Update June 23: Jazz Alley has canceled its planned reopening shows with the Greta Matassa Quintet. Other July runs from touring artists like Minneapolis jazz/blues ensemble Davina & the Vagabonds, the Delfonics and more are being rescheduled.
It’s been a long three months since local music fans last filled Seattle clubs. And on the whole, it could be a while before many music venues are allowed to return under the fourth and final phase of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan. In the meantime, several Seattle club owners have explored ways to come back sooner, though it’s unclear when that could actually happen.
On Friday, Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley announced what would be Seattle’s first club show since the statewide shutdown began after COVID-19 hit the United States. The Seattle jazz bastion planned to reopen June 30 with a two-night stand with local jazz singer Greta Matassa.
Owner John Dimitriou said Friday he believed that because Jazz Alley is licensed as a restaurant, it is allowed to resume its dinner-and-a-show business while following the reopening guidelines for restaurants.
“We have taken plenty of precautions to make it COVID-compatible, and I think that we’ll be just fine,” Dimitriou said.
However, Mike Faulk, Inslee’s deputy communications director, wrote in an email Friday afternoon that the governor’s Safe Start plan does not currently permit restaurants to have live entertainment in Phase 2. But that could change. Inslee’s policy advisers are working on guidance for allowing live entertainment in restaurants, though there’s no timeline for when that will be ready, according to Faulk.
Dimitriou said guidance he received from Public Health — Seattle & King County during a webinar with a hospitality trade association last month indicated restaurants could resume live music in the restaurant reopening phase. On Friday morning, a Public Health spokesperson deferred to state officials on the reopening guidelines for live music.
Informed of the state’s clarification by a reporter, a frustrated Dimitriou said he would not defy the state’s order, but planned to contact the governor’s office directly. “If they say I can’t open, I can’t open. What am I gonna do, go against the governor?” he said.
If and when Jazz Alley is able to reopen with a reduced capacity, in accordance with state guidelines, it won’t be coming cheap. During the closure, the 400-capacity venue made a number of alterations to its space, including removing seating and installing some fixed booths with plexiglass dividers between them, a new air ventilation system and hands-free faucets and soap dispensers in the restrooms, plus a remodeled bar area.
A new plexiglass shield in front of the stage will separate the audience from the bands, which will primarily be small ensembles to accommodate social distancing on stage. Dimitriou estimates the changes have cost nearly $100,000, a considerable investment at a time when clubs and restaurants have been hemorrhaging money during the shutdown.
“Well, I don’t feel good about it,” Dimitriou said after his reopening plans became murky. “We need to get back to work, we’re ready to go back to work. We got all the things that are required. … If that’s true, then we have to immediately change our plans and put all our people out of work again.”
Unlike standing-room-only nightclubs, Jazz Alley is primarily table seating and runs a full-service kitchen, with the majority of its patrons coming for dinner and the show, Dimitriou noted.
Earlier Friday, Matassa said she was excited “at the prospect” of playing for a real-world audience again. While her regular pianist was not going to play the now-questionable Jazz Alley gig, due to health reasons, Matassa said she felt Dimitriou’s precautions made returning to the stage feel “as safe as possible.” She’s also exploring ways to be able to sing through a face shield.
“To be honest with you, we just want to play,” Matassa said. “I feel like I’ve been going to grocery stores and making it to the bank, and if I’m safe there I think I’ll be safe [at Jazz Alley].”
Jazz Alley wasn’t the only Seattle club eyeing an early return. The Sea Monster Lounge, which is also licensed as a restaurant, had quietly announced a one-off concert with salsa/Afro-Cuban jazz troupe Buena Vibra for June 27, though the band canceled after a band member’s doctor advised against it, club owner Andrew Nunez said.
Despite being uneasy about welcoming fans back to the club, even for a night, Nunez feels compelled to “get the ball rolling” as Washington’s economy ramps back up. While last month King County approved $750,000 in relief funds for music venues, Nunez questions whether the Sea Monster would be eligible for assistance as restaurants are reopening.
“I’m just afraid if I don’t open, I’m shooting myself in the foot,” Nunez said. “There’s also the thing of when is it going to feel OK? It’s not going to feel OK for a long time, really, to open — no matter what Jay Inslee or anybody says.”
Despite being licensed as a restaurant, Nunez acknowledges the Sea Monster is primarily a music venue. Food hasn’t been an emphasis at the club for some time and Nunez currently rents out his to kitchen to a catering company.
If new state guidance emerges around live music in restaurants, a number of restaurants doubling as music venues could be eligible before their counties enter Phase 4. In West Seattle, the Parliament Tavern has reopened with limited hours, but has not indicated plans for live music.
Live music hasn’t completely evaporated during the shutdown. Last month, veteran Seattle rapper Raz Simone played a pop-up drive-in concert in a Seattle Center parking lot. More recently, hip-hop fusionists Marshall Law Band have performed in the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) zone.
When Washington and King County first implemented restrictions on public gatherings in response to the coronavirus, a number of Seattle clubs opted to shut down entirely rather than try to operate with social distancing requirements. Some owners questioned whether it was feasible given the layout of their spaces or if it would make sense financially.
Nunez — himself a musician who often performs, emcees and bartends at his club — isn’t sure whether limited-capacity shows will be financially viable either. After the shutdown began, Nunez contemplated closing the Sea Monster for good, but ultimately he’s not ready to walk away.
“I’ve been doing this for 17 years,” he said. “I got two kids now, a 4-year-old and a 9-month-old. These were not supposed to be the years I would have to reinvent myself and figure out how to run my business with half the revenue. It’s tough.”