Earlier this year, Seattle jazz lovers lamented the demise of Tula’s, the much-loved Belltown club that hosted the local scene for more than a quarter of a century. But long before Tula’s, Seattle had an A-list jazz room called The Penthouse, which for seven years (1961-68) presented the likes of Oscar Peterson, Stan Getz, George Shearing, Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
The Penthouse is mostly known to jazz fans as the site of a 1965 recording by John Coltrane, “Live in Seattle,” but now, a small Canadian archival record company called Reel to Real, owned by Vancouver, B.C.-based saxophonist Cory Weeds, has launched a series of albums drawn from the club’s live broadcasts.
On Record Store Day Black Friday (Nov. 29), Reel to Real will release a vinyl version of “Ow! Live at the Penthouse,” featuring tenor saxophonists Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, with a CD to follow on Dec. 6.
This is Reel to Real’s second release from The Penthouse. And it is one of perhaps 40 albums that may surface from a treasure chest of 350 reel-to-reel tapes owned by Charlie Puzzo Jr. — whose father, Charlie Puzzo, owned the club — and well-known Seattle DJ Jim Wilke, who produced the original broadcasts for KING-FM.
The Davis/Griffin recordings were made just weeks after the April 1962 opening of the Seattle World’s Fair, which spawned a local nightlife renaissance. Housed on the ground floor of an old hotel on the west side of First Avenue, at the foot of Cherry Street, the club was a typically long and narrow Pioneer Square room that sat about 275 and, as Wilke puts it, “aimed for elegance,” with walls of exposed brick, a low glass ceiling and recessed lighting. In those days, Playboy magazine ran jazz clubs, and The Penthouse (not related to the magazine of the same name) echoed the trend. Servers wore leotards, and pillars were sculpted as elongated bunnies.
Charlie Puzzo, who died in 2015, came to Seattle from Connecticut in 1950, part of a group of Italian American buddies that included Jimmy and Vito Santoro, who opened Vito’s on Madison Street and Ninth Avenue. Puzzo worked as a bartender before opening the Playboy Tavern, followed by The Penthouse.
“He just wanted to make people happy,” said his widow, Joyce Puzzo, who still lives in the Bellevue home they shared for 52 years. “He was always gracious and kind, but he was a strong, tough guy from the East Coast. He never drank or smoked in his life.”
According to Wilke, The Penthouse had excellent acoustics, borne out by the new recording, which makes you feel like you’re right there in the club.
“I’m a saxophone player and I ran a small jazz club in Vancouver for 15 years,” says Weeds. “When I heard the ‘Lockjaw’ and Griffin recording, I jumped out of my chair!”
When Davis and Griffin blew through town, they were already firmly established as a dueling duo of tenor saxophonists in the tradition of Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray. “Jaws” and “Griff,” as they were known, had distinctly different sounds. Davis played chuffing, gnarly growls, in the manner of his main influence, Ben Webster, while the clear-toned Griffin was a speed demon. The rock-solid rhythm section at The Penthouse included Seattle-bred bassist Buddy Catlett, who had already been playing across the world with Quincy Jones and Count Basie, plus idiosyncratic Los Angeles pianist Horace Parlan and Art Taylor, a drummer for all seasons.
The loping swing feel of the title track immediately establishes the mood of a groovy, smoke-filled room. Davis’ solos on the Latin-tinged standard, “Bahia,” and the Billy Eckstine riff, “Second Balcony Jump,” are little masterpieces, as is Griffin’s feature on the Duke Ellington ballad, “Sophisticated Lady.” Tenor saxophonist Lester Young’s famous “Tickle Toe” is taken at a breathtaking tempo, and Parlan and Catlett offer fine outings on the standard, “How Am I to Know.” The set is bookended by short takes on “Intermission Riff,” during which the young Wilke is heard announcing.
But sound is just one dimension of the Reel to Real release, which includes a 28-page booklet with essays, interviews and vintage photographs, including one by the great Seattle jazz photographer of the era, Egill Gustafson. Such fastidious historical packaging shows the influence of Weeds’ partner at Reel to Real, Zev Feldman, who is well-known for issuing deluxe packages of rare live jazz, including two previous sets from The Penthouse. In fact, the new release makes seven live Penthouse albums released by various labels, including Seattle’s Light in the Attic.
That share-the-wealth trend will probably continue. While Reel to Real intends to issue as many albums as possible from The Penthouse archive, the label does not own exclusive rights to the music. High on Weeds’ wish list for future releases, however, are organist Jack McDuff, saxophonist Harold Land and blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon. Puzzo Jr. says Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie are in his sights — but even more important is preserving his father’s legacy.
“When my dad passed away four years ago, I promised that I would make this happen for him,” says Puzzo Jr. “I really want Seattle and The Penthouse to be represented. I feel like that was a magical time.”
Magical, indeed. But by the mid-’60s, the bloom of the World’s Fair had faded and rock had pushed jazz aside. In 1968, Puzzo lost his lease, and the hotel on First Avenue was replaced by the concrete parking structure that stands there today. Puzzo relocated to Woodinville, where he opened a topless club, Goodtime Charley’s, and lived to see 35 years of comfortable retirement.
The legacy of The Penthouse, however, lives on in recordings from the club.
Live recordings from The Penthouse issued so far:
John Coltrane, “Live in Seattle” (Impulse)
Ernestine Anderson, “Swings the Penthouse” (HighNote)
The Three Sounds, “Groovin’ Hard: Live at the Penthouse” (Resonance)
Wes Montgomery, “Smokin’: Live at the Penthouse 1966″ (Resonance)
Cannonball Adderley, “Swingin’ at the Penthouse 1966-1967″ (Reel to Real)
Jack Wilson, “Call Me — Jazz From the Penthouse” (Light in the Attic)
Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, “Ow! Live at the Penthouse” (Reel to Real)