This Week on “Jazz Club Friday,” Music Recorded at Seattle’s Penthouse

Dizzy Gillespie at the Penthouse in Seattle. During a short seven-year run in the 1960’s, the Penthouse was a top destination for the best jazz stars of the day. Photo: Courtesy of the Puzzo Family / Penthouse Club Archives).

 

Fridays on All Night Jazz, since seeing live jazz in clubs is difficult to do right now, Mike Cornette brings the clubs to you on “Jazz Club Friday” on the Jazz Trip@Ten. This week, Mike featured music recorded at the Penthouse in Seattle, a club that opened at the right time in the right place. WUSF’s Steve Splane has more.

Seattle Washington does not get a lot of love in the history of jazz. Yet it has had more than its share of jazz clubs over the years and for one short period in the 1960’s there was a legendary club that attracted world-class talent to its stage.

And thanks to a local radio DJ, many of its most memorable performances were recorded for posterity.   

It was called the Penthouse.

It opened in 1961 and had two things going for it from the start. It began just as the city was gearing up for the 1962 World’s Fair, held that year in Seattle, which triggered a resurgence in nightlife all over town. In addition, it opened during a period in which jazz music was entering a particularly rich period of innovation and popularity.   

It was started by Charlie Puzzo, who had moved to Seattle in 1950 from Connecticut and worked as a bartender before opening his jazz club on the first floor of an old hotel, turned bank building in Seattle’s Pioneer Square district.

The theme of the club was partly inspired by Playboy Clubs, which often featured jazz music. Waitresses wore leotards and the booths were flanked by wooden posts carved to look like rabbits.  (The Penthouse however was not associated with the magazine of the same name).

Charlie Puzzo knew getting A-list jazz artists to come to Seattle would not be easy. But he had a plan. He would win musicians over by showering them with respect and offering them fair pay.

Puzzo’s son Charlie Jr. told WUSF in a telephone interview his father would offer musicians “guaranteed share” of the receipts and would often “let musicians stay for free at our house.”

“He just wanted everyone to be happy” Puzzo’s wife Joyce Puzzo, told the Seattle Times. “He was always gracious and kind, but he was a strong tough guy from the East Coast.”

 

 

The Penthouse was on the first floor of an old hotel turned bank building in Seattle’s Pioneer Square district. The decor was inspired in part by the Playboy Club. Notice the rabbit themed logo over the doorway. Photo: Courtesy of the Puzzo Family / Penthouse Club Archives).

The room sat 275 people and had great acoustics with a long brick wall that ran behind the stage. Puzzo’s son says his father often told the story about the time Oscar Peterson visited the Penthouse on the day a grand piano was delivered to the club. As Peterson sat and played a few bars, Puzzo asked Peterson if, in the interest of sound quality, he should cover the brick wall of his new club with wood paneling. 

“Don’t do anything to this room” Peterson replied.

Thanks to a young local jazz-loving DJ named Jim Wilke, those great acoustics would be preserved in recordings Wilke made during weekly live broadcasts that aired on KING radio.

Milt Jackson performing at the Penthouse in Seattle. Photo: Courtesy of the Puzzo Family / Penthouse Club Archive. 

Only a couple of those recordings were ever released.

None more famously then the September 30, 1965 recording by saxophonist John Coltrane, “Live in Seattle.” 

Coltrane surprised everyone by showing up not with the promised quartet, but with a sextet with two saxes and two bass players.

The band included Pharoah Sanders on tenor sax, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, Elvin Jones on drums and Donald Garrett on both bass and bass clarinet. Coltrane had recently made the turn towards “free jazz” and it was on spectacular display this night.

Seattle Times critic Ed Baker wrote,” some members of the audience would hear chaos only, others will find beauty emerging from an inferno.”

The recording was not released until 1971 on Impulse Records as a two-record set.  It featured “Evolution” a 36-minute-song that took up most of both sides of the second disc. 

The list of artists that performed at the Penthouse reads like a jazz hall of fame. Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Anita O’Day, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Wes Montgomery and many more.

Puzzo lost his lease in 1968 and the club closed. The building was torn down and replaced with a parking garage.

But Puzzo was not done with the night life. In a twist right out of a Quentin Tarantino movie, Ruzzo’s next venture was not a music venue, but a topless club, which he ran for many years in nearby Woodinville Wash.   

Up until the last five years, other than the Coltrane recording, not that many of the original KING radio recordings have been released.

Singer Chris Connor performs at The Penthouse in Seattle. Some 350 live recordings were made at the club by a local DJ. Photo Courtesy of the Puzzo Family / Penthouse Club Archives.

A treasure trove of some 350 reel to reel recordings have sat mostly untouched for decades. But that all changed after Charlie Puzzo died in 2015.

His son Charlie Jr., told WUSF he always told his father he would work to make sure the legacy of the Penthouse would live on. “I promised him I would get this done…but I wanted to make sure it would be done the right way.”

Puzzo Jr, who was born long after the club had closed, says he has more than tape recordings to work with.

“My father recreated the Penthouse in our basement, including some of the original chairs and tables from the club.” He also has posters, lights and many photographs.

With the help of Jim Wilke and his stash of tapes, Puzzo, who works in the film industry, started making deals. One of the first was with High Note Records which released “Swings the Penthouse” by singer Ernestine Anderson in 2015.

 

 

 

Reel to Real Records has released two recordings made at the Penthouse in the 1960’s including one by saxophnist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Johnny Griffin. 

In 2016 Ruzzo Jr. met George Klabin and Zev Feldman of the nonprofit label Resonance Records, which in 2017 released “Grooving’ Hard: Live at the Penthouse” by The Three Sounds, featuring pianist Gene Harris.

Feldman, who has earned the nickname “the jazz detective” for all the vintage, unreleased recordings he has uncovered, has now teamed up with Cory Weeds, the saxophonist who owns Cellar Live Records. Weeds has spun off a new record label he calls Reel to Real, which will focus on old recordings.

So far Reel to Real has released two albums, Cannonball Adderley’s “Swinging at the Penthouse 1966-1967” and his latest release that came out late last year, the critically acclaimed “Ow! Live at the Penthouse,” by saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Johnny Griffin.

He hopes to release a recording made by saxophonist Harold Land next.

Charlie Puzzo owner of the Penthouse in Seattle with Oscar Peterson. When Puzzo asked Peterson if he should try to improve the acoustics at his club Peterson told him, “Don’t do anything to this room”

Weeds told WUSF in an email that the old tape recordings have survived, after years of sitting in a box. The Davis/Griffin session was no exception.

“When I heard these tapes for the first time I just flipped out. The music is so unreal and the sound quality is amazing.”

Weeds says the intimacy of the room shows. 

“You can tell the band is in a club and up close and personal with the audience and that makes for a better performance all around. The musicians feed off the crowd and the crowd feeds off the musicians.”

At the Penthouse, everyone was happy, and that feeling will be preserved as more recordings emerge in the coming years, which is all Charlie Puzzo every wanted. 

Charlie Puzzo Jr. has set up a website, where he is starting to post archival material and has a list of releases of recordings made at the Penthouse:  http://charliespenthouse.com/