“I learned to sing in this room,” declared jazz singer Greta Matassa earlier this month, at her final headlining gig at Tula’s, the much-loved Belltown jazz joint that on Sept. 30 will close, becoming the latest cultural casualty of Seattle’s current real-estate boom. Visibly holding back her emotions, Matassa launched into a rousing version of Ray Charles’ “Drown in My Own Tears.”
Everyone knew what she meant. Like most local jazz musicians and their fans, Matassa was trying to come to terms with the loss — and legacy — of an institution that for nearly 26 years has played a crucial role in Seattle music. A farewell party at Tula’s Restaurant and Jazz Club is scheduled for Sunday night, Sept. 29.
“It’s like losing a member of the family,” says Matassa in an interview later that week. “I don’t think we ever took it for granted, but we took it for granted that it might somehow always be there.”
As Matassa suggested from the stage that night, Tula’s has functioned as a breeding ground and de facto school for young jazz talent.
“You can go to school,” says trumpeter and Tula’s regular Thomas Marriott, “but you still have to have a space where there are younger people learning from older people. It’s the only way to learn this music. For us, Tula’s is that space.”
Some of the other musicians who have honed their craft at Tula’s include Matassa’s fellow vocalist Kelley Johnson, saxophonists Mark Taylor and Steve Treseler, vibraphonist Susan Pascal, bassist Geoff Harper, drummer Matt Jorgensen and pianists Bill Anschell and John Hansen. Tula’s is also the spot where pianists Marc Seales, Dave Peck and Jovino Santos Neto, trumpeter and saxophonist Jay Thomas and groups such as the New Stories trio (Seales, piano; John Bishop, drums; Doug Miller, bass) debuted new albums.
“Tula’s was a place you could play consistently and also hang out,” says Cornish College of the Arts’ lead jazz instructor Chuck Deardorf, who has worked there 24 nights a year for the past decade. “It’s leaving a big hole in the Seattle scene, for sure.”
For vocalist Johnson, a monthly staple at the club for years, the place is even more than a school or a “hang.”
“It has been like our church,” she says. “It’s a place that holds the music and the spirit of making the music in this community, where it gets attention and reverence.”
Tula’s opened on Dec. 31, 1993, the brainchild of Elliot “Mack” Waldron, a retired Navy band trombone player who had always dreamed of having his own club. An easygoing Texan with mild accent to match, Waldron named the place for his Greek wife, whose fiercely garlicky hummus soon became a favorite of clubgoers. Waldron spent $150,000 getting the place going, doing all the renovations himself.
“Before I got here, he was a one-man show,” says Jason Moore, who came on eight years ago as manager, hoping to carry on the business when Waldron retired. “Mack did all the shopping and ordering, the accounting, he tuned the piano and he was the maintenance guy. I’ll never forget the first time he went out of town and I asked him, ‘Do you have the number for the plumber?’ ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Call me.’”
A modest room with fewer than 100 seats, Tula’s is a movie-set-ready jazz joint: cocktail tables bathed in golden light, wood-and-mirror-paneled bar, intimate stage, flat black ceiling, slowly turning fan. On the back wall hangs the huge wooden sign that once advertised Bud’s Jazz Records, in Pioneer Square. (The ashes of the owner of that shop, Bud Young, are also stashed in the club. Talk about keeping the spirit of jazz alive.)
Over the years, Tula’s has hosted some of Seattle’s most memorable jazz nights, like the time in 1998 when bassist Michael Bisio, leading the jam session, looked up and saw Wynton Marsalis standing there, asking if he could sit in. (He did.) Then there was the night back in 2016, when Marriott and fellow trumpeter Brian Lynch, from New York, traded licks that got so hot it felt like the sprinkler system was going to kick in.
Tula’s is special because it features mainly local musicians, a rarity in the jazz world. (Jazz Alley concentrates on national touring acts.) But contrary to the stereotype that jazz is a dying art form, the club is not closing for lack of business.
“I haven’t lost money,” asserts Waldron. “We’ve paid the rent and we’re not in debt. I’ve been very fortunate. The community has been very supportive.”
So why is Tula’s going away? “Real estate,” according to Moore.
Back in 2015, the building that houses the club was slated for redevelopment. Moore says he and Waldron were told they would be welcome in the new high-rise at market rate, but were never given a firm price, so they started looking for a new location but did not find one that fit their budget.
Ed Hewson, one of the principals of HB, says he was disappointed by their decision.
“Our dream was that Tula’s would actually be coming back in,” Hewson says. “We’re prepared to be reasonable if somebody changes their mind.”
There are other factors as well. With $15,000 in liquor and business license fees and insurance premiums coming due this fall, and Waldron, at 77 ready to retire, he decided to close the club now and “let it end gracefully.”
The demise of Tula’s leaves a “big hole,” as Cornish jazz instructor Deardorf says. How that hole might be filled is an open question. Marriott says it’s possible “something cool will spring up in its place.” Others suggest the action may migrate to the Royal Room, in Columbia City, where vocalist Matassa recently played for the first time; the North City Bistro, in Shoreline, which often hosts singer Johnson; or Egan’s, in Ballard, a tiny venue that started as a showcase for student jazz players. But none is a real substitute for the full-time local jazz menu at Tula’s.
In the meantime, there is the legacy of a generation of jazz musicians who learned their craft there, many of whom will be on hand at the club’s Sept. 29 farewell party, hosted by Anschell. For a full schedule of the remaining nights, check the Tula’s online calendar.
Tula’s closing party featuring the Bill Anschell Trio, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 29; 2214 Second Ave. S., Seattle; $25; 206-443-4221, tulas.com