotate around different themes, are less about tapping Seattle’s hottest new acts than reflecting the varying tastes and backgrounds that make up the neighborhood. Next Sunday’s kickoff event features artists ranging from veteran Seattle soul man Kevin Gardner, who anchors Rumba Notes Lounge, to bluegrass buskers the Shed Boys and West African dance band leader Boka Kouyate at the Royal Room. That inclusive and eclectic spirit dates back to Beatwalk’s early years.
“We were in love with being out as a community and celebrating all the beautiful hues and colors, the economic diversity that makes up the South End, in one place,” says Beatwalk founder Darryl Smith, the main producer its first few years. “It was this beautiful thing and it was for us, so it had a lot of power.”
The idea for Beatwalk sprouted from the first in a series of community meetings held in the mid-’90s when, according to Smith, the neighborhood’s crime got more attention than its positive elements, at least among outsiders. Those meetings helped spark a “grass-roots regeneration” effort that led to the neighborhood’s transformation over the subsequent decades. The impetus was to provide a fun event for residents in their backyard, as well as change the negative narrative local media focused on in the community they loved, said Smith, who grew up in a New Jersey jazz family.
“For us, it was like a major rallying cry,” says Smith, a former Seattle Planning Commission member and deputy mayor under Mike McGinn who still lives in the neighborhood. “A lot of us felt like it’s us against the world down here because we get nothing but negative stories about Rainier Valley and Columbia City.”
The first year drew around 200 people, providing a then-“unprecedented” amount of evening foot traffic for local businesses, Smith says. As boarded-up storefronts became bustling bars and restaurants no longer needed a special event to lure Friday night crowds, Beatwalk — which is funded through donations, corporate sponsorships, grants and venue buy-in fees — moved to Sundays and ditched the cover charge, helping rejuvenate the event after several down years, Hebert says. In 2013, Beatwalk added a now-annual Fat Tuesday edition that turns Rainier Avenue into a family-friendly mini Bourbon Street (albeit with a much earlier bedtime).
While Gallow’s been a Beatwalk regular long enough that people assumed she was an organizer, the 47-year-old case manager with a homeless-services organization officially signed on only three years ago when Hebert sought to pass the baton. “One reason I wanted to be on board is so I could bring back the African American community — the people my age who grew up in Rainier Beach or right here who were pushed out because of pricing,” Gallow says.
That’s the main reason why July’s peak-season event focuses on R&B, funk, soul and hip-hop acts. But even as gentrification has altered the neighborhood, organizers insist the spirit and character of Beatwalk remains unchanged.
“It’s the little music festival that could,” cracks Hebert with a smile.
Columbia City Beatwalk 25th anniversary kickoff. 5:45 p.m. Sunday, June 9, Columbia City, various locations, columbiacityseattle.com