The breeze block facade of The Penthouse

Pioneer Square Music

by Peter Blecha
Listen (English Only)

Live music has been a key facet of community life in this vibrant neighborhood since the village of Seattle first arose here in the 1850s. Its original business district was centered where the old Mill Street (today’s Yesler Way) intersected with Front Street (today’s 1st Avenue) and Commercial Street (today’s 1st Avenue S). Over time the triangular park situated at the crossroads – Pioneer Place (today’s Pioneer Square) – was ringed with taverns, restaurants, gambling dens, and other nests of ill repute. Seattle’s first saloon/brothel that also offered dance music played by a rollicking trio was built in 1861 and ever since, this area has served as one of Seattle’s primary nightlife districts.

As Seattle’s birthplace and initial downtown, Pioneer Square would serve as the home for various music venues, including taverns, community halls, theaters, and even an early opera house. No other local neighborhood can boast a history of music-making that spans the entire history of the city, ranging from the Wild West frontier days, up through the disastrous Great Fire of 1889 and subsequent rebuilding, to the 1890s Gold Rush frenzy, to the Prohibition Era (1916-1933), to the fabled Jackson Street jazz scene (1930s-1960s), to the 1950s Folk Revival, the 1970s Blues uprising, and finally the Grunge Rock era (1980s-1990s). And onward.

It was here where the first music recorded in Seattle occurred in 1923; where Bing Crosby sang his first song after leaving home in Spokane; where Black jazz and R&B combos began to edge their way into the previously off-limits downtown area; where pioneering gay bars provided disco dancing; and where Grunge heroes including Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains played tavern gigs on their way to global acclaim.

The neighborhood’s significance to Seattle’s identity was marked in 1970 when it was declared a National Historic District. Yet, one of the challenges of telling and showing its musical history is that many of the buildings and landmarks associated with that activity no longer exist, a concession to the constantly changing nature of Seattle. Our tour begins in the triangular plaza of Pioneer Square.

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